Every other year, in the interim between the last legislative session and the next one, both chambers of the legislature continue to work.
A lot of what we work on falls in the category of interim charges or interim studies. They're a little like extended research projects: we spend time meeting (typically as committees) and learning about subjects that the Lieutenant Governor (in the Senate's case) or the Speaker of the House (in the House's) put on a list of things to review and analyze. The studies help set the priorities for the ensuing legislative session.
Obviously, these are (as Ron Burgundy would say) kind of a big deal. And the members of the Senate Democratic Caucus think they're too important to leave to the folks who've been failing to deliver on Texans' priorities for all of these years.
So I and the other Democratic Senators want your help in deciding what those priorities should be.
The Caucus has set up a web page where you can give your thoughts on what Texas should be focusing on in this interim.
Just go to bit.ly/14PzGfq and let us know what needs to be on the list.
There are so many areas where Texas can do better - for our kids, our economy and our future - than it's been doing. This is your chance to help make sure the state's priorities are where they need to be.
Please CLICK HERE and let us know what you think. Texas needs to hear it. I'll be sure your ideas are submitted to the Lieutenant Governor and encourage him to put them on the list. <!--more-->
Good and bad health news
The last weeks have been pretty earth-shaking for anyone who cares about health or healthcare in Texas. And not always in a good way.
Most of the developments have come out of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
(By the way, if you're interested in getting health insurance or know of anyone who would or should be, go towww.healthcare.gov or just call 2-1-1 in Austin.)
Unfortunately, this great, crucial progress was obscured by raw, destructive politics, mostly from the Governor's office.
First, the Governor seems intent on making life as difficult as possible on healthcare navigators whose job it is to help Texans sign up for insurance. Worse still, the Governor appears to be using - or misusing - a bill I passed during the regular session that had the exact opposite goal: to make it easier for Texans to find insurance in ways that make sense for Texas.
Last week, I spoke at a hearing on potential regulations for navigators. Here are highlights from the Texas Tribune's writeup:
At an informal hearing held by TDI on Monday to take input on Perry's directive, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he feared legislation he authored to ensure navigators could effectively help Texans find coverage in the federal marketplace had been wrongly co-opted by Perry in an effort to derail implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
"These provisions were put in place to prevent precisely what I fear may be in motion here today," said Watson. "And that is a politically motivated effort to circumvent federal and state law concerning navigators and an even larger coordinated nationwide effort to shut down implementation of the Affordable Care Act."
Watson told the agency that Senate Bill 1795, which he authored in the last legislative session, requires TDI to make a "good faith effort" to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve the federal navigator rules before implementing additional state rules. Only after "a reasonable interval" does the law allow the insurance commissioner to begin a rule-making process.
Watson alleged that the agency's decision to schedule a stakeholder meeting to begin the rule-making process shortly after receiving the governor's directive and to hold the stakeholder meeting on the day before the launch of the federal marketplace - "a critical day for navigators" - indicated that the agency's rule-making process could be intentionally impeding implementation of the navigator program.
Don't forget Medicaid
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act also put a spotlight on another wrongheaded decision by the Governor - his refusal to expand Medicaid so more of our fellow citizens can access affordable, reliable healthcare.
It's past time to get serious about health coverage for Texans.
The Affordable Care Act is law. Its primary components start to take effect Tuesday. Many of its benefits are already in place.
The folks running Texas need to face reality. It's time to put the health of Texans, and our economy, ahead of political histrionics.
Right now, the law extends coverage for young adults, allowing them to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they turn 26. It forbids insurance companies from turning folks down because of preexisting conditions. It expands coverage for preventive care and screenings. It lowers costs for people in the Medicare Part D "doughnut hole." And it enhances consumer protections against insurance cancellations.
The only questions left to answer are whether states such as Texas will create barriers to implementing these good changes and whether they'll expand Medicaid to cover, in our case, about 1.3 million to 1.7 million more uninsured citizens. The federal government would pick up nearly all of the costs of the expansion.
So far, the tragic answers are "yes" to barriers and "no" to more people being covered. The governor and others have made a political circus out of health care in Texas by turning their backs on tens of billions of your tax dollars that now won't come back to Texas for your benefit.
