By ROYCE WEST
Few bills have been more controversial than the Senate Bill 8 that was approved during the 2nd Called Session of the Texas Legislature. That was the “fetal heartbeat bill,” the SB8 that most agree, creates the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Its fate will soon be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments began Nov. 1.
Controversial in its own right, redistricting was the focal point of the 3rd Called Special Session of the Legislature that ended Oct. 20. And while lawmakers in both chambers engaged in rounds of intense debate surrounding how new districts would be drawn for members of Congress, the Texas Senate and House, and for State Board of Education members, the Legislature more quietly, also decided – in a different Senate Bill 8 – how $16 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds would be divvied-up for various wants and needs.
Needless to say, requests and suggestions for how such an enticing pie would be sliced numbered in the hundreds. The SB8 approved during the 3rd Special Session included $2.45 billion dollars in funds that will be used to directly assist a besieged health care industry that’s struggled valiantly in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic for the past 18 months and counting. In total, the Legislature appropriated in excess of $2.64 million dollars for health care, including funds for the Texas Child Mental Healthcare Consortium, enhancements to Emergency Medical Services programs and the creation of the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute.
I heartily supported appropriating funds for the home health care industry, nursing homes, and hospitals. I advocated to make certain we made a substantial investment in mental health services within SB8. In addition, I was able to gain support to have some $237 million included for construction of the new North Texas State Hospital at Dallas that was approved by the Legislature during the Regular Session.
When COVID-19 shutdown the economy in 2020, thousands of businesses were forced to close. Millions of Texans were put out of work and a historic number of claims were filed with the Texas Workforce Commission for unemployment benefits. The $7.2 billion SB8 appropriated for TWC will restore trust fund reserves and satisfy billions in loans from the federal government used to pay benefits. TWC will be able to right the ship without filing against businesses for unpaid unemployment insurance claims.
Too many Texans, particularly those in rural areas and urban communities, including in my district, discovered the shortcomings of our existing wireless communications and broadband infrastructure during the pandemic. During the Regular Session, House Bill 5 established a statewide broadband plan. The bill allows cities to apply for grant funding to improve broadband capabilities. SB8 provides $500 million to improve broadband infrastructure.
Retired teachers have always had my ear and I have worked to support issues they’ve advocated for, like the supplemental 13th check beneficiaries should receive early in 2022. Retired teachers were not forgotten by SB8. The bill provides $286 million to the Teacher Retirement System that will counter increases in health insurance premiums.
COVID-19 and resultant unemployment combined to elevate existing problems of food insecurity. To make it plain, in arguably the richest state, in inarguably the richest country on the planet, more people were without enough food, placing more strain on food banks. SB8 directed $100 million to the Texas Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for food banks and home-delivered meals through the Texans Feeding Texans Program.
Closely related, I spent considerable time working to get funds to address food deserts included in SB8. My goal was to secure $25 million to create a grant program to help cities and counties incentivize grocers to open stores in food deserts through a proposed Texas Food Desert Eradication Program. I used the USDA’s definitions of food deserts to map each state senate district by census block, including my own. The results were revealing. The overwhelming majority of Texas’ 31 state senate districts can be defined to have food deserts.
Had the Texas Food Desert Eradication Program been adopted, I realize a single $25 million appropriation wouldn’t be sufficient to solve our state’s food desert problem. But it would have been a start; a pilot program whose progress could be monitored and assessed. As we work toward the 88th Legislature, I will make addressing food deserts a big part of my legislative agenda and hope to bring my colleagues onboard. We have many things we can do as a state to address problems of hunger in Texas.
Sen. Royce Barry West is a member of the Texas Senate and has represented the Dallas-based 23rd District since 1992. He serves on the Senate Committees on Finance, Transportation, Education, Higher Education, and the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting. He can be reached through https://www.senate.texas.gov.