This week both Governor Greg Abbott and Chief Justice Nathan Hecht addressed the Legislature during the State of the State and State of the Judiciary, respectively.
Governor Abbott delivered his biennial State of the State address in the Texas House Chamber to members of the Texas House and Senate, along with officials from the state executive and judiciary branches. Flanked by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Governor Abbott outlined emergency legislative priorities such as reforming the byzantine and dysfunctional school finance system, boosting teacher pay raises, and providing meaningful property tax relief for Texas homeowners and small business owners.
Also included at the top of the governor’s priority list are partnering with our local school districts and law enforcement agencies to ensure that our students and teachers are safe, assisting our cities, councils, and tribal communities restore from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, and helping our fellow citizens heal from behavioral and mental health challenges. By designating these and the aforementioned policy areas as emergency items, the Texas Constitution allows lawmakers to tackle these pressing issues sooner than the mandated constitutional limit that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.
I wholeheartedly agree with Governor Abbott in his mission to target education funding. We must do better. According to the Governor, “only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year…and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college.” “[F]or where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Academic achievement is like any other human endeavor. You value what you prioritize. The greatness and prosperity of Texas depends on how we develop and nurture our children intellectually, physically, and spiritually, and at least intellectual development requires a first class education.
On the property tax reform front, leaders from both the Texas House and Senate laid out identical property tax reform bills that would help lift the burden of skyrocketing property taxes. I previously explained these proposals in my weekly legislative update.
In terms of school safety, Governor Abbott praised a bill filed by Senator Jane Nelson that would create a broad-based mental health consortium. By supporting improved mental health services for students, as well as rewarding the best teachers and hardening our schools against mass shootings, Governor Abbott has set the tone for the coming session. Chief Justice Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court also addressed the Legislature. On Wednesday, he delivered his State of the Judiciary address highlighting the major issues facing Texas’ courts.
Chief Justice Hecht called on the Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.” In our state, judicial seats are determined by partisan elections. In a political atmosphere as harsh and partisan as ours, judicial elections result in more political judges. Judicial independence weakens in the process. Simply put, straight-ticket voting fuels a system wherein inexperienced judges ride the coattails of candidates higher up on the ballot.
The Chief Justice also brought up Texas’ bail system. He claims that our bail system encourages the wrongful detainment of the justice-involved simply because they are too poor to pay bond amounts for their release from jail before trial. I look forward to seeing the reform that Senator John Whitmire and Representative Andrew Murr will introduce to address this issue. Obviously, jailing the accused who pose no risk to the public because they are indigent is already unconstitutional and very costly for city and county property taxpayers, who provide the revenue for their local jails.
This week I had the opportunity to preside over the Correction Committee’s first organizational hearing for the session. The committee heard testimony from criminal justice agencies responsible for ensuring community safety.
I am incredibly thankful for Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) Chairman Dale Wainwright for attending our hearing and providing us with the knowledge of his authority over our state’s criminal justice system. The board has direct and independent oversight over the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which provides confinement, supervision, rehabilitation, and reintegration of the state’s justice-involved population. Additionally, the board has general oversight over the hiring of the superintendent of the Windham School District (WSD). During his testimony, Chairman Wainwright did a remarkable introduction of our agency directors and staff.
Bryan Collier, the Executive Director of TDCJ, provided an extensive and thorough update on the operations, facilities, and programs of the state’s corrections system. Another critical aspect of TDCJ is community supervision or probation. One goal of our criminal justice system is to punish the wrongdoer that threatens our life, liberty, and property. We also focus on restoring the victim. However, we must also ensure that we effectively rehabilitate the justice-involved individual, because one day in the future, a vast majority of the incarcerated justice-involved population will return to free society.
Former Corrections Chairman, Jerry Madden, also testified and gave the members his perspective not only on the work that will need to get done now but the impact many of the items that went through the committee in past have had in our state’s current criminal justice system. I am honored to have served as a member of the Corrections committee under the outstanding leadership of Chairman Madden. His advice is valued always and I consider him to be a remarkable friend.
In addition, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) provided an overview of the fiscal state of our corrections system. Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) Chairman David Gutierrez, testified on the current state of the agencies operations. I was very pleased that Chairman Gutierrez is focused on the concerns of victims and victims’ families, along with the concerns of our local officials in the criminal justice system. Dr. Clint Carpenter, the superintendent of WSD, gave the Committee an overview of the educational curriculum and programing the district provides at TDCJ facilities. Marsha McLane with the Texas Civil Commitment Office (TCCO) provided insight into their current charges and upcoming programming for civilly committed sex offenders. Due to overreaching interference by federal courts, Texas is required to release certain sex offenders into our communities. Despite this, the Legislature created the TCCO in order to provide optimum supervision and rehabilitation. Lastly, Jack Choate provided insight into the workings of the Special Prosecution Unit. The hearing was a very productive conversation with these outstanding agencies and I look forward to continuing to review and improve our criminal justice system.
I was thrilled to see many school teachers in our State Capitol over the week. Silsbee Independent School District Board Member Jim de Garavilla came to my office to discuss the importance of our state’s public education system and the critical needs it faces both in terms of funding and providing teachers the necessary tools to address the needs our children need to prosper. Dr. Kathryn Washington, Goodrich Elementary principal, came by along with a few other teachers from the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. Dr. Washington is a high-energy, high-powered Texas educator and strong campus leader. I enjoyed listening to her insight on student-focused school safety. I am extremely honored to listen to these women and the challenges and expectations they have of our Texas public education system. She also gifted me a remarkable piece of art that students at Goodrich ISD put together that showcased their emotional state when Hurricane Harvey devastated their community. These young students experienced unparalleled trauma. I would like to thank Dr. Washington for allowing the students to have an outlet for their emotions and thoughts.
We had three outstanding public servants in town representing the people of Southeast Texas. Tyler County Judge Jacques Blanchette, Tyler County Commissioner Stevan Sturrock, and Polk County Tax Assessor-Collector Leslie Burks. I always enjoy meeting with them to address the needs of our local constituents and it was truly a pleasure to have them visit me during the legislative session.
Members of the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative, Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative, and the Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative also came to my office to discuss the services they provide to residents in our districts. My staff and I always enjoy working with these folks and appreciate working with them to ensure that they provide the best service at a reasonable cost.
CASA of the Pines and CASA of the Sabine Neches brought by some of our strongest advocates for Texas children. I am proud to have earned the prestigious CASA “Big Voice for Little Texans” award and am always eager to work with CASA advocates in Southeast Texas. I have worked with Vicki Spriggs, CEO of CASA, for many years and am looking forward to passing meaningful reform that addresses the most critical needs of our most vulnerable children.
The Capitol of Texas belongs to you and visiting the Capitol during the biennial legislative session is a great experience. To assist in arranging your visit please call Saul Mendoza, my Chief of Staff, at (512) 463-0490. Or, you can email him at email@example.com.