State Sen. Jose Rodriguez Details legislative hopes and challenges

Story by David Crowder El Paso Inc. staff writer

The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature is up and running again for a 140-day session that promises to be contentious as always, and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez leads El Paso’s six-member, Democratic delegation into the fight.

He carries an ambitiously liberal legislative agenda, looking to repair the deep cuts in education, Medicaid and other social programs imposed in the cash-strapped 2011 session.

The El Paso delegation’s top priority is to see El Paso’s fledgling Paul Foster School of Medicine designated as an independent health sciences center.

Then comes the medical school’s third building, a $50 million project El Paso didn’t get in 2011, and a new research center at UTEP.

The good news is rising sales tax revenues and record oil and gas royalties are expected to give the state the biggest surplus it has seen in years.

But Gov. Rick Perry, who is talking about seeking re-election in 2014 and another presidential bid in 2016, wants to leave his conservative mark on Texas again.

And Lt. Gov David Dewhurst has said he intends to help make Texas “the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country.”

They’ll have no shortage of allies in a Legislature sprinkled with ultra-conservative Tea Party loyalists among the 95 Republicans in the 150-member House and the 19 Republicans controlling the 31-member Senate.

The two-term, junior senator from El Paso wishes things were different.

“How can you be a state that prides itself, as the governor points out all the time, on attracting more people and yet not provide sufficient funding for the growth in population, education and health care needs? It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

But Rodriguez plans on introducing 50 to 60 bills this session, many of them local, and is optimistic after having gotten 41 through in his freshman term two years ago.

A few days before the session opened last week, he met with El Paso Inc. and discussed his objectives, which include passage of a package of five reform bills arising from the cheating scandal in the El Paso Independent School District.

Q: Briefly, what are the major budgetary and legislative issues going to be in this session?

Similar to the last session, the top issue again is going to be the budget and how we’re going to balance it. Some of us argued in the last session and will be arguing in this session that we ought to take a fair and balanced approach to balancing the budget. That means we’re going to have to raise revenue along with making cuts and not just balance the budget by cutting as we did with education, health care and other programs last time.

The more salient feature of this debate is going to be the fact that we do have some revenue. We have record revenues in oil and gas and the sales tax and other areas. Everybody says there’s money available. The question is are we going to use that money, for example, to restore cuts to education, to make some money available to key programs in the health arena that are important to us or are we going to continue taking the Tea Party approach, which is “let’s shrink government as much as possible, cut everywhere we can, not raise any revenue and don’t spend any money”?

Q: Back in the good old days, there was money from royalties on oil and gas sales on state land. The loss of much of that money is what has to a large extent crippled state government. But now, with fracking around the state, revenues from natural gas production have soared. What kind of surplus are we looking at?

It’s hard to say. The comptroller is going to give us her estimate on revenues on the first day of the session, but we have a past history of the state comptroller underestimating the revenues available to us. She underestimated the revenues by $3.4 billion last time.

Q: So, you have that plus new revenues available for the next biennium. What is she saying the number is at this point?

Ballpark figure, I think we’re looking at $7 to $8 billion in surplus.

Q: Will the Legislature use that to restore the education budget?

Well, that’s the question. We need to put enough money in there to hire more teachers to address enrollment growth, which is estimated at 80,000 new students a year. Yet, in the last session we did not fund enrollment growth in education for the first time in the last 50 years.

We didn’t fund enrollment growth in the Children’s Health Insurance Program either, or the Medicaid Program. We underfunded Medicaid by $4.7 billion. So, the first order of business is going to be to use some of this revenue we have from oil and gas and the sales tax to immediately pass a supplemental appropriation’s bill that will cover the $4.7 million for Medicaid so we don’t run out of money in March.

The next areas will be issues like restoring funding for pre-kindergarten programs. I don’t know if the climate will be conducive for that. We didn’t fund pre-k this last session. We cut funding for Communities In Schools, the leading dropout prevention program in the state.

Here’s the irony in my view. In order for this state to be competitive – as demographer, Steve Murdock has told us again and again – we need to properly educate the growing Latino population. We also need to have a healthy workforce. You cannot underfund education and healthcare to the point that it endangers the economic future of this state.

Q: Which way is Gov. Perry looking?

The indications from the governor, along with several others, are that even though we have record revenues, we should not be spending our money on education or healthcare. He says we should be concerned about reverting back to a recession. I think it’s just an excuse for not spending on growth in this state. How can you be a state that prides itself, as the governor points out all the time, on attracting more people all the time and yet not provide sufficient funding for the growth in population, education and health care needs? It just doesn’t make sense.

