On Tuesday, the 87th Texas Legislature convenes with the swearing in of returning and newly elected State Senators and Representatives, including our new District 29 Senator, César Blanco. 

I was honored and privileged to serve my El Paso and West Texas constituents and the people of Texas for 10 years, which included five regular sessions and multiple special sessions. 

Looking back, while I am proud of my office’s accomplishments, I experienced many disappointments over the failure of the Legislature to meaningfully address key long-standing policy issues in Texas. Chief among these are underinvestment in education, healthcare, and safety net programs, as well as misdirected policies regarding immigration, voting rights, and equality under the law. In addition to the significant health and economic challenges resulting from the pandemic including a budget deficit, these core issues still loom large, challenging returning and new legislators who are taking on the People’s work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on systemic inequities and the institutional racism in our state policies, including: 

  • Disproportionate deaths and hospitalizations among communities of color, which lack insurance and access to healthcare professionals and services, compounded by restrictive state bureaucratic policies regarding programs such as Medicaid and the Women’s Health Program; Minority and low-income children falling further behind in school, in part due to the digital divide; and
  • Disproportionate numbers of minorities exposed to the virus due to their essential worker status. 

All this on top of the state’s continued, short-sighted financial neglect of education, healthcare, and worker support systems.

Our social and civic fabric also has been frayed. Even before Trump came along with draconian immigration policies, our state leadership spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric and turned the Department of Public Safety into an immigration enforcement agency, adding almost $1 billion to its biannual budget, duplicating the work of the federal government with little actual impact on community safety. Not to be outdone by Arizona, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature passed S.B. 4, our own “show me your papers” law; another law with little or no impact on community safety. 

Govs. Perry and Abbott, Lt. Govs. Dewhurst and Patrick, and numerous other state officials have demonized immigrants as criminals and invaders, and border communities as dangerous. Not surprisingly, the El Paso Walmart killer of 23 border residents wrote that his motive was to kill Mexicans and stop the “invasion.”

During my tenure, the state’s discriminatory policies did not end with immigrants. Federal courts found the state intentionally discriminated in the 2011 drawing of maps for representative districts, and in adopting the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the country. Courts also found the state unconstitutionally limited a woman’s right to choose a lawful abortion. More recently, the state has passed laws allowing individuals and private organizations that receive taxpayer funding to discriminate against LGBTQIA Texans under the guise of personal religious beliefs. 

Finally, a word about process. Many have criticized the partisan approach to enacting policy in Washington D.C., where the party in control passes legislation without meaningful input or support from the minority party. We like to say Texas is different, but the state has trended in that direction during my 10 years in the Legislature. For example, as his first order of business, Lt. Gov. Patrick, a darling of the Tea Party and extreme right, threw out a longstanding rule that fostered bipartisanship and compromise to ensure that Democrats couldn’t block passage of discriminatory measures like SB 4 or the “bathroom” bill. In his view, the Majority’s agenda, regardless of its merit or the size of the Majority, should not be impeded by the Minority. After losing a Republican seat this last election, he intends to change the rules yet again, effectively disenfranchising millions of Texans who are represented by Democratic Senators.

And, led by Gov. Abbott, the Republican majority continues to attack the authority of local governments, eroding the long-cherished principle of local control formerly embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite the nearly 30,000 Texans who have died from COVID-19, the 8.1 percent unemployment rate, millions struggling to meet basic needs like food and housing, and other challenges resulting from the pandemic, the Governor has been pre-occupied with legislation replacing Austin police with state police simply because the City Council voted to reallocate some funding from the police department to other safety programs like mental health services.

Legislators will have their hands full with these and many other issues this historic session, including the budget deficit created by the pandemic. Instead of cutting critical education and health care programs, I hope state leaders aggressively pursue new revenue sources like Medicaid expansion, closing tax loopholes, and legalization and regulation of marijuana and gambling. I respectfully urge them to focus their energies on the issues with a new perspective towards creating a stronger Texas that provides renewed hope and opportunities for all its diverse people. I wish my former colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, and the hardworking, dedicated legislative staff a successful session.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by state Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Rodríguez was elected to represent Texas Senate District 29 in 2010. SD 29 includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He represents both urban and rural constituencies, and more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. Sen. Rodriguez did not seek re-election and will retire Jan. 12, 2021.

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