By refusing to secure health coverage for about 1.3 to 1.7 million Texans, those in control are costing Texas about $79 billion to $90 billion over 10 years in tax money we'll send to Washington. A Perryman Group study found that expanding Medicaid would boost Texas' economic output by $270 billion.
And don't forget, Texas already leads the nation in the percentage of residents without health coverage. We should put these billions of dollars to work keeping Texans healthy and cutting down on pricey emergency room visits that, in many cases, are ultimately paid for with local property taxes.
And then there are all the lost economic benefits. Expanding Medicaid in Texas would create nearly 200,000 jobs, according to a study conducted by Billy Hamilton (Texas' renowned former deputy comptroller) and the group Texas Impact.
Clearly, the launch of so many important pieces of the Affordable Care Act means last week was one for the history books.
I just hope it's remembered for the right, healthy reasons - not the harmful, political ones.
Wendy Davis and her colleagues from the Senate, Senator Kirk Watson, Senator Rodney Ellis, Senator Sylvia Garcia, and Senator Jose Rodriguez are touring Texas by bus. Their intent is to rally and educate Texans in order that they will take corrective action for the current fraud that is the current legislature.
There were over 1000 souls in attendance even after a downpour followed by a very muggy humid heat. Attendees did not mind the heat, wet, or the mud. They gave the Senators and Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood a fiery hot welcome. This rally exceeded expectation just as did last night's rally in Austin and last week's rally.
All of the attendees knew exactly why they were there. "I feel strongly about this issue," said Linda Walker, a veteran that served the country. "I didn't serve this country to be treated as a second class citizen."
Laura said that she was out rallying with everyone else because "I feel like women's rights are being taken away. It's not fair. It's not constitutional and that's not what special sessions are for, it's for emergency situations; not for something that is related to a woman's body," she said. "My grandmother fought for this. We shouldn't still be fighting for this," said Kara.
"Men need to stay out of our bodies, especially politicians. They have no say in what we do with our bodies," said Mandy. Mandy's friend Amanda said she has been registered to vote since she was 18. "They better bet their sorry butts that I will remember each one of my representative who voted no because they are not voting for me. They are not representing me," she said.
The roar of the crowd could be heard for several blocks in Downtown Houston. Following the event, the Senators mingled with many in the crowed for a while before returning to the bus.
Update:The original version of this story was published before the Senate posted the notice of public hearing. The time and location remain correct: Monday July 8th, 10am in room E1.036 (Senate Finance).
Who would have imagined on the eve of Independence Day in 2013 that Texas women would still be fighting for their constitutional right to make their own health decisions. This day should be about freedom, and you can't have freedom without choice.
Last night over 3,500 people came to the Texas Capitol and registered their opinion on HB 2, the 2nd special session version of the back-door abortion ban, but over 1,000 still left without having their voices heard.
That's why leading Democrats in both the House and Senate are calling for public hearings across Texas.
Sources in the Senate tell me that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee is set hear the bill Monday, 8th at 10am in the Senate Finance room, but as of this posting the hearing notice has not been made public. It could be posted today but because of the Senate's 24hr rule if this is correct, Sen. Nelson can wait as late as Sunday, 10am before posting the hearing notice. Senate rule 11.18 says, "The chair shall afford reasonable opportunity to interested parties to appear and testify at the hearing", and it could reasonably argued that because of the impact of this bill that making the notice public over a holiday weekend is not sufficient.
Senator Watson has sent a letter of request to HHS Chair Sen. Nelson to have a more transparent hearing on the floor and some fair process for calling testimony for and against the bill. It is unclear whether Senator Nelson will comply with these requests.
Earlier this week, two new "It Gets Better" videos was released by Omar Araiza, who works for Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. The video features a long handful of legislatures, all Democrats. State Representative Mary Gonzalez, the first openly pansexual legislator, is among the legislators who take part.