Q: What is the delegation’s top priority?

For this delegation, the priority is to pass legislation, and I have introduced that bill on the Senate side, designating the Paul Foster School of Medicine as a health sciences center. That will give us more independence, more autonomy. It gives us our own president, our own separate funding stream that’s more secure as opposed to just trying to go for special line-item funding every session, which is what we do now.

Q: Out of the Texas Tech’s budget.

Right, out of Texas Tech. That is No. 1.

Q: How does that look?

Tech is supporting us and Chancellor Hance is very much behind the bill as President Mitchell of the Texas Tech University Health Science Center of Lubbock and our local business community. I’ve already started to do some ground work in the Legislature to see how people will react to this legislature. We’ve made it clear we are not asking for new money to get this designation so there is no fiscal impact.

The state has already invested in three years’ worth of medical education here on the border. The next step is to designate us as a health science center so that we can help develop our Medical Center of the Americas, provide access to health care, and stimulate our economy, good paying jobs and all the good things that come with that.

Q: What about the third building for the medical school that El Paso didn’t get in the last session?

Next is the third building and that goes with tuition revenue bonds, the funding stream for that and for UTEP to get its own research and multi-disciplinary building. That’s part of their goal to become a research university and reach Tier 1 status.

In order to attract funds and grants from, say, the National Institutes of Health for the nursing school and other academic programs, you have to have laboratory space for researchers and professors who do that kind of work. If you do not have that space, you are not competitive for those grants.

Q: How much are you talking about?

Over at the medical school, you’re looking at approximately $50 million.

Q: Is there any reason it wouldn’t go through?

It will depend on whether the Legislature is open to issue tuition revenue bonds. They didn’t the last time or the session before that either. Traditionally, the Legislature issues bonds every other session, every four years.

Q: The tallest controversy in El Paso these days is over the fate of the two Asarco towers. Some people want one or both preserved, but the trustee handling the sale of the property plans to go ahead with their demolition.

Do you plan any action to delay the demolition? And might there be any state money available for preserving, say, the tallest tower as a historic landmark?

Let me start by saying I fully support preserving the towers for all the reasons that have been articulated by the Save the Stacks group. I think Asarco is part of our heritage. I think it potentially could bring economic benefit to us in tourism and economic development. Other communities have preserved old industrial stacks like ours.

The novel thing I understand about ours is it’s the tallest one in the country. So, there’s something to be said for that structured being right on the Rio Grande and the place where Pancho Villa worked. He actually worked at Asarco. President Madero, Mexico’s first president, had a little office right across the river from Asarco.

There is no question there is tremendous history and attraction.

Q: Is there anything you can do?

I have been meeting with the Save the Stacks organization and with Mr. Puga, the trustee, and have let him know in five or six meetings with him that I strongly support maintaining the stacks. After looking at the language in the bankruptcy settlement trust agreement, I think he has the discretion to turn over that property to a public entity like the city. I don’t believe, contrary to what he says, that he has to charge the city, to sell it to the city.

I think if it’s for a public purpose, then he can do that.

Q: The city hasn’t been too anxious to take it though. They’re keeping their arms’ distance from it.

As Mayor Cook said recently in a conference call we had with Mr. Puga, myself and Congressman O’Rourke and Steve Ortega, the reason the City Council voted the way it did is because “You were saying to us that we were going to have to cough up $10 million to purchase it.”

In this discussion, some of us were pointing out that in our view, legally, he doesn’t have to sell it to the city. Where we left it was we would schedule a meeting with the representatives of the (Texas) attorney general’s office to look at the legal issues involved here because some of us lawyers disagree with his lawyers’ interpretation of the agreement.

You asked if there are any monies available. I have met with the Texas Environmental Quality Commission and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to inquire about whether there might be any funding available down the line, should we preserve the stacks, to develop the property around there. The answer was there may and there may not be.

Q: Are you offering legislation regarding the El Paso school district?

I’ve filed five local bills regarding the district to address issues that arose from the cheating scandal in response to the changing of grades, for example. I have a bill to require school districts to provide an opportunity for students who have been adversely affected to help them get into GED programs or tutoring or other means of allowing them to get their high school education and make them whole as much as possible.

Another one is to bring school board members under the state removal statute so if they engage in misconduct or fail to perform their duties, they can be removed from office, like other elected officials.

