Town hall meeting offers update on Legislative session

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The Dallas Examiner

“This was a very contentious session. I will sum it up like that; very contentious,” State Rep. Nicole Collier of District 95 announced in regard to the recently concluded 85th Legislature session in Austin. “I have never seen that much disrespect for the process of what we’re doing in the legislature than this time.”

Collier, Rep. Helen Giddings of District 109 and Sen. Royce West of District 23 featured at a town hall meeting hosted by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus at the University of North Texas at Dallas June 26. The purpose of the event was for the members, all Democrats, to report back to their constituents on the bills, laws and events of the recent Republican-dominated session.

With such a public interest, the meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd in Founders Hall, and an overflow room with streaming video of the program had to be opened.

Collier, the only Black representative for Tarrant County, criticized the passing of Senate Bill 4, better known as the “sanctuary cities bill.” The legislator voted against it because she considered it discriminatory.

“And one, there’s no good that could come of it,” she explained her reservations. “Why do you want our law enforcement officers being immigration officers that are not trained in that type of role?”

The representative also thought there could be other ramifications.

“You know what? This can happen to us as African Americans as well, because I guarantee you there’s going to be opportunity for them to pull you over and ask for your papers when you are detained,” she mentioned. “And guess what? You’re detained if you get pulled over for a traffic stop.”

Although the speaker did not clarify what papers African American citizens might have to produce, she did call the enactment a “dangerous piece of legislation” as she mentioned the multiple lawsuits cities are filing against the law.

Collier did praise the passing of House Bill 674. The legislation prohibits out-of-school suspensions for second-grade students or younger except in the most extreme cases, such as when a gun is brought to school.

Furthermore, the expunging of an arrest record is now automatic upon acquittal and is free of charge, and under S.B. 1913, a citizen can no longer be jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine, Collier added.

When Giddings took to the microphone, she too contemplated the work done at the State Capitol. “It was a very difficult session, perhaps the most difficult session in which I have had the opportunity to serve,” she confessed.

That difficulty did not prevent Giddings from taking part in some legislative triumphs, however. She confirmed that changes in higher education had occurred with the assistance of the TLBC. Community colleges are now able to offer a four-year degree in early childhood education after the measure failed to pass in 2015.

Giddings also declared that university students are leaving school with as much as $40,000 or more in debt.

“One of the things that I thought contributed to that is Developmental Ed,” she said.

Developmental education classes are assigned to students who are not fully prepared for college, Giddings said. She argued that a student may take up to 27 hours of developmental education – and pay for it – while receiving no credit hours for the work. To fix this, she and Republican James White overhauled the program.

“So now, when students take developmental education, they are going to use what we call the co-requisite model,” she remarked, “You’re taking development ed. and the basic course at the same time,” which will earn a student college credit right away.

West announced, “There’s work to be done,” as he took his turn to speak, although he too mentioned that there were issues that successfully received bipartisan support. One example he gave was changes in foster care law.

“When you begin to look at the kids that are in foster care, they are disproportionately African American and Latino,” the senator pointed out. “I’ve worked for years trying to make certain that we did everything possible to get the kids out of foster care and put them with relatives.”

He spoke of using a program called kinship care.

“Kinship care basically means that what we do is try to find relatives that’ll take the responsibility of raising a child taken from a home, based on allegations of abuse and neglect, until kinship care reunites the child with the family,” he illustrated.

West noted that in the past, the state would rather compensate strangers to take care of those children until they were sent back to a “broken family” rather than placed in the guardianship of capable family members. It was not until 1995 that the senator was able to get Texas to pay a stipend to grandmothers who cared for their own extended family’s children.

“This year is the first year that I can recall where you had bipartisan pull to look at alternative foster care,” he said.

The result was that the legislature added between $25 and $30 million to the kinship care program.

Policing issues were addressed during the 85th session as well.

“We know that there has been a lot of tension between law enforcement and minority communities,” West acknowledged.

Legislators tried to mitigate that pressure by passing the Community Safety Education Act. The act would include three layers of content: in drivers license training, school lesson plans and as part of police academy training.

“We’ll begin to define [and] verify what the expectations of the conduct of the officer and citizen is during traffic stops, as an example, or any type of interaction,” West said as he underscored that there should be some basic standard of conduct for both police and citizens, which this act will help teach and clarify.

Other noteworthy legislation passed included H.B. 1507 on judicial clemency. Under this law, when a person is released from court supervision related to a crime, a judge may remove certain prohibitions originally placed upon that individual.

S.B. 1566, or the “lunch shaming bill,” also passed. Outside of the Dallas Independent School District, 80 percent of public school students cannot afford a school lunch. With this law, school boards decide on a grace period whereby children may continue to receive a hot lunch even when money has run out of their lunch account.

In addition, $25 million each was granted to the HBCUs Prarie View A & M and Texas Southern universities, earmarked for their respective basic budgets. Giddings successfully backed the grant, known as a special item, after years of failure, she said.

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