State of Texas: ‘The most important thing we do’ Budget battle spotlights healthcare, education needs

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas House passed its budget Thursday night after a marathon debate to decide how to spend taxpayer money over the next two years. The big takeaway is more money for education.

The budget was framed in the lens of an economy recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, with priorities focused on public education. There’s also uncertainty among budget writers in terms of how much federal money is expected to land in the state from coronavirus aid packages.

“The Committee Substitute to Senate Bill 1 illustrates our dedication to education and prioritizes ensuring quality education for all our children, while also addressing the ill effects of COVID-19 on both public and higher education,” State Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, said. “While overall you won’t see many additional funding items adopted at this time, the committee had some very robust discussions in our responsibility to support the state’s education system and how to address the uncertainty we’re facing this session given our current funding situation.”

To ready the state for when that money does arrive and which areas it may assist, the House approved an amendment to send nearly $18 billion in federal aid directly to education.

“The first round of federal dollars that we got, we actually supplanted state funds with that money. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time,” said State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

“It goes through TEA (Texas Education Agency), but it’s gonna go to the schools, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Rodriguez said.

The chamber also approved a proposal to prevent public dollars to pay for private schools.

Click here to read the Committee Substitute to Senate Bill 1.

Amendments to the House version of the budget also included allocations to the state’s “Alternatives to Abortions” program and bulletproof glass for state trooper vehicles.

An amendment to expand Medicaid in Texas was voted down. The measure would have helped Texans like Lauren Rangel’s 19-year-old sister, Sorayah.

“She, thanks to Medicaid, has been able to access medicine and therapy for some mental health conditions that she lives with,” Lauren explained, saying Sorayah technically aged out of the Medicaid system during the pandemic.

“Texas did not disenroll children who were eligible for coverage at the beginning of the public health emergency when they aged out, and so my sister has been able to stay on her coverage,” Rangel said, explaining Sorayah would lose her coverage as soon as the public health emergency ended.

“Right now, she, we are terrified,” Rangel said. “She is preparing to go to college in the fall. She’s working part time. And so it is impossible for her to access coverage.”

Sorayah does not meet the 138% of the federal poverty line to qualify for Medicaid coverage, but also doesn’t make too little to qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies and credits. Once the pandemic ends, she’ll join the 1.4 million Texans in the coverage gap.

“She may be one of 1.4 million, but she is my baby sister. She has her whole life ahead of her. She is going to be going to college in the fall, and she wants to be a dentist. But she is living in fear right now,” Rangel said.

“It’s about time for us to cover the rest of the people who are not part of the ACA above 138% of the poverty level. So what this amendment seeks to do is just that, is to add those individuals to a uniquely nontraditional Medicaid program, like other states have done,” Rep. Garnet Coleman D-Dallas said Thursday morning, but his amendment ended up failing.

It’s something the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas said is long overdue.

“Texas is one of the few places left in the country where low wage workers do not have access to affordable health insurance. And that is the primary reason that Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country, doubling the national average, and our high uninsured rate is high for almost every category — adults, children, women, kind of the list goes on,” deputy director Laura Guerra-Cardus said.

Republicans have traditionally been against expansion, citing concerns it could end up costing the state more in the long run.

“I respectfully request you vote against this amendment,” Republican lawmaker Rep. Giovanni Capriglione pleaded with the House Thursday after Rep. Coleman laid out his proposal.

So far, however, nine Republicans have signed onto a separate Medicaid expansion bill. It would maximize federal dollars already available to the state with precautions in place so the state wouldn’t end up footing the bill.

“The Livable Texas plan addresses a lot of concerns that people have had to expanding health care coverage, it has a stopgap measure if the funding ever ceases at the federal level,” author of the House Bill 3871 Rep. Julie Johnson (D-Dallas) said Thursday morning.

“Right now, Texas is participating in a 60/40 match with the federal government, meaning that the federal government pays 60% of this care, and the state pays 40%. The match that the federal government is offering to the state is 90/10. But with an additional two years, it goes to 95/5,” Rep. Johnson said. It also aims to increase provider participation across Texas.

Republicans are also giving Medicaid a serious look this session due to the Biden administration rescinding the state’s 1115 Waiver, which began a decade ago, and was only meant as a safety net while states transitioned to expanded Medicaid coverage after the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.

“The current 1115 waiver was never meant to be a long term solution,” Rep. Johnson said.

“We have 76 co-authors on our bill, enough to pass this to the legislature,” Rep. Johnson said, but explained it hasn’t been assigned to committee yet.

Guerra-Cardus said bipartisan support for any Medicaid expansion is a step in the right direction.

“[It] shows us what the polls have been telling us all along, that a growing and majority of Texans inside the Capitol and across every corner of the state want health care coverage for Texas,” she added.

Family calls on lawmakers to act on anniversary of Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance

One year ago Thursday, Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén disappeared from Fort Hood. She was missing for more than two months before her remains were found along a Bell County river last July.

Guillén’s family has repeatedly said that she was sexually harassed, including a claim that a higher-ranked soldier walked in and watched her showering. Despite this, U.S. Army officials have said they found no evidence of sexual harassment, either by Guillén’s suspected killer or others.

