Sen. Lucio Addresses Children in Legislature
The 79th legislative session officially got underway on Jan. 11. As I like to tell my staff, "Session begins like a locomotive, slowly at first, picking up steam at every turn, and roaring through at the end."
There will be plenty of turns to take and pitfalls to avoid. It appears that every biennium, we face a growing population with greater needs and a dwindling budget. This growing population includes children.
Despite projections of a surplus, if the extent of the services needed were to be fully met, we might still face a limited budget and perhaps even a shortfall when trying to restore services slashed last session, especially to children.
In 2003, funding was cut to almost 150,000 children who were on CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program). These cuts were especially hurtful, since Texas ranks last in the nation in the percentage of uninsured children.
CHIP allows working families who struggle economically but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid the ability to afford private health insurance.
The cuts, which I opposed, are now forcing parents to take their sick and injured children to emergency rooms at a much higher cost to cities, counties and of course, the taxpayer. This also places the children at higher risk since the illnesses or injuries are usually dire by the time the child is seen in the ER.
For the reasons I stated, we must restore CHIP funding so that sick children do not get sicker, or worse, die because they had to wait for emergency care.
Another area that needs additional funding is the Child Protective Services (CPS). I fully support Gov. Rick Perry's request to the Legislature to appropriate $250 million in new money, which will allow CPS to hire more than 800 new investigators and hundreds of clerical and support staff and provide for pay raises.
Lowering caseloads will result in faster and more accurate responses to situations where the welfare or life of a child is in danger.
Another challenge we must resolve is how to fund schools equitably, while relieving the taxpayer of the property tax burden. The public school finance issue looms heavily over our heads, and my key position is that poor school districts receive equal funding so that every child in Texas is given the opportunity to succeed academically.
Funds are needed for materials and supplies, for recruiting and retaining qualified teachers in their fields, and for modern school facilities to be equipped with up-to-date learning tools such as computers.
For years I have rallied for state funding for instructional facilities, which will help school districts build new and modern schools for our growing population of students and reduce the number of portable and temporary buildings. Although such environments are more conducive to student learning, new funding for the Instructional Facilities Allotment program has diminished over the years.
This session, I hope to make facilities funding a reality by asking the Legislature to invest a minimum of $150 million per biennium for this program, which benefits low-wealth school districts, such as those in South Texas.
Since most of our legislative issues, if not all, either directly or indirectly affect our children, the decisions we make this session will determine the world we create for them.
That world should include proper eating habits, sufficient physical activity and proper weight management. Unfortunately, Texas has some of the heaviest children in the nation, who also have one of the highest rates of diabetes. There continues to be an increase of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases among our youngsters, so we must direct great effort to combat this problem.
This session, I want to build on the efforts of the Joint Interim Committee on Nutrition and Health in Public Schools that I chaired. For example, we need to help school cafeterias to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, while teaching children to learn to enjoy eating them.
I also want to ensure that every school district has a fully-functional School Health Advisory Council or SHAC (independent organization that advises school districts on implementing and improving health programs addressing health, nutrition and physical fitness).
Children should also have greater access to school counselors, especially during difficult periods in their lives. I want to implement a policy that will provide school counselors a better balance between the time they spend administering assessment tests and that counseling children.
This session we will address a myriad of issues affecting children, including car and school bus safety, child support, juvenile delinquency, and even privacy (public education). However, a child who is healthy, well-taught and in a safe, nurturing environment has the greatest chance to succeed as an individual and as a contributing member of society. This, then, should be our ultimate goal. It is certainly mine.
As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 or Weslaco at 956-968-9927. Also, visit my website at the Official Texas Senate Home Page, http://www.senate.state.tx.us/.