Bad Bills

Surveillance Good, Education Bad

Widening the Gap

House Bill 3000 Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

At a time when Texas must fund higher education scholarships for minorities as an investment in the future health of the state, the Lege appears set to do the opposite. The House and Senate leadership is pushing a plan to combine the TEXAS Grants program with the B-On-Time program. TEXAS Grants is a six-year-old effort that serves primarily low-income and minority students. B-On-Time was started last session to help middle-class and even wealthy students. The merger of the two, proposed by Rep. Geanie Morrison, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee, threatens to push down the already meager number of low-income and minority students attending college in Texas.

“The program meets two different types of needs, and by merging it, one of those needs is going to be left out,” says Ana Correa, LULAC’s legislative liaison for the Southwest.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sponsored the original bill to create TEXAS Grants in 1999, modeling it after a similar program in Georgia. Students who complete an accelerated course load in high school and are in need of financial assistance are eligible for grants to pay their college tuition. While enrolled, they must maintain a 2.5 grade point average and take at least 75 percent of a full-course load. The program has proven effective in Texas at serving first-generation and minority students. Of the 115,000 students receiving TEXAS Grants, 46 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are African American.

The Senate Appropriations bill this session allotted $294 million for TEXAS Grants—a cut of over $30 million from current levels. This is on top of cuts that the program received last session. Combined with sharp increases in tuition as a result of tuition deregulation—which left the program 22,000 grants short last year—TEXAS Grants are drying up.

Apparently, for the Republican leadership, the fix for TEXAS Grants lies in B-On-Time. The fledgling loan program, created last session by Sen. Judith Zaffarini (D-Laredo), offers students a zero-interest loan that they do not have to pay back if they graduate in four years with a B average. Morrison’s legislation would combine B-On-Time with TEXAS Grants so that students receive grant money for the first two years of their degree, but in the second two years, the financial aid would come as a loan. This would effectively undermine the efforts of the TEXAS Grants program, particularly for working students who are unable to take a full course load.

“It’s doing the opposite of what the goal is—to create more college graduates,” says Jeremy Warren, a spokesperson for Sen. Ellis. “If, after two years of college, you didn’t do that great—if you’ve got a low GPA—if you are working—your incentive is to drop out.”

A similar measure to the Morrison bill is expected to appear in the Senate. Justin Unruh, a spokesperson for Morrison, says the representative filed the bill because there is not enough money to fund new grants after cuts last session. He says the bill will restructure the existing programs in order to broaden their efforts.

“The important thing is to get them into the system and get two years under their belt. After two years, students have a better understanding of what continuing education will mean for them,” Unruh says.

However, Larry Burt, director of financial aid at University of Texas at Austin, says that grants and loans have different effects on students. “You can go back and look at countless studies from all across the country—grants affect students’ academic performance and their desire to go to college, in a very positive way,” he says. “Loans are just the opposite.”

Burt says the TEXAS Grants going out of his office are given to the neediest students, while B-On-Time loans go to those who can afford to pay more. He says both programs should be fully funded in order to work toward closing the education gaps in Texas. “Any kind of reduction will actively exacerbate the problem and make the future of Texas not as strong as what it should be,” he says.

“Big Brother for Your Safety,” II

House Bill 2337 Rep. Frank Corte (R-San Antonio)

It’s a standard Republican Party line that individual liberty must be protected from Big Government. Indeed, the platform of the Republican Party of Texas says it “opposes any and all unauthorized access, accumulation, and distribution of an individual’s private records by a government agency.”

On March 8, Rep. Frank Corte bucked his party’s platform to file HB 2337, relating to the use of “image comparison technology” by the Department of Public Safety. If passed, the legislation would greatly expand the government’s ability to keep tabs on Texans, without them knowing it or even being involved in any criminal activity.

Corte was the House sponsor for last session’s SB 945, which would have allowed the DPS to collect facial recognition information on Texans whenever they went to get a driver’s license. The House roundly defeated this legislation in 2003, voting it down 111 to 26.

If HB 2337 passes, the DPS would use an imaging machine to scan everyone applying for a driver’s license starting in 2007, recording the applicant’s facial image as well as thumbprints or fingerprints. This would allow the DPS to build a database to include nearly every Texan. The database would also hold “a brief description of the applicant,” a photograph, and a signature. Increased license fees in the bill would pay for the system.

Corte justifies this surveillance as a means of protecting against potential identity theft by terrorists. “We want to make sure that DPS can verify that you are you,” he says. Corte believes driver’s licenses are so-called “breeder documents.” He notes that once someone has a fake license, that person can get credit cards as well as other documents and thus begin a life of crime and terrorism.

Nonsense, says Scott Henson of the Texas ACLU. Henson points out that the 9/11 terrorists were all in the country legally and thus had no problems getting real driver’s licenses. “A terrorist can still get a driver’s license with real information,” Henson says. With the proposed use of imaging technology, DPS is “removing all restrictions on how law enforcement uses…our personal data. Any cop can use it for any reason they want to, without anyone having any authority to tell them not to.”

Corte’s bill allows the DPS to use its database “to aid other law enforcement agencies in: establishing a person’s identity; or conducting an investigation of criminal conduct,” effectively neutering the notion of probable cause. It would instantly give the DPS personal information that officers are currently required to get a warrant to view.

During the 78th Legislature, the state exempted itself from disclosing the location of certain government-operated security cameras. Since Corte’s bill does not restrict what the facial recognition technology can be used for, Henson predicts that the DPS is likely to combine what the state already has—secret cameras that are exempt from open records laws—with facial recognition technology to seamlessly track Texans, be they innocent or guilty.

Bad Bills are compiled by the Observer’s Bad Bills Girl, who rises vampire-like from hibernation every two years to suck the blood from vile or absurd state legislation. If you have a likely candidate for “Bad Bills,” please fax her at (512) 474-1175, or e-mail [email protected]

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