Rep. Eddie Rodriguez’ 83rd Session Re-Cap

“President Johnson once noted, ‘There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.’ When the Legislature convened in January, it faced the daunting task of tackling the many challenges facing our state. I worked with Republicans and Democrats to further the interests of our community and our state by authoring and sponsoring many bipartisan bills that prioritized good policy ahead of party politics. My agenda this session included fighting to restore the dollars that were cut to public education, maintaining local control to city and county governments, easing tax burdens on urban farms and community gardens, protecting workers’ wages, and other important issues. This legislative review highlights some of my more significant legislative successes.”

 

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEXAS KIDS

During the last interim, I was selected to serve on the House Interim Committee on Manufacturing and was appointed by Chairman Jim Murphy (R-Houston) to chair the Subcommittee on Workforce. In this role, I was tasked with addressing one of the state’s most critical needs: building a skilled workforce to meet the demands of Texas businesses. My committee toured the state and met with representatives from all of the major industries, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), and many other stakeholders. Repeatedly, I heard the same message from all of these stakeholders. Texas industries are importing workers from other states and countries because we simply do not have the trained workforce to meet our demand in Texas for these well-paying and high-skilled jobs. I entered this session with the goal of addressing our workforce needs and giving our Texas students more opportunities to prepare for both college and high-paying jobs after graduation.

My vision was to create a dual path system in public high schools to allow students to graduate with an industry recognized certification in addition to a high school diploma, if a student chooses to pursue such a plan. Texas colleges embraced the idea and Texas businesses rallied behind it. I filed legislation that would require TEA to work with local junior colleges, TWC, THECB, and industry representatives to implement curricula that would allow students to earn high-paying jobs right out of high school. While my bill did not make it across the finish line this session, I added language to HB 5, which laid the foundation for my model.

HOUSE BILL 5

HB 5 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) is considered by most Democrats and Republicans alike to be a historic piece of education reform. I was honored to have been selected as a member of the conference committee that negotiated the final version of this bill. By putting policy before politics, we were able to work together to pass a bill that will positively transform our public schools. This bill reduces the number of high-stakes exams from the current 15 to 5 needed to graduate and creates curriculum paths more relevant to the real world. Now, our high school students will be better prepared for college or to enter the workforce.

I authored two amendments to HB 5. My first amendment requires all students to have a personal graduation plan developed with their parents and local educators that promotes college and workforce readiness. The personal graduation plan will give students and parents an opportunity to discuss the multiple options that students have to promote college and workforce readiness, career placement and advancement, and facilitate the student’s transition from secondary to postsecondary education. This will help provide students the drive to continue through high school and know what options are available to them after graduation. My second amendment directs districts to partner with higher education institutions to provide developmental education courses during their senior year in Math and English for college-bound students not demonstrating college readiness at the end of grade 11. This will allow our students to save money once they enter college by taking developmental education courses while they are in high school if they are not yet college-ready. These provisions will open doors for graduates to get high-paying jobs or attend college when they otherwise may not have.

HOUSE BILL 296 / SENATE BILL 376

Too many children go to school hungry every day in Texas. Eating breakfast can boost academic performance and create a better learning environment for our kids. I passed the School Breakfast Bill, SB 376 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), which will provide free breakfast for all students at schools where 80 percent of the students already qualify for free or reduced price meals. There is no cost to the state because the program leverages existing federal funds that are already provided to schools through the national School Breakfast Program. With the passage of this bill, the breakfast program becomes more cost effective for schools because schools are receiving additional funding per meal and are serving more meals. Ultimately, this bill makes it easier for schools to administer the School Breakfast Program. I worked hard on this bill to make sure students start their school day with a healthy breakfast. This is a big step toward ending childhood hunger. It’s taken a couple of sessions, but I’m excited to have finally gotten this one across the finish line.