The third one is to give the Texas Education Agency broader subpoena power because I found out their powers were limited and they couldn’t get the kinds of records they needed.

Another one, a whistleblower bill, that would allow school district employees to make complaints about manipulation of data and cheating without being retaliated against.

And the fifth one would make the manipulation of data as was done here with the grades of these students a third-degree felony.

Q: What are your thoughts about the state’s standardized testing system to measure the performance of students and schools?

I think No. 1 the standardized tests have become the end-all and be-all to measure student performance as well as teacher performance. I think it’s just wrong-headed policy. There’s no question in my mind that tests do have a role. We all went through school taking some standard tests. But we have come to the point where, to repeat the cliché, teachers teach to the test and students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for and taking those tests.

It seems we’re no longer teaching students to learn as opposed to teaching them to learn how to pass those tests. We have got to get away from that and go back to considering a variety of measurements that could give us a good indicator of student performance.

Q: Like what?

Tests are one. Another is teacher assessments of students throughout the year. Who is better position to assess students than the teacher who’s with them year-around? There are other factors that should be taken into consideration than just test scores.

Q: Do you see a change coming this session?

I think the mood in the state has changed. Parents, teachers, educators and now some people in the business community are realizing we went too far by relying on standardized tests.

Do I think the Legislature will look at this differently this session? Yes, they’re already looking at it differently. The announcement has been made that we’re no longer going to count that 15 percent from the standardized STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test towards your final grade. So that’s a step back.

Q: The city has gone to court to challenge the Texas attorney general legal opinion that El Paso City Council members and city executives must turn over any private email dealing with public business in response to the Public Information Act request by Stephanie Townsend Allala and her Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire. The city alleges that the attorney general has effectively changed the definition of a public record to include private correspondence.

Will you be carrying or supporting legislation to refine the definition of public records?

That is involving official governmental business. My inclination as the former county attorney, and we used to interpret the act all the time, is to support that. I have no problem with the AG’s interpretation at all.

Q: Wouldn’t it effectively make the government the custodian of your personal Yahoo, Gmail, SBC or ATT email accounts? So at any time, someone can ask for email you wrote while away from the office that may have addressed a public issue. If the AG opinion stands, does that mean elected officials will pretty much have to give the government full access to their private email accounts and even their text messages?

That’s the direction we are headed in with these interpretations. Generally, I support open government and making your official records all public as a general principal. But with new technologies, we are now running into the kinds of issues that you just described where you get into the personal sphere. Where do you draw the line in terms of your own privacy?

I’m in support of the general principle of openness and the fact that if you’re using state equipment, obviously you have to make it public. If you’re using your private technology, then generally I would think that if you’re using your private email but engaging in a lot of state business in it, then that should also be open. That’s what I think the AG’s saying.

You’re taking it a step further in terms of privacy interests. As a lawyer, I’m very keenly interested in that.

Q: The question is how big will the government have to get to monitor and corral all that.

I think we are headed in the direction of some major reassessments of our open records laws across the country, not just here in Texas, as a result of these issues we’re talking about.

Q: Are you interested in legislation to refine the definition of public records? The city contends that the AG opinion, without a court decision, effectively alters the wording of law that is supposed to be written by the Legislature. It seems this would beg for legislative action one way or the other.

Apart from what I’ve read, I haven’t talked to anybody in the city about it or the attorney general’s office.

Q: One hot topic last year was the state’s Competitive Knowledge Fund from which UTEP and UT Arlington were excluded. How important is this and will you try to address it this session?

Absolutely. My intentions are to continue working with my colleagues, particularly Sen. Robert Duncan to ensure that UTEP and UT Arlington participate in that funding. Both have met all the qualifications. That funding is important, again, to our quest to become a Tier 1 research university because that funding is specifically to help hire professors who conduct research and deal with the grant funding we get and develop the academic programs we are working on at UTEP.

Q: What is Gov. Perry planning to do about Obamacare?

We certainly hope the Legislature will address it. Perry’s position is to not expand Medicaid and to fight Obamacare every step of the way. They lost at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Like other states in Republican control, Texas is trying to put barriers in the way of implementing specific provisions of the statute. He doesn’t want to set up a state insurance exchange, which would be the market place for people to find insurance.

What’s been published is that if we don’t do that, we will not be insuring 1.5 million Texans and 135,000 El Pasoans who would qualify under the expansion. The other thing is we’re going to lose out on billions of federal dollars. All of that is true, and it’s very hard to stomach as taxpayers in a community like El Paso with a low tax base and the highest rate of uninsured residents in the state and, some would say, in the country not using our own federal tax money that we paid in to provide health coverage for our population.

