Day: <span>May 24, 2021</span>

Public safety, democracy at risk as legislative session winds to a close

Public health and safety, education and the protection of democracy are three of the basic responsibilities of our system of state and local government. But the governor, the lieutenant governor and their allies in the Legislature are tossing those responsibilities out the window.

Barring an unforeseen change in direction in the next few days, this legislative session will end up as the most insensitive, reckless and undemocratic session in many years.

Public health and safety? After lawmakers have gone home, Texas will remain the state with the highest number (more than 5 million) and highest percentage (almost one-fifth) of residents without health insurance because the governor and legislative leaders are sticking to their misguided and short-sighted refusal to expand Medicaid coverage for the poorest Texans, including thousands of school children.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s actions forcing schools to open prematurely in the middle of a deadly pandemic, ignoring the pleas of school employees for vaccine priority until President Biden ordered it and banning mask mandates were insensitive. His endorsement of a proposed law to allow almost any nincompoop to carry around a loaded gun without benefit of basic firearms safety training is tragic. Barring a miracle, that proposal will pass.

Public education? The state finally started releasing $11.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds to school districts, but only after educators were unified in demanding it. Another almost-$7 billion is available, but the federal government hasn’t released it yet, partly because the Legislature has refused to add another $1.2 billion to the higher education budget, which the federal government requires and our universities need. Instead, the state is seeking a waiver to avoid that expenditure. And there is no assurance that state leaders, if Texas gets the additional $7 billion, won’t try to divert it from public education, despite what Congress intended.

Meanwhile, legislation to make it easier for corporate charter chains, many based outside Texas, to siphon millions of additional tax dollars from under-funded public schools has been advancing in the statehouse.

Democracy? Legislation, approved in separate bills by the House and the Senate, to discourage teachers from teaching about racial injustices, past and present, and discourage the discussion of current events and political activity by students is both a denial of history and an effort to curb democratic participation. It is a disservice to all school children and a slap in the face for the children of color, who make up a majority of students in Texas public schools.

It also is a blatant attempt to discredit the people of color who are making their voices heard and seeking redress for a number of legitimate, festering grievances that should have been addressed years ago. These include unequal economic opportunities, stemming from a history of systemic racism, and the unnecessary and tragic use of deadly force by police against unarmed Black people.

Politicians used to praise local control and the virtues of the governments closest to the people. But the politicians now in charge at the state Capitol are continuing their campaign to curb the independence of elected officials – and the voters who elected them – in cities and counties that have enacted programs and policies that the powers in Austin oppose. This is another assault on democracy.

But the worst assault is legislation, pushed by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the legislative majority, to make it more difficult for many Texans to vote. They are claiming a need to strengthen election “integrity,” when, in truth, there have been very few documented cases of voter fraud in Texas. And Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

The bill, instead, is intended to appease those voters who believe or want to believe Donald Trump’s dangerous lie that the recent presidential election was “stolen.” It also is intended to make it more difficult for people who oppose the dangerous and shortsighted policies discussed above to vote.

That’s not election integrity. That’s an attack on democracy.

Clay Robison