The tone of the 86th Legislative Session was very different from the 85th session. There is no doubt that elections have consequences and the voters were not happy with the issues that were made a priority in 2017.
Our teacher groups were very active and engaged leading up to the 2018 elections, and their advocacy made a difference. We also had Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Coast shortly after the 2017 session, causing major flooding from which many of our communities are still recovering. This brought us together and proved that we needed to be prepared for disasters in the future. We were then struck by another tragedy, the Santa Fe school shooting, which made us realize that we had safety challenges in our schools that had to be immediately addressed.
Based in large part on these events, Governor Greg Abbott rightly named the following as emergency items at the start of the session: school finance reform and increasing teacher pay; school safety; property tax reform; and, disaster response.
Education is the best equalizer, and many of us have spent years fighting to give our school children the best resources to succeed and to ensure our state’s future. This session, we finally transformed public education with the passage of House Bill (HB) 3, which I proudly co-authored, and the investment of an additional $11.5 billion. These new funds will reduce school property taxes by $5 billion, increase teacher pay by $2 billion, and increase the state’s share of funding from 38 percent to 45 percent. Together, these reforms will make the school finance system more equitable and reduce the burden on local property taxes.
We also enhanced school safety by providing over $331 million, including $100 million for the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium to provide early intervention for students at risk of suicide, substance abuse, or becoming a danger to themselves or others, and $100 million for school hardening.
We made sure to take care of our retired teachers and school employees too by providing funding for a much needed 13th check capped at $2,000, along with an additional $1.1 billion towards the pension plan, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), to ensure actuarial soundness. Further, additional funding was provided to TRS-Care for health insurance so that our retirees will not see a premium increase in 2020.
Disaster preparedness was another big issue this session. A year ago, I wrote an editorial titled “Investments in Flood and Drought Control Should be Proactive, Not Reactive.” This came after Hurricane Harvey dropped 50 inches of rain in the Houston area and a few days before the Rio Grande Valley received 15 inches of rain in a two-day period, causing significant flooding and damage to our communities. Thankfully, the Legislature headed my call in appropriating $3.5 billion from the “Rainy Day Fund” to help the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild from Harvey, and to allow for investments across the state to improve disaster preparedness.
These efforts will also be bolstered by the passage of Senate Bills 6, 7, and 8 which greatly improve on state policies and procedures in disaster mitigation and preparation. This legislation will allow our local officials to access the funds needed to complete drainage infrastructure projects. These are smart investments, as Comptroller Hegar recently noted that mitigation spending has a four-to-one payback ratio. We cannot control the weather, but we can minimize the impact of significant weather events, which are happening more frequently, and can help save lives and protect our property.
In addition to these statewide initiatives, we had some major local accomplishments this session. Our legislative delegation was able to put South Texas at the forefront of critical discussions and secure funding for many of our regional priorities. Once again, I was honored to assist in the budget writing efforts as Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
Overall, the UTRGV School of Medicine will receive $69 million from the state which is an increase of $12 million from the previous session. This includes $2 million in first time funding for the Cervical Dysplasia Cancer Immunology Center. According to John Krouse, Dean of the School of Medicine, “Cervical cancer in women occurs more frequently in the Valley and when it occurs the mortality rate is much higher in the Valley.”
Our delegation also secured $5 million for the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg to expand an airport hangar for emergency and first responders; $1 million in grants for border zone fire departments; $500,000 for the Texas Transnational Intelligence Center in McAllen, $5 million for the Wellness Center & Multi-Specialty Facility in the City of Pharr; $100,000 for the St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Peñitas; an increase of $3.9 million for South Texas College as well as making the Center for Public Safety Excellence eligible for operations funding from the Governor’s Border Security Grants; $500,000 for the Women’s Institute for Technology Employment Training Center; up to $10 million for the Raymondville Drain project; and $1.9 million for library services for certain border cities.
Lastly, we were proud to secure $17 million to strengthen trauma system infrastructure. In South Texas, we have many great hospitals but not a Level 1 trauma facility. We are proud that at least $6 million of the trauma funds will go towards ensuring that South Texas has a life-saving Level 1 trauma center in the near future.
This was a great session for all Texans.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows state Sen. Juan Hinojosa being interviewed for TV.