Author: Staff

ExxonMobil Lawsuit Battle: The State vs. Harris County

Over the last decade, Texas Republicans have shown a pattern of disregard for public safety and the rights of local governments, notably in terms of environmental protections. We now face contaminated water and air, incalculable injuries, and even fatalities due to the GOP’s indifference.The State repeatedly chips away at local governments’ ability to hold polluters accountable for negligent behavior. This has become increasingly evident in recent State-filed lawsuits against polluters in the Harris County area, specifically in county and State-filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil.

Within a span of five months, the Baytown ExxonMobil power plant had two severe, life-threatening explosions. The first released contaminants into the surrounding area for nearly 8 days following the explosion. The second left 37 people injured. The power plant has also been violating pollution laws since 2013. Harris County immediately took action and filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, stating the company violated the Texas Clean Air Act. Days later, the State filed the same lawsuit. 

In a hearing this Friday (1/17), the State will present the case that Harris County’s lawsuit is in violation of the Texas Water Code.

Beyond taking away local governments’ right to file environmental lawsuits that affect their communities, a State-filed lawsuit against ExxonMobil has two very large implications. First, the case will be heard in Austin rather than Harris County. Second, any money from civil penalties will go directly into the State’s general revenue rather than being split between the State and Harris County. 

The fight over the ExxonMobil case is one of many attempts by Attorney General Paxton to stomp out local control. Over the past few sessions, the State voted to limit the amount of civil penalties a county may collect from a lawsuit, forced local governments to notify the State when a lawsuit is filed and allow the State to take over the lawsuit, and barred counties from hiring outside parties. These actions have all been taken under the guise of ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity.’ However, these policies enable the State, and Attorney General Paxton, to control the lawsuits and ultimately let polluters off easy. 

Texas House Mass Violence Committee Continues Work in 2020

On Thursday, the Texas House Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety will hold a hearing in the city of El Paso just five months following the El Paso Walmart terrorist attack. Family members of victims and those directly affected by the mass shooting will provide testimony. 

As the date grows closer, we can’t help but consider the legislature’s response, and specifically  its failures to the people of Texas. In the wake of the El Paso mass shooting, Governor Abbott spent $5.5 million additional dollars on law enforcement, established a Domestic Terrorism Force, a Texas Safety Commission, released eight executive orders, and authored a Texas Safety Action Report. Additionally, Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick created House and Senate Committees on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

While this list seems robust, there has been little if any collective action since this summer’s shootings to address gun violence in Texas. Since the inception of these committees and task forces, two additional mass shootings have ravaged Texas – both in Midland/Odessa and White Settlement. People continue to lose their lives and Governor Abbott has seemingly given up on forwarding any potential solutions to the issue.

While Governor Abbott avoided meaningful gun safety reform, Texas House Democrats stood together across the state to call for an emergency special session. We prioritized five should-be simple policy changes that the majority of Texas supports: 

  1. Extreme risk protective orders
  2. Close background check loopholes
  3. Ban the Sale of High Capacity Magazines
  4. Limit the Open Carry of Certain Semi-Automatic Long Guns
  5. Require Stolen Guns be Reported to Law Enforcement

We want our places of worship to be filled with joy and reverence, not fear or hate. We want our playgrounds to be a place of imagination and wonder, not shrouded in suspicion. We want our citizens to live with open arms and without the constant threat of violence. 

In 2019 alone, 37 Texans have died in mass shootings. We know we can do better and our goal for 2020 must be to set politics aside and tirelessly work to protect Texans.

Photo above courtesy of KFOXTV in El Paso.

Fighting for Kids’ Healthcare

Twenty percent of the total number of uninsured children in the U.S. live in Texas, but only 10% of the nation’s children reside here. Texas’ rate of uninsured children has grown to 8.3% in recent years, double the nation’s average. The Austin American-Statesman showcased this problem in an editorial highlighting Texas’ failure to insure children. Currently, Texas ranks second in the rate of uninsured children in the nation. 

Despite our prosperous economy, thousands of Texas parents are left terrified every day, worrying about how they will access basic healthcare needs for their children. Children have a right to adequate healthcare, from routine checkups that can identify, or even prevent, long term health and developmental concerns to more life-threatening issues. Children should be able to access medical care when needed without question, and Texas should protect children and advocate for their best interests. By not confronting our uninsured crisis, we are failing Texas families. 

The number and rate of uninsured children is in part the product of the Trump administration’s insistence on rolling back funding to healthcare systems and outreach programs, including slashes to the Navigator program which helps Texas families identify potential discounts and enroll in the right healthcare plan. Likewise, the blatant attack on immigration under the Trump administration caused many immigrant families living here legally to unenroll in programs in fear of retaliation or deportation.

Additionally, Texas Republicans habitually ignore a clear remedy to the healthcare crisis we face – Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion in Texas could potentially insure roughly 1.1 million more Texans. This past session, Representative John Bucy filed a Democrat-backed amendment to expand Medicaid in Texas, leaving the federal government to cover 93% of the associated costs and leading to years of State savings. GOP state legislators once again rejected attempts to expand Medicaid. 

