The Dallas Examiner
Each year, the 150-member Texas House of Representatives and 31-member Texas Senate gather in Austin during the Texas Legislative Session to discuss and vote on bills that govern Texas.
During the 85th legislative session, State Rep. Eric Johnson of District 100, which includes parts of Dallas and Mesquite, authored 32 house bills and co-authored or joint- authored 23 house bills.
“I never really counted. I think what’s more important is what you can get through, and that’s always hard in the Texas Legislature,” Johnson said. “The system is designed to kill bills, not pass them, so I focus on what I can get across the goal line not so much what I can file.”
During the recent session, the House and the Senate filled 10,672 bills, while the governor signed only 1,091 bills – five of which were authored or co-authored by Johnson with the hope of making the greatest possible positive impact on Texas.
Making an impact
“When I think about impact, I tend to think about how many people you’re going to affect,” Johnson said, explaining that a bill that affects the entire state would be more impactful than one that that affected only a certain part of the state.
He went on to explain that he also looks at how significant of a change it would make in the law is it and how much of that change will impact people’s lives.
“So by those two standards, I would say the most impactful bill of the whole session that I passed, and that I filed frankly, was House Bill 674, which bans the out-of-school suspension of any children second grade and below,” he said about the bill signed into law June 12. “The reason that’s important is because it’s statewide – that’s every child – Black, Brown, White, rural, urban, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a public school child in Texas and you’re under the third grade, you cannot be suspended out of school except for the most extreme cases that federal law requires us to do something about.”
Johnson listed three exceptions to the new law, stating that the federal government controls discipline in regard to students caught with firearms, controlled substances and participating in violent behavior that harms another person.
“But short of that, in our public schools … our teachers are going to need to work with our kids and implement what we call ‘restorative practices’ and ‘alternative forms of discipline’ that doesn’t involve sending the child home,” Johnson continued. “That’s pretty significant, because we know, statistics tell us – its not a guess, it’s a fact – African American boys are suspended at rates that far out stride any other group. Nobody gets suspended more than African American boys in our public schools. And that’s important. I mean, even at the pre-K level we are already seeing 4-year-old children … we can already start to see Black boys being treated differently.”
Johnson said that those statistics were important because pre-K suspensions could lead to later grade suspensions, which could lead to later grade expulsions, then to later grade dropouts and on to incarcerations.
“That’s what we mean when we say the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ We’re talking about not getting kids on a path that we have seen over time actually leads from school to prison,” he said. “And so that’s a really significant bill. I ‘m glad I was able to get that passed out of the House. I was glad the Senate agreed that we should do something about this. I actually added some language that really encourages districts to really invest in and look into alternative discipline and restorative practices that will give teachers other tools to try to correct behaviors that don’t involve suspending kids.
“The next most important thing that I also was able to get to the governor’s desk, that he has to sign, is a bill that actually puts teeth into the police shooting reporting bill that I passed last session,” he said of House Bill 245. “So if you recall in 2015, I was able to get a bill passed that said that every police shooting in the state of Texas – and not just municipal police but all law enforcement; that’s your campus police, transit police, school police, medical campus police, if they’re a licensed peace officer – that means if they wear a badge and carry a gun – if they kill someone or injure someone with their firearm or they themselves are killed or injured, that has to be reported to the Texas attorney general.”
Johnson said all of the demographic information about the age and race of the victim and the shooter, along with the location must be included in the report in order to observe any pattern associated with the shootings.
The law passed last session, but there was no enforcement of the bill. However, this session, a penalty was added to the bill, which was signed by the Gov. Greg Abbott June 15 and goes into effect Sept. 1.
“We will have one of the strongest, if not the strongest data collection systems in the entire country for tracking this information. The FBI doesn’t do it, and most states don’t do it at all, but we would actually have a system where every one of these shootings has to be reported. And if you don’t report, then it puts in place a penalty of $1,000 a day until you comply. And if you do it twice in a five-year period, the penalty becomes $10,000 and $1,000 a day,” he said.
Johnson feels the penalty is fair because it’s not issued immediately upon discovery of noncompliance. The attorney general would issue a letter of noncompliance, giving them seven days to complete the report before the penalty begins.
“I filed some other bills, but those are my two biggest ones that have a statewide impact and actually have an impact on people’s lives and the governor could actually sign into law, and we could be living under those laws in September.
Banks and the Constitution
“I’ve got one more bill on the governor’s desk that’s actually an interesting bill, because it’s a bill that requires a Constitutional amendment. So, I have one of the few Constitutional amendments on the ballot in November,” Johnson stated. “When you amend the Texas State Constitution it requires a vote from the citizens. They have to vote to approve to have an amendment made to the Texas Constitution. And so, when we pass Texas [Constitutional amendments] out of the legislature, they have to pass by a 2/3 majority, not your normal simple majority. And then they get put on the ballot on odd number years. So this year, we’ll vote on, I think, seven Constitutional amendments.”