The biggest issue in the Senate in terms of the special session on redistricting will be whether the 2/3rds rule is in effect. As explained previously on BOR, the 2/3rds rule requires 21 Senators to vote to suspend the rules to bring a bill up out of order. With 12 Democrats in the 31-member body, the 2/3rds rule gives our party the leverage to stop bad things from coming up to a vote if we stick together.
However, the 2/3rds rule only exists if there's a "Blocker Bill" in place to necessitate suspension of the rules in order to bring up other legislation. No blocker, no 2/3rds rule.
Blocker bills are the norm in the Senate. Federal courts -- where most Texas redistricting schemes end up because they're intentionally discriminatory -- don't like seeing rule changes for redistricting legislation, because it usually means one side (here, the Republicans) are up to no good and trying to change the rules to win the game.
Below the jump, find out more about Blocker Bills and find out how they've been disregarded in past special sessions to pass discriminatory redistricting schemes.
The special session will consider the following issue:
Legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.
One problem: these interim maps were based on previous maps passed by the Legislature and found by the courts to be intentionally discriminatory against minorities.
Read more about what we know about the special session so far.
Andy Brown, running for County Judge, is no longer the Travis County Democratic Party Chair. Yesterday, the Party's County Executive Committee, made up of the county's Democratic precinct chairs, met to appoint a replacement.
This meeting saw high turnout, as over 70 precinct chairs were present to choose their new leader. Congressman Lloyd Doggett and Senator Kirk Watson were present, too.
Both Doggett and Watson expressed their gratitude for outgoing chair Andy Brown's hard and diligent work. For that work, that CEC would pass a unanimous resolution praising Andy Brown for his service to the party.
Doggett and Watson also expressed their support for Jan Soifer. Soifer was the only candidate nominated to fill the role in an interim basis -- there will be a full election in the March primary -- and she was elected by acclimation.
Soifer is currently a Democratic precinct chair. She's a practicing attorney who has been long involved in Democratic politics in Austin. Like Andy Brown, who lost an election to a different political office before running for Chair, Soifer's involvement includes a run for District Judge in 2004. Her experience will undoubtedly help her in the chair's most frequent and important function - raising money for the Travis County Democratic Party. The transition is already off to a good start in that manner, as Kirk Watson handed over a $15,000 party right before Soifer was elected.
Soifer started immediately, as she chaired the rest of this May's CEC meeting. In remarks to the precinct chairs, she enumerated several immediate goals: continue the party's solid fundraising immediately, recruit more precinct chairs (over half many of the county's precincts are without Democratic chairs), and finally hire a full-time Executive Director to replace former ED Laura Hernandez.
Soifer is the first female chair of the Travis County Democratic Party in over three decades, and she plans to run in the 2014 primary to finish the term.
9:37 pm 5/20 Correction: The original posting said that over half of the county's precincts were without Democratic precinct hairs. That is not correct. Depending on semantics, one might be able to say that almost half were without chairs -- but the CEC approved about 15 new chairs on Sunday.
Clarification: While Andy Brown ran for HD48 in 2006, he dropped out and endorsed Donna Howard, but too late to take his name off of the primary ballot.
The state budget is honeycombed with hundreds of "dedicated" funds – little piggybanks where those in control collect your taxes and fees. The state promises to spend the money on a specific, usually popular purpose that you probably support.
But then, much of that money is hoarded in the accounts, diverted from its intended purposes and used to cover other costs.
Over the years, the state has allowed those accounts to get bigger and bigger, starving necessities (like parks, trauma care, 911 service and clean air) that it was meant to pay for and covering up for the failure to fund basic state functions (like schools and healthcare) in more honest, transparent ways.
And, as a result, nearly $5 billion was diverted away from its dedicated purposes in the current 2012-13 budget.
At the start of this session, folks like the Governor and Speaker of the House promised to start weaning the state from its addiction to diversions. But, if anything, things are getting even less transparent.
Right now, those in control of the legislature are pushing a pre-election utility rebate gimmick that would divert more than $700 million from its purpose. That’s money Texans have given the state to help low-income families in deregulated electricity markets pay their utility bills.
The reason the money was collected – the need it’s meant to address – still exists. Hundreds of thousands of poor and elderly Texans still can’t afford their bills in brutally hot months.
