If It Were Up To Us

If It Were Up To Us…

A dozen critical issues facing Texas that the Legislature really should address but probably won't.

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A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

Handicapping the Texas Legislature isn’t easy. It’s difficult to know which issues state lawmakers will debate during their biennial 140 days in Austin and which bills will finish the sprint to passage. The Legislature has just one constitutional obligation—to pass a two-year state budget—and even getting that done is sometimes dicey.

Unfortunately, lawmakers rarely address the state’s most pressing needs. Competing political agendas, the short time in session and, let’s be honest, some lawmakers’ distaste for complex policy often prevent legislative action on the critical issues of the day—unless they’re under court order.

Early signs point to more of the same this session. Texas’ education and health-care systems are nearing crisis; the state is running out of water; college tuition and home insurance rates are sky high; and we still emit more carbon than any other state. But the governor and legislative leadership are pushing proposals that address few of these problems. Instead we hear about school vouchers, drug tests for the unemployed, and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. We’re also likely to see a return of two holdovers from last session—an anti-sanctuary city bill and a voter ID bill—that address one problem that isn’t solvable on the state level (illegal immigration) and another problem that simply doesn’t exist (you’re almost as likely to meet a hobbit in Texas as someone who’s perpetrated in-person voter fraud).

So rather than predict what lawmakers will do or railing at what they might do, we’ve decided to focus on what they should do. Below we detail a dozen items that deal with the biggest problems in the state. Some of them are liberal fantasies (ahem, income tax) but others are sound public policy ideas that Texans of all ideologies support because they would improve the lives of millions of people.

Undo the School Funding Cuts
Last session, lawmakers stiffed Texas schoolkids to the tune of $5.36 billion. Faced with a massive budget deficit, Republican lawmakers decided that schools should learn to do more with a lot less. And that’s just what school districts have been doing: more delays on critical building maintenance, more kids stuffed into classrooms because there aren’t enough teachers, and more fees for kids to play sports or ride a bus to school. Some lawmakers are coming around to the idea that we need to put some of that money back into the schools. Others were ousted in elections by public school advocates who ran on promises to deliver more funding. House Speaker Joe Straus has pledged he’ll fight to put $2 billion back in, but that’s not going to undo the damage—particularly with the system growing by 80,000 students every year. A mammoth school finance suit that’s underway may require lawmakers to overhaul the funding system within the next year or two—but for now, they can help kids out by stopping the bleeding.

Reform School Testing
Since Texas began punishing schools for their students’ low test scores in the late 1990s, advocates for poor and minority communities have been complaining. Under pressure to boost their scores, some schools turned into little more than test-prep drill sessions. Rather than back off, George W. Bush became president and spread the model nationwide. In Texas, the stakes have only gotten higher—the new regimen students first faced last year, STAAR, is the toughest one yet, with more than a dozen exams high-schoolers must pass to graduate.

Since lawmakers were last in Austin in 2011, those early critics have been joined by another angry rabble, a new “T.E.A.” party out of the suburbs: parents whose kids are “tested enough already.” They don’t want students’ grades or graduation tied to their scores on STAAR, and they’re tired of high-stakes tests. Now that lawmakers have gotten a look at how many students are failing tests and falling off track to graduate (a lot), many of them are inclined to agree. The retirement of state Sen. Florence Shapiro, a staunch defender of high-stakes testing who helped design the current system, means that one of the Legislature’s most powerful advocates for testing won’t be around this session. STAAR proponents like Sandy Kress, lobbyist for the test designer Pearson, and Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business have recently entertained some small reforms, meaning the status quo may be without a champion.

The recent converts to the anti-testing crusade might settle for the end of STAAR’s “15 percent rule,” which ties students’ grades to test performance (something that can spell trouble for a college-bound student’s class rank). It’s so unpopular, the state has already temporarily suspended it twice, and even Kress, the biggest testing advocate of them all, has conceded it’s a rule “maybe that goes too far.”

But the early critics—the ones who worried the state test is squeezing the life out of their neighborhood schools, and will only settle for fundamental change—have got a tougher fight ahead.

Reduce Wrongful Convictions
Texas is known for some terrible things, but few are as bad as our penchant for sentencing innocent people to death. Advances in forensic science (like using science) have helped exonerate at least 48 people in Texas since 2001, when a law made it easier for defendants to request post-conviction DNA testing. Study of DNA exoneration cases has shown the fallibility of other, less scientific types of evidence, like “snitch” testimony provided by alleged accomplices or jailhouse informants.

House Bill 189, filed by state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, would bar prosecutors in death penalty cases from using snitch testimony obtained in exchange for immunity, leniency, or other special treatment. Seems like if your evidence isn’t strong enough to convict without snitch testimony, it’s not strong enough to kill somebody, right? Dutton filed a similar bill last session and it died in committee.