HOUSE BILL 617

I passed HB 617 to provide employment transition services for students in special education programs. I worked closely with Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Carrollton) on moving this legislation forward. The unemployment rate for adults with disabilities is staggering, and Texas can do more to provide these individuals with employment services and other resources, which allow them to obtain and maintain meaningful employment. Parents of students with disabilities have struggled with locating information on the options available for their children after they complete high school. This bill requires the TEA to develop a transition and employment guide for students enrolled in special education programs and their families on the statewide services and programs available for people with disabilities. This bilingual guide will provide specific information on employment services, health and human services available to disabled adults, opportunities for postsecondary education and self-advocacy programs, and other resources. This guide will provide much needed information to help schools, parents, and students plan for their transition out of high school and into the next chapter of their lives. Families will now be able to go to one place online to find information they need to make life decisions for their children.

PRESERVING AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Protecting affordable housing in Austin has been a priority of mine since before I was first elected to the Legislature more than 10 years ago. District 51 is among the areas most threatened by a lack of affordable homes for families. I am a resident of East Austin, and I’ve seen the changes first hand to our community over the years caused by skyrocketing housing costs and property taxes that have forced many in East Austin out of their homes. I have worked diligently to preserve our neighborhoods, like East Cesar Chavez, Holly, and Govalle/Johnson Terrace, because of the affordable housing crisis Austin is facing. Homeowners are getting taxed out of their homes and renters are finding it more difficult to afford the rent. In 2005, I passed HB 525 that created Homestead Preservation Districts (HPDs) to help cities preserve existing affordable housing opportunities for homeowners. Preserving affordable housing in Austin, and keeping Austin the city that we know and love, is a top priority for me and I’ve addressed these challenges through my legislation, but there is still work to be done to protect our community.

HOUSE BILL 3350

I passed HB 3350, my Homestead Preservation District bill, building on other bills that I have passed in previous sessions: HB 525 in 2005, and HB 470 in 2007. My legislation gave the City of Austin three affordable housing tools – a land trust, a land bank, and a tax increment financing (TIF) zone – to mitigate the effects of rising property values and taxes on residents. In 2007, the City of Austin created a HPD through a city ordinance. The TIF encompasses the entire HPD and takes a percentage of the increase in taxable value from an area and dedicates that revenue toward providing new affordable housing and preserving current affordable housing. HB 3350 allows the City of Austin to expand the geographic scope of neighborhoods eligible for a homestead district. This bill extends homestead preservation districts to cover the preservation of affordable rental housing. This provides our community with important new ways of addressing our affordable housing crisis and the needs of low-income families across our community. Now, the City of Austin can move forward with their plans to fund the HPD to preserve existing affordable housing opportunities for homeowners and enhance the viability of homeownership for low- and moderate-income residents in East Austin and neighborhoods experiencing economic pressures.

HOUSE BILL 1086

In the past, some landlords would punish their tenants for minor violations by shutting off their utilities, potentially leaving families vulnerable in Texas’ extreme temperatures. I addressed this in 2009 by passing a bill prohibiting electric cutoffs by rental property owners in all cases except for bona fide repairs, emergencies, and construction. That bill did not take into account a small percentage of tenants who pay their landlords directly for electricity. In such cases, landlords are currently only allowed to seek an eviction to remedy cases in which a tenant has not paid their utility bill. This session I passed HB 1086, follow-up legislation that allows property owners to have options other than seeking an eviction when a resident fails to pay his or her electric bill. This bill will keep Texas renters from being unfairly evicted from their rental properties for falling behind on utility bills.

