Ross Ramsey: Walk us through the legislative approach to the Coronavirus. What’s going to be on the front burner for you, and what is left for the federal government?
Senator West says one big focus will be the funding coming in from the federal government—the President is trying to get $1.9 trillion in relief—so there will be dollars coming in to the state, to county and city governments and to our school districts, which means there will be additional resources available in Texas. “We have to make sure we a have a robust infrastructure in place to ensure we have an equitable distribution program for the vaccine. We’re not going to have something going on in North Dallas that isn’t happening in South Dallas, as it relates to distribution. We’ve got to be very vigilant about that.”
He also says we’ve got to make certain that the 5 million Texans that are uninsured continue to look at getting insurance through the healthcare exchange —and that we have to take a serious look at how we go about expanding Medicaid in the state.
Ramsey: As you look at what the Legislature or State might be able to do with regard to the coronavirus, which part would you go at first?
Representative Anchía says the Session will be divided into two important facets: The first part of will focus on stability, making sure we have a competent distribution of the vaccine to get the virus under control. “Once we get the virus under control, I really do believe we’re going to see a J curve in the economy and we’re going to be well on our way to recovery.”
The recovery piece will occupy most of the attention the second part of session. To put it in context, this economic crisis has cost Americans four times more jobs lost than the Great Recession in 2008.
“We need to make sure as a Legislature, we put the tools in place so that cities, counties and the state can incent the type of economic growth that we’re going to need to get people back to work.”
Representative Leach notes the economic, educational and health care crisis presented by COVID-19 is going to occupy most of the Legislative Session, including some very serious discussions and perhaps debates about what we as a state have done right, what we’ve done wrong, things that we need to do better.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to do everything we can to lock arms to get the state open and running again to take care of people that need a safety net and get people back on their feet to the extent we are able.” The teachers, police officers, first responders and grocery store workers “need us to support them, to free them to do what they do best and get back to work in a safe and healthy way.”
Then, we dove into education, focusing on challenges—and legislative approaches to those challenges—like school closures, broadband accessibility and learning loss.
Representative Leach says the legislative approach should be to “come alongside our teachers and parents and students themselves and empower them to do what they do best.” He emphasizes that we need to make sure that every single student—those who have access to broadband, those who have a supportive home environment, whose parents are home and engaged and very importantly, those who do not have those blessings—are supported to the extent we are able, so they don’t fall through the cracks.
Senator West says we’ve got to follow the science and make certain we have our educators in the room in order to come up with solutions. “And we’ve got to quit playing games with broadband…The digital divide has manifested itself more than ever during this pandemic. As opposed to just continuing to talk about a solution, this session, we need to actually come up with a solution.”
He also brings up HB 3 (passed during the last legislative session), saying we have to make certain that we fund the changes we made—and that it becomes a priority of the legislature. And finally, he notes that we have to make certain that young people who have lost time are put in a position where they can get back on task. For example, we could use the TAAS test as a diagnostic tool (it wouldn’t count officially) to understand where our students are—and how far we have to go to catch up.
Ramsey: Can you put the schools back together if you don’t also solve the health challenge? And what is the legislative duty there?
Representative Anchía says he has been part of a bipartisan group that has asked to open up the schedule for vaccinations to include essential workers, especially teachers and other school personnel. Our teachers are out in the community spread.
“The only way we get this economy back, and the only way we get people back to work—the percentage of women who have had to drop out of the workforce as a result of the pandemic is staggering—is to [open up vaccine schedules]. Our schools have to be a priority.”
Keeping education on track has been a daunting task for schools:
- 30% of all houses in the state don’t have an adequate device for online learning.
- 500,000 don’t have access to broadband, particularly in rural areas.
- 10% of students who started virtual school are longer engaging in virtual school today.
With health playing such a central role in the overall health of our education and our economy, Ramsey pivoted back health care. Texas has the highest number of uninsured—we are ranked #50 out of the 50 states—and for years, has avoided expansion of Medicaid.
Ramsey: Is this a session where Medicare expansion will actually happen, or at least get a serious discussion?
Senator West notes that there’s been increasing willingness for conversation among his Republican colleagues about Medicaid and about pilot programs we can look, at, if not the full expansion.
“The reality is, we need expansion of medical care for people in the state of Texas. There are over 5 million people without that. And we know that if we create that expansion in coverage, it also creates employment opportunities.”
Representative Goldman believes a discussion will be had, but whether we do it is a whole different story. “Personally, I don’t think a full-fledges Medicaid expansion will happen, but I do believe we will do something different this session than we ever have before. We have to. Health care in our state is one of the number one issues—and the price keeps going up.”
Noting how Texas has always been unique, he believes we’re going come together and have a “Texas solution.” “If there needs to be a pilot program, we’ll do that. There’s no doubt there are people that have to have access to health care and we have to get them that access.”
Representative Anchía says “We can call it Medicaid expansion, we can call it a ‘Texas Solution’, we can call it ‘Booga Booga’ for all I care. We need to get more access to health care for Texans.” We are 50th out of 50 states in terms of people who have access and “the health outcomes are terrible.” He notes that we are the tenth largest economy in the world and spend a lot of money on health care, yet our outcomes are some of the worst in the Western Hemisphere, including when it comes to maternal mortality and morbidity.
The two largest line items in the budget are education and health care. “The only way we keep our promises to our teachers, parents and students on HB 3, where we infused billions of dollars of new money into the system, is if we don’t cut that system. And the only way we don’t cut education is if we draw down federal money for health care.”
Ramsey: When you talk to doctors and hospital people in your district, what are they asking you for in terms of what the Legislature might do?
Representative Leach says hospital CEOs and doctors have very real concerns about bed, ventilator, and PPE capacity as well as the public policy decisions that impact those things. He also notes that they are largely concerned with not just affordability and accessibility, but quality of care.
He emphasizes that we have to come together at the table to figure out the real solutions that will “keep Texans free and make health care more affordable and accessible in every corner of the state. That’s the real goal.”
Ramsey: What will the legislative response to the George Floyd killing?
Senator West hopes they will respond to it by making sure we have accountability and reforms. “I think we can all agree that there needs to be accountability. The question is, how does that accountability manifest itself in terms of policy?” The George Floyd Act speaks to issues such as limitations related to liability, training and doing away with chokeholds, many of which “some of the law enforcement groups agree should be done.”
Senator West says he plans to get as much input as possible from his colleagues to get a bill named after George Floyd—and get it passed. He notes that this will be a big task, particularly when it comes to issues like the use of deadly force, where there is one law about when deadly force can be utilized, but several different policies by police departments. “It seems to me, there should be one policy in this state, that all police departments should be adopting concerning the use of deadly force.”
Ramsey: Beyond the topics we’ve discussed, in a few words, what will you be working on this session?
Representative Goldman: Budget, redistricting, solving the health care challenge
Senator West: Social justice, expansion of health care and transportation (electric vehicles)
Representative Leach: Police reform, criminal justice reform and civil justice reform—ensuring the courts remain open
Representative Anchía: Economic development, vaccine rollout, unlocking capital to drive investment in underinvested areas
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This article was published on: Feb 2, 2021