Beyond Medicaid expansion, Rep. Phillip Cortez filed HB 342 to extend child Medicaid’s continuous eligibility to 12 months to align with Texas CHIP. As we move forward into the new year, House Democrats will continue to prioritize our children’s health and will work to expand the access and ease of healthcare.

Budget Night: 2019

Yesterday the Texas House debated the budget for nearly 12 hours, eventually approving the $251 billion that will fund numerous programs and agencies. This budget came to the floor with many key Democratic priorities. We owe a big ‘thank you’ to the Democrats on the Appropriations Committee who helped shape this bill. In several ways, the budget became better during yesterday’s debate.

What we fought for

Below are just some of the amendments House Democrats passed directly onto the budget:

  • Rep. Julie Johnson amended the budget to protect Medicaid recipients from having their services cut as the result of cost-saving efforts.
  • Rep. Rafael Anchia amended the budget to measure the success of border security outcomes and provide accountability to how we spend those dollars.
  • Rep. Shawn Thierry amended the budget to put more money into community mental health support.
  • Rep. Michelle Beckley amended the budget to study immunization coverage rates at Texas child care centers.

Of course, there were many issues we fought for that did not prevail, such as Rep. John Bucy’s Medicaid expansion amendment. That amendment would have brought a million more Texans affordable health care, provided thousands of jobs, and put billions into the state’s economy. While we are disappointed in the party-line vote, we are proud knowing that yesterday’s vote was the closest Texas has ever come to joining the majority of other states in the U.S. that have expanded Medicaid.

There’s still a long way to go.  HDC members and allies will continue advocating for the issues we all care about until the budget is officially adopted by both chambers at the end of session.

We want to commend all the work done yesterday, the days prior, and throughout the weekend. Texas Democrats have a lot to be proud of, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone working together and fighting for real solutions for all Texans.

The Halfway Point

Today is the 70th day of the 86th Legislature, the halfway point in our 140-day regular session. Of course, in many ways, the session is just beginning – but will ramp up very quickly in the days and weeks ahead.

Tomorrow, the House will consider legislation on the floor for the first time this session.  Today, the House Appropriations Committee voted out HB 1, the 2020-21 state budget bill, along with a supplemental appropriations bill, HB 4. The full House is expected to debate those measures next week.

As these important debates approach, we are thrilled that there will soon be 67 Democrats – the most since 2009 – on the floor of the House.  This afternoon, Rep.-Elect Christina Morales of Houston was sworn-in on the House floor.  It is expected that Rep.-Elect Ray Lopez of San Antonio will be sworn-in in the next few days as well.  We welcome these newest members of the House Democratic Caucus and look forward to working alongside them to provide opportunity to all Texans.

Bill Filing Deadline

Friday marked the last day for members to file non-local bills this legislative session. As of the close of business Friday, more than 4,600 bills were filed, with House Democrats filing nearly half of all bills. Now, the real challenge begins — getting those bills a committee hearing and onto the House floor for a vote.

Legislation filed by HDC members addresses a wide array of issues, from expanding health care access for uninsured Texans, supporting our public schools, protecting voting rights and promoting clean air and water to give just a few examples. These issues reflect our core values as Democrats. They’re also the issues Texans expect state government to address. House Democrats will be working every day to deliver real solutions for all Texans.

 

Check out some HDC members’ bills below:

  • HB 565 by Rep. Coleman would expand Medicaid coverage in Texas and put the Affordable Care Act protections into law.
  • HB 10 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson would create the Texas Mental & Behavioral Health Research Institute to study the causes of mental illnesses in Texas children.
  • HB 100 by Rep. Eric Johnson would require an analysis of expected effects of climate change on Texas agencies’ services.
  • HB 204 by Rep. Thierry would mandate the inclusion of mental health in the current health enrichment curriculum.
  • HB 22 by Rep. Romero would require voting machines to print paper receipts to help address glitches at the ballot box.
  • HB 241 by Rep. Farrar would extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year after a woman gives birth or miscarries.
  • HB 328 by Rep. Ortega would allow a county or municipality to establish a local minimum wage.
  • HB 1950 by Rep. Zwiener would allow students at a Texas college campus to use their student IDs to vote.
  • HB 935 by Rep. Bucy would make elections on even years a holiday for state employees

Big Issues Last Week

As the session heats up and bills are being heard in committees, this is a great time to check in on where things stand on several issues Texans greatly care about, including expanding health care access to uninsured people, local control of communities, rising property taxes and long-overdue criminal justice reforms to name a few.

 

Medicaid Expansion

This morning, advocacy groups, citizens, and several HDC members gathered on the front steps of the Capitol to speak out for the need for Texas to accept the billions of federal dollars for Medicaid expansion. They braved the cold for such a great cause, and the rally came at a good time. Tomorrow, the House Committee on Insurance will hear, for the first time in 6 years, a bill regarding the expansion of Medicaid.

