By Robert Nichols
With the beginning of the 87th legislative session fast approaching, my staff and I are gearing up to do the work of the people at your Texas Capitol. Though this session will certainly look different than past sessions, we are prepared to do this important work on behalf of Senate District 3.
Here are five things happening around your state:
1. FCC announces $362 million in funds to expand broadband in rural Texas
The Federal Communications Commission announced last month a $362 million investment in expanding rural broadband in Texas. Of those funds, over $138 million has been allocated to businesses in Senate District 3. Jasper County received the most funds of any county in the state at over $13 million. These funds are intended to support businesses who are expanding broadband access and infrastructure in their communities. The goal is to connect an estimated 670,000 Texans to high-speed internet over the next 10 years.
2. HHSC launches 24/7 mental health support line to help Texans during COVID-19 pandemic
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission launched a 24/7 statewide mental health support line specifically designed to support Texans experiencing anxiety, stress or emotional challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Counseling services are absolutely confidential and free of charge to anyone who calls. The support line is being operated by the Harris Center for Mental Health and offers trauma-informed support and psychological first aid. It’s important to recognize the toll the pandemic has taken on Texans mental health and offer support in any way we can. The toll-free number is 833-986-1919.
3. Lt. Governor Patrick announces guidelines for opening day of the 87th legislative session
Following the Governor’s announcement re-opening the Texas State Capitol to the public, the Lt. Governor announced guidelines for the Texas Senate’s opening day ceremonies. Each Senator will receive a COVID-19 test before entering the Capitol. Guests of each senator will also be tested. No personal data will be collected or kept regarding the results. The testing is free and will yield results in 15 minutes. The day itself will also look different, with a shorter ceremony and less time gathered in the chamber. The senators have agreed to reduce ceremonial events and gatherings this session to decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19. In the Capitol building itself, masks will be required in all public spaces. Fifteen-minute COVID-19 rapid testing will be offered outside of the building. If you’re planning to visit the Capitol during session this year, please call our office ahead of time to let us know you’re coming. Our Capitol office phone number is 512-463-0103.
4. Judicial Selection Commission releases report, recommendations
Last month the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection released its recommendations on changing the election system for judges in the state. In an 8-7 vote, the commission recommended the state end the current system of selecting judges via partisan elections. I was appointed to serve on the commission by the Lieutenant Governor and was one of the 7 members of the commission who voted against the recommendation to change the current method of electing judges in our state. I firmly believe that Texans should have the right to choose their judges and will protect my constituent’s right to do so. However, I did agree to consider raising qualifications for judges. Currently, Texas Supreme Court justices must be 35 years old, licensed to practice law in Texas, and have at least 10 years of legal experience. District court judges have no age requirement but are required to have been practicing in Texas for at least four years.
5. TEA announces a pause on A-F grading for school districts, campuses
In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Texas Education Agency announced it will pause A-F ratings for the 2020-2021 school year. The pandemic disrupted this school year in major ways, and pausing these ratings is the right thing to do. During my superintendent tour, this was brought up in every school district and with every superintendent I talked with. I’m glad to see TEA has listened to their input. The annual STAAR test will be conducted, however, as it’s an important baseline to determine where our students are and help them grow. For schools that use STAAR testing as part of teacher evaluations, TEA is offering flexibility to allow them to remove that component this year. These decisions will make it easier for teachers, superintendents, and all other support staff to focus on what is most important: educating Texas children.