Budget writers are using that broken promise to underwrite another one: they pledge to divert no more than $4 billion -- $4 billion! -- in the next budget.
That’s close to the $4.95 billion they’re diverting now, minus the $700 million they’re writing off in the rebate scheme.
In other words they’re still addicted to diversions, pursing business-as-usual while shrouding it in fake reform. Worse still, budget writers have rejected calls to craft a plan to wean the state off of this practice over the next few budgets. I filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would bring true, long-term reform to this process; it hasn’t even been given a hearing.
That’s not real reform. That’s like someone promising he won’t keep drinking any more without promising to drink much less, either.
Yesterday, the Senate passed its draft budget for 2014-15. It passed overwhelmingly – 29-2. Obviously, most Democrats in the Senate voted for it. So did I.
Does that mean this session’s budget undoes the damaging budget cuts that our schools endured two years ago?
Does it mean there's a permanent solution to the school funding crisis?
Does it show that this budget makes real progress in creating honest accounting and paying down the billions in dedicated funds that have been diverted from their intended purposes over the years?
Does it mean that the state is making needed investments in Texans’ health and the Texas economy by securing more Medicaid funding?
Umm ... no.
This budget passed with many Democrats’ votes for one reason: it’s a start, a down payment on the change we need to make this session. But no one should think our work is done.
I certainly don't.
The Good News
Even if it's a long way from perfect, there’s some good stuff in this budget.
The budget was put together in a very open, inclusive way. That's not been my experience with past budgets.
A chunk of the $5.4 billion that was cut from schools in 2011 has been restored. There’s substantial, meaningful investment in mental health programs. Most state employees will get a raise – and so many of my constituents who are state employees will tell you that it's been too long since they saw one. The state's retirement systems for former employees and teachers also will see funding increases.
(It was a remarkable moment in the Chamber yesterday when the gallery, packed with retired teachers wearing red T-shirts, burst into applause as they heard what the budget would mean to them.)
And let’s just say it: As horrendous as the budget was in 2011, when the legislature slashed $5.4 billion from Texas schools, pretty much anything that didn’t take out the state’s hard times on its kids is comparatively good news.
But we wouldn’t have been for this budget if we’d thought this was as good as it’ll get this session.
The bad news
This isn’t as good as Texas can do. It just isn’t. I love this state with all my heart, and I know that Texas can do better than this budget.
The state has been sued by most of its districts over the school finance system. A state district judge ruled more than a month ago that the system isn’t fair, isn’t adequate, and isn’t even constitutional. This legislature could – and should – have been working to craft a permanent solution to this crisis. Instead, it’s waiting on a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, as if the state might yet get off on a technicality.
The fact is that this budget doesn't offer a permanent solution to Texas' running school funding crisis. It maintains a broken, inadequate formula – asking Texas kids and families to wait for the critical investments they need and deserve. We rank 49th nationally in per pupil spending, and after you adjust for inflation, we're actually spending less money per-pupil than we were in any of the last three years.
Really, from the first day of this session, it should have been the goal of every legislator to restore the resources that were cut from our schools in 2011 and renew the state’s investment in its future. That’s still the goal, and there will still be ample opportunities to do that between now and Memorial Day. If the legislature fails to do that, this session will be remembered as a failure – as it should be.
The danger of the “New Normal”
I see the budget passed yesterday as the beginning of our work to do better by Texas and its future. What’s scary – what we need to fight – is the perception that this budget is all we need, or that it represents some sort of “New Normal.”
I worry that some legislators may consider this budget to be a new benchmark for what’s considered adequate or acceptable, even as teachers and students look for ways to do more and more with fewer resources, and Texas women, seniors and kids struggle to get health care.
Texas can, should and must do better by our schools, our kids, our people and our future – not just leave them all a little less worse off.
So this budget vote needs to set the stage for the changes we know we need: a permanent school finance solution that creates great schools, fundamental reform of the budget process, and major investments in health care, water supplies, transportation and Texas’ future.
Yesterday was a vote for progress and process. It’s going to take all of us – not just those who almost single-handedly cut $5.4 billion from our schools two years ago – to make the changes that will meet Texas’ needs, prepare its future, and lay the foundation for a 21st Century economy.