We need a healthy workforce. It doesn’t do any good for a corporation to be able to find an abundant workforce if it isn’t healthy and can’t get the job done.

Q: You have had your own citizen advisory committees working on issues and possible legislation. Would you tell us about those committees and why you formed them?

I formed the committees because I thought it was important for this office to have input from the citizens, a sounding board for issues important to El Paso. Coming up on the session, part of their come up with legislation they felt it was important to support or produce. Their task is also to advise me on legislative issues. I’ve got committees on public education, higher ed, renewable energy, jobs, veterans and health care. All these committees met year-round and worked on different projects. For instance, the health care committee not only made recommendations regarding health-care issues for the next session, they also sponsored a very successful bi-national health-care conference, Mano y Corazon, that had 400 to 500 nurses and health-care workers, doctors and social workers.

Q: How many people are involved in those committees?

There are 325.

Q: What legislation do you plan to introduce, support or oppose as a result of the committees’ work.

They were very interested in addressing the health-professional shortages, which ties into designating our medical school as a health science center and to our nursing schools. Studies indicate that people who attend medical school in a particular region tend to stay there.

Q: Anything new that we haven’t heard about?

Sure, the environmental and renewable energy committee for instance came up with encouraging the state to allow solar energy credits for school districts so they can install solar panels on play grounds during summer when they’re mainly closed and the sun is the hottest.

There is information on our website about each one of the committees and what they came up with.

Q: What other legislation will you be introducing?

I’m looking at 50 to 60 more pieces of legislation from environment, to education to health care. I have a bill that would set up the framework for expanding Medicaid, for example.

Q: Typically, a relatively small percentage of bills that are introduced will pass in a session. How many do you expect to pass?

Last session, I introduced 71 bills and I passed 41. Not a bad percentage. So I’m not going to be holding back in introducing bills.

Q: Texas Land Commission twice leased very large properties to Jobe Materials for quarrying operations that in the line of city development on the northwest side of the city and to the east. The eastside property actually violates city zoning restrictions.

Are you interested in addressing this with a bill that would require them to comply with city zoning regulations?

No, I don’t have a bill, but I would be sympathetic to that kind of legislation. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jobe ought to be complying with the city’s zoning requirements and city ordinances.

I felt that way when I was county attorney and they had that operation out there by Beaumont Hospital whenever there were water discharges and complaints from people.

Q: Are they claiming they are exempt because it’s state land?

I understand that from the article I read in the newspaper that this was state land and that they may not be subject to the city. I have not talked with anybody with the city about that yet. I certainly would like to look more into that.

We’ve got to support businesses that create a bigger tax base that provide jobs and stimulate our economy, like Jobe. On the other hand, you have to provide some balance. But if Jobe is going to be operating in the middle of the city well within the city limits and creating some environmental issues and not complying with city ordinances, then I have a problem with that. That needs to be addressed.

I haven’t had a conversation with Mr. Jobe in a long time, but I used to have those conversations when he was operating the quarry here.

Q: Will the Legislature be gunning for the Texas Ethics Commission again to curtail its ability to fine and punish lawmakers and elected officials for misusing campaign contributions?

I think that there’s a lot of folks in the Legislature that don’t want us to have an agency that should be much more aggressive in my view in monitoring and, frankly, sanctioning legislators that aren’t comply with existing state law. If anything we need to expand state law to cover a lot of the issues that fall through the cracks because we don’t have enough guidance from the Ethics Commission.

I would support the Texas Ethics Commission having more authority and stronger powers to monitor the activities of legislators.

Q: The Travis County district attorney’s office has served for years as a state prosecutor on ethics and white collar crime involving government officials because the AG’s office has no criminal law enforcement responsibility. I understand some in the Legislature want to clip the DA’s wings and remove from them the Public Integrity Unit. Is that true?

That is true. I don’t support that.

It is.

Q: Could it make it through the Legislature this session?

It could, given the composition of the members coming in. I happen think that unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office has done a tremendous service to the public in going after corrupt officials and dealing with integrity issues across the state. I think that’s the kind of enforcement that wed need. If it’s not the DA’s office that has that authority, then the Texas Ethics Commission ought to have that authority.

I wouldn’t like to see the AG handle that kind of work. I’d rather have a more independent agency doing it.