Along those lines, another Houston Democrat, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, filed Senate Bill 87, which would require police to record interrogations of suspects accused of murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, and some sex crimes in order to use those confessions in court. Proponents compare it to putting cameras on police vehicles—it supports police statements if nothing’s amiss and protects defendants if something is. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already require this. But Ellis filed a similar bill last session and in 2009 to no avail. Last session, the Legislature took a major step toward reducing wrongful convictions by passing a bill that enoucrages law enforcement to use best practices in lineups. This session, they could continue the trend.

End Tax Diversions
Politicians love to compare government budgets to household budgets. Well, just imagine if your family squirreled away thousands of dollars in special accounts, but refused to spend it year after year even as needs mounted. You give Billy a weekly allowance but then prohibit him from spending it. You’ve been building up a nest egg to use in retirement but your spouse insists that you use it to balance the checkbook. You set aside a little bit each month for charity but the money never makes it to the needy.

This is roughly how the Texas Legislature treats dozens of fees and taxes intended for specific purposes, from improving state parks to helping low-income Texans with their utility bills. Instead, lawmakers have increasingly raided those funds for other purposes.

It’s the kind of cook-the-books budget gimmick that angers many on both the left and right. Some lawmakers, especially state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, have been waging a lonely war to end the practice of diversions for years. Watson calls his plan the “Honesty Agenda.” This session, however, the time may be ripe to do something. Speaker Straus has said he wants to see the fees spent on their intended purpose, or to stop collecting them.

Stopping diversions will mean that the Lege must find money elsewhere to plug the gaps in the budget. Here’s a place to start: Close the $1 billion-per-year high-cost natural gas tax exemption, an obsolete freebie of a tax break that pointlessly pads the pockets of natural gas producers who use technology that is no longer cutting edge.

Institute Election-Day Voter Registration
The idea is simple enough: The easier it is to vote, the more people will.

Many states, including Texas, still require eligible voters to register weeks before Election Day. In the digital age, potential voters can register on Election Day when they go to the polls. States that have implemented Election Day registration have seen voter participation rise. In fact, the four states with the best voter turnout in 2012—Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Iowa—had Election Day registration.

By contrast, Texas has awful voter turnout. Between 1978 and 2008, Texas ranked 47th in voter turnout, according to an analysis by The Daily Beast. Low voter turnout has contributed to Republican dominance of Texas—higher turnout traditionally benefits Democrats—which is why Election Day registration remains a longshot in the Texas Legislature. In fact, lawmakers are more likely to do the opposite: make voting more difficult by trying again to pass a voter ID law.

Pass a State Income Tax
Unicorns will roam the halls of the Capitol before Texas will implement a state income tax. But if you’re constructing a wish list of what the Legislature should do, well, the arguments for an income tax make a lot of sense.

Let’s start with the myth that Texas is a “low-tax” state. That’s only true for some. For the richest 20 percent of households, Texas is a glorious low-tax utopia, where they can buy a new yacht with the money they don’t pay in income taxes. Meanwhile, the poorest Texans pay a disproportionate share of their income to the state. That’s because Texas relies on the sales tax and the property tax for much of its revenue, both of which fall heavily on poorer families. The richest 20 percent pay just 3.6 percent of their income to state taxes, while the poorest 20 percent (those families making less than $29,000 a year) fork over more than 14 percent of their incomes, according to the Comptroller.

The Texas Constitution requires that two-thirds of any income tax go toward reducing property taxes and the other third to education. Under this scenario, the majority of Texas households would actually pay less in taxes. That’s right, most Texans would get a net tax cut, while the state would receive billions more for schools. Meanwhile, wealthy Texans would pay more of their fair share. Sound like a good deal? It is. It’ll probably never happen. But we can always hope.

Expand Medicaid
The list of economic reports in favor of Medicaid expansion in Texas keeps getting longer. That’s in addition to a recent Harvard University study that says Medicaid expansion would save thousands of lives. Not expanding Medicaid under Obamacare would cost Texas $100.1 billion in federal money the first decade, according to the state’s figures. To get that sizeable reimbursement would cost the state about $16 billion, which Gov. Perry argues is too much for the state to spare. Expanding Medicaid would provide health insurance to 1.5 million Texans and save public hospitals (and local governments) millions. This session, legislators should dispense with the red-meat rhetoric of the campaign trail and embrace the logic of expanding Medicaid. It makes financial sense and also will save lives.

Close the Structural Deficit
And now a friendly reminder from the accounting department: The Texas state budget remains a mess.

