From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
March 19, 1999
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senate Reaches Halfway Point of 76th Legislature

Dear Friends:

As we approach the halfway point of the 76th Legislative Session, I would like to take this opportunity to provide you an update on my key priorities for Texas.

Keeping Texas Southern University Independent and Strong Ensuring Texas Southern University remains independent and strong is one of my top priorities. As you know, TSU is under an April 1st deadline to demonstrate it has put its fiscal house in order. To ensure that our top officials have a true understanding of the improvements underway at TSU, earlier this month I invited Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry to join me on a tour of the university. In addition, I am working closely with Representative Garnet Coleman, the Legislative Black Caucus, Governor Bush, Lieutenant Governor Perry and other key lawmakers in support of the Millennium Plan that will ensure stability at Texas Southern University and builds on the progress of the last year.

While Texas Southern University has had its struggles, the school is clearly making demonstrable progress in reforming key management functions. Rolling TSU into another university will not be tolerated.

Strengthening our Public Schools
To strengthen our public schools, I have filed SB 1701, which will reduce the class size limit from 22 students per classroom to 17. Teachers cannot effectively teach, and students cannot effectively learn, in overcrowded classrooms. Studies in Tennessee and California have shown that students in small classes perform better, and behave better, than students learning in overcrowded classrooms, because teachers have more time to spend with each student. In addition, I have co-sponsored SB 1, a proposal to eliminate social promotion, which will ensure all children are getting the reading and writing skills they need to succeed by the end of the third grade.

Also, I am committed to ensuring competitive pay for Texas teachers. I have co-sponsored legislation, SB 1616, which will provide a 10 percent raise for most of our hard-working teachers. And I will work with my colleagues in the legislature to defeat any attempt to implement a risky voucher scheme in Texas.

Preparing Texas Families for College
To ensure Texas children have a real shot at a college education, I have offered SB 37, the Texas HOPE Scholarship plan. It will provide tuition and fees to students who have completed college preparatory courses and maintain a 2.5 GPA or better, and earn less than $25,000. It is based on a successful program in Georgia that provides scholarships to any student with a "B" average. In conjunction with HOPE, I have offered legislation, SB 237, which will require schools to begin college counseling in middle school, rather than high school, so that students and parents know all the opportunities they have, and the requirements they must meet, to get into college.

The Texas HOPE Scholarship plan could have the same impact for our children that the GI Bill had for our parents, and it could not be more needed. Now is the time to make a down-payment on our children's future by offering them a real shot at a college education.

Punishing and Preventing Hate Crimes
The brutal slaying of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper last year shows more must be done to punish and prevent hate crimes. Acts of such brutality do not just happen. The are the product of years of subtler acts of hatred that are often ignored until they explode. If we want to stop this cycle of violence before it begins, we must have a hate crimes law that sends a clear, sudden signal that crimes of hate will not be tolerated. To send that signal, I have filed SB 275, the James Byrd, Jr. Act, which will strengthen our current law by clarifying the definition of a hate crime, provide aid to small counties prosecuting hate murders, assign a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office as a hate crimes director, require greater hate crimes training for Texas law enforcement, and provide civil penalties for victims of hate crimes. Our friend, Representative Senfronia Thompson, is working in the House to pass this tough law.

Providing a Healthy Start to Texas Children
Today, 1.4 million Texas children -- 1-in-4 -- lack access to health insurance of any kind. Nearly 90 percent of these children are in families where at least one parent is working full-time. Studies show that kids without insurance struggle more in school and their parents struggle more at work. To combat this problem, on March 11, 1999, the Texas Senate passed SB 445, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which will provide health insurance for nearly 400,000 of uninsured Texas children. It is a strong beginning, but we need to do more. Under CHIP, Texas will receive $3 from the federal government for every $1 we spend. Funding for SB 445 will come out of the $17.3 billion tobacco settlement. CHIP will cover children ages 0-10 for families earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level (approximately $32,900 a year for a family of four) and covers kids ages 11-19 for families earning 150 percent of federal poverty level (roughly $25,200). That is not good enough. Thirty three states cover all children up to 200 percent, and others go much further. If we cannot find the will to invest in our children today, when times are good, when will we?

Providing a Meaningful Tax Cuts for Texas Families
To ensure hard-working families get tax relief, I have filed SB 441, a $250 million plan which will eliminate the sales tax on over-the-counter children's medicines and diapers, and create a nine-day tax holiday in August on shoes and clothing to help families save on back-to-school clothing for their children. Sales tax relief will help all Texans, but particularly those most in need. Today, our sales tax takes the most from those who can least afford it. Our state sales tax, when combined with local sales taxes, is one of the highest and most regressive in the nation. High sales taxes hit low income Texans the hardest, forcing our poorest citizens to pay up to six times more of their income in sales taxes than wealthier citizens. Eliminating taxes on essential daily items will mean a real tax cut for millions of hard-working Texans.

Attached is a list of my legislation. I hope you will review this packet of information on my legislative priorities and share your thoughts with me about the issues of importance to you.


Rodney Ellis