Every session has its ups and downs, its highs and lows.
This session is no different, though the lowest point seems to have arrived early this session. It usually comes later – after short-sighted behavior, ridiculous lack of discipline, and terrible (albeit easily foreseen) outcomes.
This low point is my new high: I’m officially back to being fat.
I usually put on some serious pounds during a session. But I’ve porked up much earlier this year than ever before.
This is a session of firsts: the first time my pants have been let out before March; the first time I’ve eaten a sleeve of cookies by declaring to myself that “I deserve these” before I’ve even passed a bill out of the Senate; the first time I’ve stood behind my desk chair for a picture with a page to hide my belly (and the strained button on my coat); and the first time I’ve methodically eaten a box of beef jerky in an afternoon while telling myself it was okay since jerky has no carbs.
I’m way up, which means I’m sort of down.
A big fat falsehood
One of my biggest priorities remains ending the diversion of money that you pay for specific things like clean air, trauma care, or state parks, but that’s used instead to pay for other budget items.
I’ve written repeatedly about the dishonesty of this practice. I’ve worked session-after-session to curtail it. And I’ve even filed a proposed constitutional amendment this session to end this process with a big dose of openness and accountability.
My amendment does four things that I believe are essential to ending diversions:
It puts this vital decision in the hands of Texans by allowing them to vote on the amendment.
It enshrines these limits in the state constitution so future legislatures can’t simply write around them with a bill.
It creates a responsible “glide-path” that gives the legislature more than six years to end this practice.
It allows disciplined discretion that permits a supermajority of the House of Representatives and Senate to redirect this money, but only in the most open and transparent way possible.
I’m very proud of this legislation, but it’s not like my ideas were handed to me on a stone tablet. I’ll work with anyone, from either party, who’s willing to stop playing games and get serious about acknowledging this deep honesty deficit and what it will take to close it.
It’s time to get real
The problem, I guess, is that old habits die hard, and this is one of the oldest bad habits in the state budget. As I’ve said repeatedly, the budget is balanced with a toxic mix of debt, diversions, deception and denial, and it’s not clear that everyone’s willing to throw out those rotten crutches.
In 2001, the state diverted about $1.6 billion in dedicated funds. For the current budget, the total is about $4.95 billion, an increase of more than 200 percent. The state now diverts nearly as much in parks fees, clean air charges, utility bill surcharges and other fees as it collects in business taxes.
That $4.95 billion represents years of broken promises to Texans and spells out the size of the state’s honesty deficit. You simply can’t address this issue without at least coming up with a plan to pay down that debt or creating a mechanism to prevent budget writers from diving back into these diversions in the future.
That $4.95 billion total is a 10-figure indicator of how badly those in control of the budget have allowed this reliance on diversions to get. This isn’t a matter of just letting bygones be bygones. The legislature has to reckon with its past actions. It’s not enough to say, “We won’t let it grow any more than this.” That’s the equivalent of saying the system is too broken to fix.
It also isn’t possible to fix this deception without constitutional language ending it and a plan for paying back this debt.
Some may claim this measure of responsibility is too hard to live up to. They say they need discretion to write the budget. But “discretion,” and the abuse of it, created this problem, deep distrust among Texans, and distaste for these diversions and broken promises.
So those in control can’t simply say, “Trust us; we mean it this time.” How can anyone believe that this practice will end for more than a session or two without a constitutional provision short-circuiting it?
Besides, approaches like mine still allow some flexibility. Legislators could redirect dedicated funds with a two-thirds vote. They’d simply have to do it in the light of day, declaring fund-by-fund what they were doing and explaining why to their constituents.
That’s what I call “disciplined discretion.” It offers a real change, not just more promises. It allows taxpayers to trust the state by verifying that the legislature’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And it requires those in control to be honest about how they’re using taxpayer dollars while still allowing them to do what they need to do to balance the budget.
These diversions have been going on for more than 20 years. They now total billions of dollars. I think Texans will be willing to trust the state with this money again, but the state is going to have to earn it.