INCREASING ACCESS TO LOCAL FOODS

Last year I founded the bipartisan Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus, which has now grown to 28 members. I’d worked in previous sessions to pass legislation to support local farms and food production, but I knew that a more organized effort backed by strong bipartisan support would help advance legislation to grow our local food economy in Texas. As Chairman, I developed the legislative agenda for the Caucus to focus on local food issues across the state, which were a significant part of my own legislative agenda this session. I’m happy that out of the seven Caucus-backed bills this session, two of the bills passed and the other five made it far along the bill process and will be ripe for passing the next session. The Caucus’ mission of expanding access to local, healthy food options for all Texans resonated with members across party lines. The bills carried by members of the Caucus received widespread support in the House and the bills that made it to the House floor passed with supermajority support. I created the Caucus to help educate my colleagues and garner support for the local food movement in the Legislature, and change our state’s outdated regulations to reduce market barriers for small farmers and food producers statewide. I’m proud of the progress we made this session toward increasing access to local foods in Texas.

HOUSE BILL 970

Last session, a bill passed to allow cottage food producers and home bakers to sell certain low-risk food from their homes, directly to consumers. Many home bakers and cottage food producers rely on selling their goods for supplemental income, which really helps Texas families during these tough economic times. The current law limits the point-of-sale to the home, and some local health departments were not allowing retail sales of baked goods from a person’s home because retail activity is prevented in some residential areas. More work was needed this session to make sure small food producers were able to make their products and sell at convenient locations for consumers. This session I passed HB 970, the “Cottage Food Bill,” to expand the current law to allow products to be sold at farmers markets, farm stands, and fairs by exempting cottage food producers from zoning restrictions. This bill was part of the legislative agenda for the Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus and had wide bipartisan support. I was happy to work with Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Vice Chair of the Caucus, on this bill to reduce market barriers for cottage food producers. We also expanded the list of allowable food for sale beyond baked goods to include things like granolas, cereals, candies, and pickles. This bill is important in helping small food producers continue their businesses that serve as supplemental income for their families and in strengthening our growing local economies.

HOUSE BILL 1382

In developing the legislative agenda for the Caucus, I worked with the Sustainable Food Center and other stakeholders to draft legislation to address legal barriers to preventing farmers and small food producers from serving food samples at local farmers’ markets. I quickly learned that farmers’ markets across the state were experiencing similar excessive restrictions. I joint-authored and was instrumental in passing HB 1382 with Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) to standardize procedures for sampling food at all farmers’ markets, not just those that are municipally owned. This bill establishes guidelines for cooking demonstrations and eliminates fees to encourage both the producer to offer samples, and the consumer to try new and varied products – adding to markets’ long-term viability. This bipartisan effort helped lay the groundwork for the Caucus this session.

CREATING JOBS AND GROWING THE ECONOMY

I currently serve on the Committee on Economic and Small Business Development, and the Business and Industry Committee. As a member of these committees, I was able to shape legislation that will create jobs and boost our economy while protecting our workers’ rights. We need to create good jobs in Texas – jobs that provide sustainable wages and require an educated workforce. Too much of our economic development currently centers on service sector jobs. I worked on legislation designed to bolster high-quality, high-paying jobs in the Austin area and across the state.

HOUSE BILL 800

I joint-authored and pushed HB 800 by Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston) that creates a franchise tax credit for research and development, in order to foster innovation, complement Texas’ manufacturing industries, and provide potential partnerships with higher education institutions. This bill addresses the lag in research and development (R&D) that Texas faces compared to other states. This lag has been attributed to the lack of a R&D tax credit, which has cost the state more than $3 billion annually and more than 20,000 jobs. This has the potential to spur the creation of thousands of good jobs for our state, particularly in Austin and Central Texas. The passage of this bill will create more opportunities for R&D programs in high schools and colleges leading to job creation in Central Texas, which is home to major technology companies like Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Freescale, 3M, Samsung, Tokyo Electron, and many others.

BOOSTING LOCAL BUSINESSES IN TEXAS

Supporting local businesses and keeping our Texas economy healthy are important for the future of our state. There were several bills that I backed to specifically help my constituents and will end up boosting Texas’ local economy.