Nevertheless, her family and many lawmakers are still working to get justice.

Vanessa Guillén’s family was in Washington Thursday on the anniversary of her disappearance. They called on Congress to re-file the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.”

The proposed federal legislation was introduced last fall. Its goal is to help military members report sexual abuse or sexual harassment without fear of retaliation from their chain of command. The bill was referred to the House Armed Services committee. It did not receive a hearing.

Guillén’s family said so far not enough has been done to keep what happened to Vanessa Guillén from happening again to another service member.

Their family met again with U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, who filed the bill last fall. They called on President Biden to support the legislation. The Guillén family attorney said they tried to meet with Biden and with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but neither were available.

“Be available for this family,” the attorney said.

On Tuesday, members of Guillén’s family were also in Austin. They joined several Texas lawmakers at the Texas Capitol to highlight new statewide legislation.

“With the Vanessa Guillén Act, Texas can lead by example in protecting our Texas military members from sexual assault and ensure swift justice is delivered for victims,” said Texas Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who filed the bill.

The Army also honored and memorialized Guillén Monday at Fort Hood as the military post named a gate in her memory.

The man suspected of murdering Guillén killed himself after fleeing the post as the investigation closed in on him as a suspect. The man’s estranged wife was arrested in connection with Guillén’s disappearance and faces up to 20 years in prison. She’s accused of helping dispose of Guillén’s body.

‘We’re going to keep on trying’: Senator Royce West looks to move police accountability legislation forward

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, stood in his office in the Texas Capitol, eyes glued to the television screen as the judge in Derek Chauvin’s trial read out the verdict: guilty on all three counts in the death of George Floyd.

“What’s crossing my mind is the system actually worked for a change, and I think that maybe, and hopefully this will lower the temperature some in this country and in this state as it relates to these types of issues,” said the Democratic senator who introduced a bill this legislative session called the “George Floyd Act” which, among other things, would ban police officers’ use of chokeholds.

The bill has not advanced out of committee to the Senate floor. One factor is opposition from law enforcement groups to a provision that would limit qualified immunity to protect officers from lawsuits.

“The fact is that some things we can’t get through the system at this point in time,” West said. “We’re going to keep on trying.”

Sen. West says he expects some police reform legislation will move through the legislature this session.

“We’ll be able to get the duty to intervene out of the Senate. We’ll be able to get the rendering aid out of the Senate and the no chokeholds out of the Senate,” West said.

“I want to make certain that law enforcement officers, when they leave home in the morning, they can return home that evening,” West said. “But I also want to make certain that those individuals that would abuse the power over life and death, that they pay the ultimate penalty as relates to the punishment for engaging in that type of conduct.”

West said he’s hopeful that the Chauvin verdict, as well as other cases, signal progress toward accountability.

“Even in Texas, more and more juries, more and more prosecutors are charging police officers that violate policy and take someone’s life or injure someone with criminal offenses,” he said.

“I think that bad police officers will get the message that they can no longer with impunity… engage in these hideous acts and think that someone is not going to find out about it. I think we’re turning the corner on that,” West said.

Lawmaker makes case for bill aimed to protect Texas mothers; Senator honored for ‘unbelievable’ voting record

State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, has championed legislation to improve how the state tracks data on mothers who die and those who barely survive childbirth.

Last week, Thierry made the case for House Bill 136 before the House Public Health committee.

Thierry’s bill would create a work group to establish the first statewide, online maternal mortality and morbidity data registry.

Thierry says the web portal would collect data from hospitals and other health care providers on deaths and near-deaths during or within one year of delivery.

She told lawmakers on the committee that the state can’t wait any longer to have updated data.

“We want to understand which interventions at the patient, clinic and community levels would have the greatest benefit to improving our maternal health in the state,” Thierry explained at the hearing.

Our Mothers Erased investigation in 2019 found problems with how Texas tracks maternal deaths and near deaths.

Theirry told committee members the bill would not require any extra funding beyond what the state has already set aside for maternal health. The committee left the bill pending.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) receives a special gavel from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, marking her streak of 65,000 consecutive votes in the Texas Senate. (Photo from Office of State Sen. Zaffirini.)

On Tuesday, the members of the Texas Senate paused to acknowledge a milestone in the chamber.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, cast her 65-thousandth consecutive vote on Monday. She hasn’t missed a vote since she joined the Texas Senate in 1987.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called attention to the achievement during Tuesday’s Senate session. “65-thousand consecutive votes, that’s just unbelievable,” Patrick said from the dais.

He presented a special gavel to Zaffirini in honor of her voting streak. After the announcement, Zaffirini’s fellow senators gathered around her desk to offer congratulations.

After the recognition, Zaffirini’s office sent a news release that included some insight into the motivation behind the streak.

“After faith and family, public service is my highest priority,” Zaffirini was quoted in the release. “The most fundamental part of that is being present and casting every vote.”

Her streak of consecutive votes is unmatched in the Texas Legislature. The statement from Zaffirini’s office says no other lawmaker in the country comes close to her consecutive vote streak.

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