For the past three legislative sessions, Texas has begun its two-year budget cycle in a $10 billion hole. The state has $10 billion more in expenditures than in revenues. This came about in 2006, when Gov. Perry and the Lege reformed—and we use that term loosely—the way Texas pays for public schools. Lawmakers cut property taxes and hoped to make up the lost revenue with a new business tax. Except lawmakers didn’t design a business tax that could bring in enough money to cover the lost property taxes. So now there’s an ingrained, or “structural,” deficit of about $10 billion every two years that will be with us until lawmakers fix it—which few seem eager to do. State lawmakers have managed to paper over the hole in various ways; the booming economy helped in 2007, federal stimulus funds did the trick in 2009, and in 2011, they simply slashed the budget. But starting every budget cycle $10 billion in the red is no way to govern. Weren’t these folks supposed to be fiscal conservatives? It’s been seven years—just fix the business tax and close the deficit already.

Put Air Conditioning in Prisons
What if, instead of putting his dog on the roof of his car, Mitt Romney had left Seamus in a sealed room without air conditioning all summer? Would that anecdote have been joked about, or would everyone have agreed it was inexcusably cruel and wrong? For the sake of our faith in humanity, let’s assume the latter. But that’s exactly what Texas does—and has always done—with its prisoners, refusing to put air conditioning in most of its prisons even as inmates die of hyperthermia (as many as nine in the blazing summer of 2011) and lawsuits pile up. This July, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a 64-year-old minimum-security inmate who was exposed to weeks of heat indices up to 130 degrees in 2008, saying extreme heat can violate a prisoner’s rights, and that the health risks were “obvious” and prison staff “deliberately indifferent.” At one point, Judge Carolyn Dineen King exclaimed, “These guys are sitting in an oven . . . and no one gives a damn!” Deliberate indifference to prisoner welfare is kind of Texas’ M.O., especially when non-indifference costs money, which putting air conditioning in cell blocks would. But maybe the combination of judicial scolding and expensive litigation will push this issue past the human-decency tipping point and finally get prisoners treated as well as dogs.

Re-Regulate College Tuition
It’s been a decade since the Legislature “deregulated” tuition at Texas universities, when lawmakers narrowly decided to turn over the authority to increase tuition rates to unelected boards of regents. “We need to run them as a business as they should be,” state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, the sponsor of the bill, said at the time. At its core, tuition deregulation was a devil’s bargain: Universities conceded to the decades-long trend of decreased funding from the state, and lawmakers allowed the schools to make up the difference out of the pockets of students and their families.

Just as critics warned, tuition has skyrocketed, nearly doubling at Texas A&M and UT-Austin. Poor and middle-class kids are getting priced out of a college degree.

As we reported in October, the student bodies at the top public universities are overwhelmingly affluent. At UT-Austin, nearly half the undergraduates come from families making more than $100,000 a year—twice the state median family income. Now some lawmakers are experiencing buyer’s remorse.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the new chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, called his vote for deregulation “one of the two worst votes I ever cast in my legislative career,” according to the Texas Tribune. Other long-time lawmakers have chimed in with their “oops” confessions too. OK, you’re forgiven. Now, do something about it. Un-deregulate. Re-regulate. Whatever. Just take back the power. And while you’re at it, how about seriously upping higher education funding—give the kids a break and a better education too.

Regulate the Payday Loan Industry
There’s a saying you hear at the Capitol occasionally: “The time to kill a snake is when he raises his head.”

The predatory payday loan industry in Texas has shown itself time and again to be venomous, peddling poison to folks in desperate need of money.

Lawmakers have heard countless hours of testimony from Baptist preachers, charities, conservative city councilmen and victims of the industry about how payday lenders are trapping working people with loans impossible to pay off. As the Observer reported in November, some payday chains have found creative ways around the weak reforms the Legislature passed last session.

There is a simple and elegant solution: Close the loophole that allows payday lenders to circumvent Texas’ usury laws.  No more legal contortions, no more interest rates soaring above 600 percent, no more tolerance for the cycle of debt. Texas would join the legion of states that cap rates and try to make short-term credit affordable for those who need it. Companies whose business models depend on ripping people off will go out of business. Those who can make money by offering fair rates will survive.

Close Big Youth Lock-Ups
Five years ago, rampant sexual and physical abuse at Texas’ state-run juvenile correctional facilities triggered a massive overhaul. Half the state facilities closed, and the state-held youth population dropped by almost four-fifths as counties began handling their own offenders. Counties have much better success rates and can provide diversion programs, mental health treatment, and family counseling that state lock-ups can’t—all for a fraction of the price.

Currently, state youth lock-ups house only felony offenders who’ve failed in local programs. That means we’ve concentrated the juvenile crème de la crime into six remote, poorly staffed facilities, and it’s going about as well as you’d expect. Youth-on-staff and youth-on-youth violence has skyrocketed to 81 assaults per 100 youth in 2011. If youth refusing to leave detention because they fear violence from their cellmates doesn’t convince legislators that something must change, maybe the cost savings will.