CRAFT BREWERY BILLS

I’m proud to have sponsored the Texas craft beer bill package, SB 515-518 by Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and SB 639 by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), supported by a broad coalition of legislators, craft brewers, and distributors, which will help boost our local economy and support several craft breweries that call District 51 home. Through this legislation, brewpubs gain the right to sell to Texas wholesalers and raise their production limits while allowing for limited self-distribution. The package also eliminates an existing discrimination against out-of-state producers, and prohibits wholesalers from making payment in exchange for territorial exclusivity. This legislation finally makes it legal for craft brewers to sell beer and ale for consumption on-site at breweries. District 51 is home to several craft breweries including Live Oak Brewing Company, Hops and Grain, Independence Brewing Co., (512) Brewing Company, Namaste Brewing, and South Austin Brewing

HOUSE BILL 1917

I passed legislation that benefitted an innovative electric cab company in my district. This bill removes the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) prohibition on alcoholic beverage advertisements on vehicles for hire and public transportation vehicles operating within an entertainment district of a municipality. A small business in District 51 would have gone out of business if this legislation was not passed to amend this prohibition. Removing this advertising restriction will allow the advent of more businesses operating by this model, benefitting both public safety by encouraging more people to take cabs due to cheap fares, and benefitting the public as a whole by offering more diverse public transportation options. This legislation helped keep an electric cab company from my District in business, which has lower emissions than other cab operators and is better for Austin’s air quality than gas-fueled cars on our roadways.

SECURING OUR WATER

Texans are no strangers to droughts and we know that our state is at risk if we do not act now. This session, leaders on both sides of the aisle worked together to secure our water supply for generations to come. Voters will have the opportunity to vote on funding the state’s water plan this fall. Specifically in Central Texas, I was able to pass legislation that has the potential to dramatically increase our local water supply.

HOUSE BILL 340 / SENATE BILL 1532

I passed HB 340, companion to SB 1532 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo/Austin), to allow an injection well in Southeast Travis County to study the feasibility of large-scale water desalination. If successful, this project could add millions of gallons of drinking water to our local water supply.

PROMOTING PUBLIC SAFETY

I had the opportunity to work with the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to develop legislation to keep our highways and streets safer from 18-wheelers and compressed natural gas vehicles. Working with municipal and county courts gave me new insight into the courts’ challenges in keeping our communities safe.

HOUSE BILL 2304

I passed HB 2304 to allow sheriff’s departments in Bexar, Travis, and Tarrant counties to participate in the enforcement of federal commercial motor vehicle laws by lowering the population requirement for eligibility to implement from 2.2 to 1 million. Currently, these counties can only enforce state regulations like how much weight a commercial vehicle can carry. Larger counties can enforce state and federal commercial motor vehicle laws like requiring a long-haul driver to stop and rest at regular intervals. This bill will allow Bexar, Travis, and Tarrant counties that are along the heavily-trafficked and commercially indispensable IH-35 corridor the authority to enforce the federal as well as the state regulations to improve highway safety and the flow of commerce.

HOUSE BILL 2305

I passed HB 2305 to keep our Texas roads safe and prevent public safety risks. Compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel tanks can eventually explode if damaged or degraded over time. This bill adds CNG pressurized containers to the list of items to be inspected by DPS and its auto inspection stations in Texas. Currently, the government and manufacturers have no way of ensuring that a cylinder inspection or removal from service actually takes place. This bill ensures that CNG vehicles undergo inspection every three years or be removed once the cylinder expires. This proactive law could save lives of CNG vehicle owners and other Texas drivers as CNG vehicles become more common.

LOOKING FORWARD

I’m proud of what I accomplished this session and I’m continuing my work during this special session and throughout the interim on important issues that didn’t make it over the finish line this time.