Chairman Coleman, the bill’s author, joins several other Democrats leading the effort to expand coverage in the state, including Reps. Beckley, Bucy, Israel, Rosenthal, Bernal, and Reynolds to name a few.

 

The ‘Lavinia Masters Act’

Rep. Victoria Neave should be commended for her tremendous, bipartisan leadership on an issue that deserves our full attention: justice for rape survivors. Her bill, named after Lavinia Masters, a survivor in Dallas, would require an audit to determine the number, status and location of all rape kits in Texas. It is a serious step towards bringing true justice to Texans who need help the most.

As Rep. Neave said:

“Every rape kit sitting on a shelf represents a survivor waiting for justice. House Bill 8 seeks to address the circumstances in Lavinia’s case that led to the delay in the testing of her rape kit so that, in future cases, victims are not denied justice.”

 

Raising the Minimum Wage

This year, we have seen several representatives file bills to raise the state’s minimum wage. These bills would put needed money into the pockets of those who work hard to earn a livable income for themselves and their families. The minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2009, and it’s about time we get to work fixing that.

 

Property Taxes

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Ways and Means heard testimony on HB 2. While we are glad that the process set by Chairman Burrows is transparent and is not being rushed like its Senate companion was, localities in Texas have serious concerns about the bill. We share some of those same concerns. HB 2 does not lower property taxpayers’ bills, while ultimately tying the hands of our cities and counties.

 

As the Legislature considers even more bills in the coming days, House Democrats will keep in mind what Texans truly want the Legislature to address, and stay focused on providing real solutions for all Texans.

The ‘Texas Kids First Plan’

Last week on Thursday, Texas House Democrats rolled out their ‘Texas Kids First Plan,” an ambitious agenda that tackles several key public education issues. The agenda has gained attention these last few days with several media outlets picking up the plan. Below are just a couple of the notable quotes:

 

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores. 

— Aliyya Swaby, Texas Tribune, Feb. 21, 2019

 

Several bills — some filed and others still being drafted — will comprise the so-called Texas Kids First Plan, which also would increase per-student funding and lower the amount property-wealthy districts, such as the Austin district, pay to the state to support property-poor districts.

Republican leaders are expected to offer their own omnibus public education bill, which is expected to spend far less than the Democratic plan.

— Julie Chang, Austin American-Statesman, Feb. 21, 2019

 

Rep. Mary González, D-San Elizario, sits on the House Public Education committee with Huberty. She said the Democrats’ plan wasn’t meant to compete with Huberty’s bill but is just intended to broaden the conversation.  

“There’s a lot of overlap in what we’re saying here,” she said. “We want to put more money into public education. We want to help people with property taxes. We may have different ideas of how to get there, but we’re all basically saying the same things.” 

— Rebekah Allen, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 21, 2019

 

The proposal lays out some core principles that Texas House Democrats are advocating for this legislative session, including funding full-day pre-k, increasing the basic allotment, giving a meaningful pay raise to teachers and support staff, providing more mental health care access to children, and lowering property taxes for homeowners.

 

Going forward these next several weeks, House Democrats will continue working to see these policy ideas through to the finish.

Trump’s National Emergency Announcement

On Friday, President Trump declared a “national emergency” to build a wall on the US – Mexico border. This lawless act undermines the will of the people and their elected representatives in Congress.  For those of us in Texas, Trump’s rhetoric and actions are an insult – whether he is denigrating Texas’ border communities with false immigration and crime statistics or moving to seize private property owners’ land for his medieval barrier, every Texan should be outraged.

 

The research and evidence is clear: building a wall provides no real solution to stopping drug smuggling and human trafficking. Just because the President made an absurd campaign promise doesn’t mean American taxpayers and Texas landowners should have to pay for it.

 

Rep. Cesar Blanco put it well — “Trump’s national emergency declaration for his border wall is dangerous and radical. There is no national security crisis on the border. The only crisis we have is a humanitarian crisis.”

Update on Sec. of State Nomination Process

Last week, the Texas Senate Committee on Nominations heard testimony from David Whitley, Governor Abbott’s nominee for Secretary of State. During the hearing, Whitely claimed that the definition of voter suppression was “irrelevant” and admitted that the voter list his office released may in fact have contained flawed data.

 

Democrats want to protect the integrity of our election system — and that means we call out voter intimidation and voter suppression. It’s not too much to ask for our state’s chief election officer to get his facts straight and refrain from fear-mongering.

 

Speaking of people who can’t get their facts straight, President Trump will be making a campaign stop in El Paso tonight. El Paso is one of the safest cities in America, and it has been for decades.  No matter how many false statements the President makes, that fact will not change. The House Democratic Caucus stands with El Paso and all of our border communities, and we will continue to send the message that Trump’s demagoguery has no place in our great state. We hope all Texans will do the same.