Ahead of the upcoming 88th Texas Legislature session, El Paso lawmakers gathered at a public forum to outline their focus for 2023, which includes property tax relief, public education, the humanitarian crisis on the border and the need to work together.
El Paso Matters and El Paso Community College hosted the forum which was attended by Texas Sen. César Blanco and state Reps. Joe Moody, Mary González, Lina Ortega and Claudia Ordaz. State Rep. Eddie Morales Jr. could not attend because of a prior commitment.
The bi-annual Texas legislative session starts Tuesday and ends May 29.
For the El Paso delegation, coming together to help El Paso is a must after redistricting turned Democratic cohorts into rivals vying for the same seat. Running up to the 2022 primary election, Moody and González endorsed Ordaz’s opponent Art Fierro. When asked if hard feelings linger, the representatives spoke of moving on.
“All of us say the same thing, that El Paso always comes first. … I mean, at the end of the day, it’s politics, it shouldn’t be personal and we have to work together,” said Ordaz, who defeated Fierro.
Priorities center on cost and quality of life in El Paso
Blanco described “kitchen table issues” as the most important priorities for El Paso.
“Folks are still feeling the pinch from inflation, property taxes are high, the cost of food is expensive, there’s a lot of food insecurity,” Blanco said. “So I think for us what’s most important is making sure we’re helping families and you can help families by doing a variety of things.”
One way to provide property tax relief is to shift some of the local public school funding to the state, Blanco said. Public schools in Texas rely heavily on local property taxes for funding. When local property tax revenue goes up, the state spends less on those school districts.
He also wants to see an expansion of career and technical education, or CTE, programs that train students for high-demand jobs with little debt compared to a traditional college education.
Job and workforce growth in El Paso are concerns among all the legislators, with Ortega noting that El Paso is suffering from a shortage of health care workers. González said she looks forward to thinking through how to allocate funding to higher education, from facilities to financial aid access. The representative sits on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees funds from the state treasury.
State response to migrants
The humanitarian issues on the border is another major focus. In October and November, Border Patrol reported more than 106,500 encounters with migrants – many of whom were repeat encounters – in the El Paso sector which includes southern New Mexico. And with shelters overwhelmed, Border Patrol agents had been dropping people off in the streets where they were enduring frigid temperatures in December.
El Paso’s delegation described the situation as a failure of the federal government, which has the responsibility to enforce immigration law. They also criticized the state’s response.
Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of disaster on Dec. 17, triggering Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star in El Paso. Operation Lone Star is a multi-billion dollar program that deploys state guards and troopers to patrol the border and apprehend migrants. The program is under federal investigation for civil rights violations,
Moody questioned whether the state is using resources to treat people humanely or push a political agenda. What El Paso needs is support moving people through the immigration process, performing health checks, and not dumping people in the middle of the road, he argued.
Instead, El Paso has become a “political football” – a criticism echoed by the other lawmakers.
“The city was concerned about declaring an emergency because they were afraid of how the governor was going to react,” Ortega said. “And unfortunately, the worst did come to happen. And the fact that [Abbott is] spending money bringing these trailers and trying to create barriers on the border, when it’s not effective. … They should be providing shelters and they should not be attacking NGOs because obviously it’s the NGOs that are helping getting us by.”
Ordaz said it was the legislators’ role to oversee state funding and called for accountability on how funds for the migrant response are being spent. She said El Paso constituents have been worried since at least 2018, when she was on City Council, about how their local tax dollars are funding the migrant response.
Most people crossing the border have plans to travel out of El Paso, but must wait if flights and buses are at capacity, or flights from El Paso are too expensive. Blanco suggested that the state could be busing people to major airport hubs, such as Phoenix and Dallas, so they can fly more easily to their intended destination. Cities in Florida and Texas are among the most requested destinations. But Abbott refuses to transport migrants to other cities in Texas and Operation Lone Star instead buses migrants to “sanctuary cities,” such as New York and Chicago.
Legislators oppose school vouchers
School choice will likely come up in the next Texas Legislature session, with El Paso lawmakers expecting some bipartisan cooperation. The proposed school voucher program has strong backing from Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Christian megadonors in Texas, while public school teachers, the State Board of Education and rural communities generally oppose it. School vouchers divert money from public schools by giving parents taxpayer-funded subsidies, which they can use to pay for private school tuition.
All five legislators oppose what Moody described as “stealing money from public schools” to pay for private schools.
Vouchers can be dangerous for the most vulnerable population, specifically special education students, González said. Vouchers do not have to accommodate students with disabilities because private schools are not bound to the safeguards of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Private schools also lack oversight from the Texas Education Agency.
González pointed out that the school choice program failed to pass during the last legislative session. She’s optimistic the program still doesn’t have enough support to pass, with opposition coming from both Democrats and rural Republicans.
Texas educates more rural students than any other state and public schools are often a focal point in each community. With fewer private schools in these areas, defunding public schools has historically been a tougher sell for rural Republicans.
Reproductive and maternal health
The El Paso delegation expected an uphill battle in protecting the health of women and pregnant people.
Under Texas abortion law, a pregnant person’s health can now be left to deteriorate while doctors determine whether she qualifies for an abortion. Ordaz cited what she called a disturbing study from two hospitals in Dallas that found doctors are delaying medically necessary abortions until women developed life-threatening complications, such as hemorrhaging and infections.
The dismantling of Roe v. Wade won’t be the end of abortion talks as lawmakers are now discussing more stringent laws, such as criminalizing people who help someone travel out of state for an abortion, Ordaz said.
There are other gains the Texas Legislature can make such as accessibility to reproductive health care, Ordaz noted. The representative filed HB 916, a bill that would make it possible for health insurance beneficiaries to obtain a 12-month supply of birth control at one time. She’s also hopeful that Medicaid expansion for postpartum people will pass again this session.
Ortega originally filed a bill in 2021 to extend Medicaid coverage for pregnant people from 60 days to 12 months. Last session the Senate passed an amended bill that shortened the time period to six months postpartum, but the federal government rejected the state’s application for Medicaid extension.
Legislators believe the application was not approved because the bill only extended coverage to women who deliver a baby or have an “involuntary miscarriage,” language that could exclude people who have abortions. Ortega said she and other members of the House have refiled that bill to correct the wording.
González recalled an event with Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who described the job of a senator as, “I choose who lives or dies.”
“Whether it is women’s health, whether it’s LGBTQ issues, whether it’s border issues and migration and immigrants, the only thing I can do in my position is to humanize the issue,” González said. “The very reality is these are people’s lives and the very real impact of policies that we pass during session is that people’s lives are negatively, and, or positively impacted.”