SUPPORTING SMALL FARMS AND COMMUNITY GARDENS

District 51 is home to many small, urban farms and community gardens. These farms and community gardens are great initiatives that bring healthy food options to many urban and rural communities, and support our local economy through small businesses like cottage food production. Unfortunately, our tax code excludes these farms and gardens from being considered as “agricultural use” for land valuations by local taxing entities. That’s why I introduced HB 1306 this session to eliminate any gray area regarding whether an appraiser should consider this type of use as agricultural. This bill would have eased the tax burden on our urban farms and community gardens, and helped them to continue providing local food options in our neighborhoods. I filed this bill in the first special session, and hope the call is expanded to include this legislation because I’m continuing to work hard in moving this Caucus-supported legislation forward. I will work with small farms, community gardens, and appraisal districts across the state during the interim to get this legislation passed to give small farms and community gardens the much needed tax breaks they deserve.

DRIVING INTO THE FUTURE

I authored HB 3351 this session to allow TESLA Motors to sell directly to Texas consumers. TESLA Motors manufactures innovative, battery-powered, and emission-free electric vehicles, which decrease global dependence on petroleum-based vehicles. These cars are custom built by consumers online, giving customers the opportunity to customize the patented components of the vehicle. Currently, Texas car buyers are only allowed to buy cars from a dealership rather than directly from a manufacturer. This bill would allow consumers of emission-free vehicles to purchase directly from the manufacturer. A provision in the bill would require manufacturers to go through a dealer once they are able to sell 5,000 vehicles in a year, which would give this green technology the momentum it needs to take off. I’ll continue working on this innovative legislation and hope to see it pass next session.

PROMOTING TEXAS AGRICULTURE

I authored HB 2528, to give preference for agricultural products grown in Texas. Many food distributors are located in Texas, but only a small amount of the food is sourced within Texas. Currently, state agencies, school districts, and local governments can’t support Texas-grown agricultural products if the cost isn’t equal or less than out-of-state products. This bill would have aligned the laws regulating local jurisdictions with existing statutes for state agencies and school districts to prefer Texas-grown agricultural products if the cost and quality is equal to out-of-state bids, and give state agencies, school districts, and local governments the option to pay up to seven percent more for agricultural products grown in Texas. I’ve filed this bill in the first special session, and I look forward to passing this bill in the near future.

PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT

I authored HB 1473 this session, which would have established a beverage recycling deposit program. Bottle deposit programs have proven to dramatically reduce litter, water pollution, and solid waste in other states. If this program is established, Texas recycling rates would increase from about 24 percent to an estimated 75 percent. Estimates show that this bill would create a new cottage industry with more than 1,000 Texas jobs in the first year and more in the following year. This bill started a very important discussion in the Texas Legislature. I look forward to picking up where we left off and trying again next session.

PROVIDING MORE TOOLS FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

TO PROVIDE PROPERTY TAX BREAKS

We need to help low- and middle income Texans that are struggling to stay in their homes because of rising property taxes. I worked with cities, counties, and taxing entities to amend the Texas Constitution to ease tax burdens facing low- and middle income homeowners by providing new tools like offering a different way of applying tax breaks on homesteads. HB 3348 and the accompanying constitutional amendment (HJR 138) would have allowed local governments to adopt a homestead exemption that is expressed as a flat-dollar-amount of at least $5,000 as an alternative to the percentage homestead exemption currently allowed. This would have increased local control of property tax exemptions and the flexibility to provide tax breaks to more homeowners across Texas. The current tax exemption unfairly benefits residents with the most expensive homes. This legislation would offer fairer tax benefits by providing greater tax breaks to average homeowners. I plan to file this legislation next session to give relief to those in our community who are struggling the most from high property taxes.

CONCLUSION

From public education to affordable housing, I am committed to improving the quality of life for all Texans. My accomplishments this session are just a shadow of the work left to be done. During the interim, I will continue to work with advocates, local governments, and my constituents to tackle many issues like affordable housing, public education, environmental quality, food insecurity and access, and economic development. I will hold regular community forums to give the public an opportunity to voice their concerns, share policy ideas, and meet their neighbors. I always welcome your calls, emails, letters, Tweets, and visits.