Texas Border Business
On Monday, the Texas Legislature adjourned the 87th Regular Session. Since we only meet for 140 days every-odd numbered year there are always many issues to address. We started this session in January to address the impact the Coronavirus pandemic had on our economy, our schools, our healthcare system, and our workforce. Tackling these issues was the top priority. Then, in February another crisis hit our state. Winter Storm Uri shut down much of the electric grid causing the death of hundreds of our citizens. This forced us to contend with yet another issue that had to be addressed.
We all know of the many challenges presented by the pandemic. Our top goal was to enact policies that would help us not just return to normal, but actually emerge stronger than before. We began by passing laws that help protect our local small businesses and keep their doors open. We also passed bills to strengthen public health, including measures that ensure adequate personal protective equipment during a public health disaster and streamlined information sharing between various levels of government to better coordinate response efforts and communicate with the public. Hopefully, we will never need to use these new tools, but should a public health threat like COVID-19 emerge in the future, we will be much better prepared to address it and prevent its spread.
In February, Winter Storm Uri revealed serious shortfalls in the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT’s management of our electricity grid. We were able to pass significant structural reforms to these entities, both in terms of management and physical infrastructure. Notably, both those generating the power and the gas companies that supply the fuel to make that power will have to appropriately weatherize their facilities. Further, the board that manages ERCOT will no longer be dominated by industry insiders. Instead, the board will be comprised of independent experts who are from Texas and have our interests first in mind. We also provided needed financial stability to ERCOT and providers within the market, which will help lower electric bills for consumers. Finally, we implemented improved coordination and communication both between regulators and the public so that we are able to better prepare for future weather events that might affect our grid. These are real changes that will help to ensure that the next time we face a storm like this, our grid will be ready and the people of Texas will be safe.
The state budget we passed this session will also help the state recover from the pandemic and the winter storm. The state’s $248 billion budget for the next two years fully funds the state’s commitment to the public education investments made by HB 3 during the 2019 session and includes the necessary funds for teachers to keep their pay raises. It also continues our investments in higher education and includes $1.2 billion for financial aid programs. The approved budget bolsters our healthcare workforce by increasing funding for graduate medical education by $48 million for a total of $199 million to maintain a 1.1 to 1.0 ratio for residency slots. It also strengthens our commitment to mental health services by including $8.4 billion in behavioral health funding. Transportation funding also remained a priority and $26.5 billion has been approved for highway planning and design, construction, and other purposes. What’s more, many of my other funding priorities for South Texas that I have included in previous sessions, are also in this budget.
This session we also passed House Bill 5 which will create a statewide plan to expand broadband access across Texas. With the passage of House Bill 4, we made telemedicine permanent making it easier for patients to communicate with their physician regarding preventive health and wellness, case management, and behavioral health services. Another important bill this session was HB 133 which extends coverage of women on Medicaid from 60 days to six months after childbirth. Texans will also be able to continue to purchase alcohol to go from restaurants with their food order. Additionally, we passed SB 1102 to establish the Texas Reskilling and Upskilling through Education (TRUE) Program to support workforce education, to get Texans back to work in high-demand occupations, and accelerate the Texas economic recovery.
While this was clearly a busy and productive session, we sadly fell short in some key areas — namely police reform and Medicaid expansion. After the death of George Floyd, police reform was expected to be a priority this session. However, few of the recommended reforms will become law. As a strong supporter of law enforcement, I voted for legislation that ensures police departments are not defunded in our communities and also supported and authored legislation that would have made our police departments more transparent and held bad police officers accountable. On Medicaid, Texas again missed out on an opportunity to leverage billions of dollars in federal funds by not expanding Medicaid. Despite the fact that the state would actually save billions of dollars if we expanded Medicaid, state leaders continue to refuse to use your tax dollars to help provide millions of Texans with health insurance and lower healthcare costs for everyone.
Lastly, this session we saw a persistent assault on democracy. In the aftermath of the events of Jan. 6, I thought we had finally learned the dangers of hyperpartisanship and come together to move our country forward. However, that was short lived as we saw bill after bill that restricted the voting rights of Texans, particularly those of color. The most significant of these was Senate Bill 7, which was crafted behind closed doors without the input of minority members of the legislature and would have created significant barriers to exercising the fundamental right to vote. We spent the entire session fighting this bill, including questioning its author all night about its harmful effects, but we were unable to block it in the Senate. However, the Democrats in the Texas House took the brave step of denying this bill from even getting a vote. There is no doubt we will see future voter suppression bills, but we will continue to fight and use every tool we have to prevent them from becoming law.
We know that the work of the 87th Legislature is not done. We expect to come back later this year for the redistricting process that will establish new political maps for the next ten years. We also have $16 billion in federal funds that have to be allocated, and Governor Abbott has already said we will have a special session to address election issues and bail reform. These issues affect everyone, so I encourage you to stay involved and make sure your voice is heard. Democracy only works if everyone participates.