The bill will focus on whether or not banks and credit unions should be able to offer cash prizes or other things of value in exchange for people opening bank accounts.
“The reason I want to do that is because we’ve seen in some other states and other places around the world, that you can actually get people to stop using payday lenders because they have money in their own bank account to use in an emergency, if you can somehow convince them to save their own money. And one of the ways that’s been proven effective to get people to save their own money, if offering a lottery-style payout if they put money into their own bank accounts.”
The program is called prize-linked savings. It allows banks to enter customers into a drawing during a calendar year, offering thousands of dollars to the winner. The purpose is to encourage individuals who do not have bank accounts and/or savings accounts to open their own accounts and save money rather than borrowing from a payday lender.
“You can set those up in different ways,” he further explained. “You can do one every month or every year. You can combine with other banks, other states, pull together and do a super drawing. The point is, it works. It gets people to put money into their own bank accounts because they want a chance to win that bigger prize.
“The governor vetoed this bill last session when I passed it, but he said he thought it required a vote of the people as a Constitutional amendment, so I went back this session and was able to pass the bill again, and now its going to go to the people for a vote. So that’s something to be on the look out for in November.”
Each year, members of the House and Senate, along with their staff, put in countless hours creating bills. Johnson explained the process that he goes through, stating that he might become aware of an issue through a phone call, email or through a reputable media source.
“I’ll give you a real example of something that is going on right now,” Johnson offered about a bill he’s working on for the legislative session in 2018, stating that the information has not been made public as of yet.
Johnson said he was sent an article that revealed that thousands of child marriages occurred in the United States every year, where children as young as 10 and 11 years old are married off to men who are two or three times their age, often to cover a statutory rape or a forcible rape.
“You read something like that and people usually when they send something like that, will ask questions like, ‘Is this real? Is this really the law? Can you really do this?’” he explained. “And so the first step ends up being research. You go and you look into the law and see, ‘Is this true? Can 11-year-old girls marry in Texas? Is there a minimum age for marriage?’
He said the next step is to get the answers to questions like: What are the circumstances in which someone can be married without consent of a parent or without consent of a parent?
He went on to consider the many things that have age limits, such as obtaining a driver’s license before the age of 16 – even with parental consent – with the exception of a hardship license at the age of 15.
Johnson said it’s possible he may find out that there is no minimum age for children to get married in Texas with their parent’s permission. If that’s the case, the next step would be to determine how he feels about the issue.
“Do I like the idea that some parent who’s a member of some religious sect, who is brainwashed basically by their religious leader into thinking that the young girls in their sect are really there for the older men’s sake, and parents signing off on this is not a problem, they’ll just do it without thought? And that we have these large number of 10 and 11-year-old girls being married off with their parent’s consent to these 30-year-old men?” he asked. “How do I feel about that?”
Then he said he would then begin to talk to other people in the community about their feelings regarding the issue, including faith leaders, child welfare groups and other people who would have knowledge about child psychology. If he finds that they agree with his point of view, he creates a bill.
“At that point, I call up some attorneys at the capitol and say, ‘I want to write a bill that does x, y, z – that outlaws child marriage by raising the age for which a child can legally be married, even with their parent’s consent, to 16,’” he explained. “And at that point we get a draft of a bill and keep getting drafts until we’re comfortable with what it says. At that point I usually will bring in the stakeholders – people who are affected by the bill – and talk to them about ‘This is what I’m proposing to do.’ And show them the legislation … and try to get their buy-in.”
He said he looks for feedback from the group regarding being regulated in such a way and to what extent, but his goal is to get widespread buy-in, which means he may have to work on it until the vast majority, if not everyone, is in agreement.
“Because if you can get everybody who would normally oppose it to say, ‘I may not love it. I may not come in testify in favor of it, but I’m not going to show up and testify against it,’ then you have a really good chance of getting it done,” he stated.
If not, he said if the bill is one that he really believes in, he has to just go on and try to push it through. And if the bill does receive testimony against it, he said it then becomes a matter of who would the committee hearing the testimony side with – him and those who are for the bill or those who oppose the bill – and then you have to see if you can get the committee to agree with you and overcome your opposition, as opposed to winning over your opposition.
“And then if it works and the committee votes it out, then you’re at the mercy of the Calendars Committee … that determines when a bill goes to the floor to be voted on. And then when you’re on the House floor, it’s the same thing – try to convince more of your colleagues to go with what you are saying should happen, as opposed to whoever may be opposed to it. But if there’s not one opposed to it, that’s usually a pretty strong selling point on the House floor.”
Johnson indicated that the process of creating a bill was one of the more effective tools of the government; however, the process of getting a bill through legislation is flawed. Along with a few important bills that were passed, there were many that did not get passed and many that passed but were not necessarily good bills, according to Johnson. In the next issue, he will explain what went wrong during the last session and why.