Week 1 of the Lege and Some Local News: Part I

Members of the Texas House of Representatives take the oath of office.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives take the oath of office on Opening Day of the 83rd Legislature.

Week 1 of the 83rd Legislative Session brought the swearing-in of 180 members of the Legislature, the re-election of House Speaker Joe Straus, and Governor Perry’s plans for the budget “surplus”. We also had a couple of interesting local developments, including a transition for the felony mental health court.

In the House

The first day of session was full of pomp and circumstance. MHA Houston viewed Opening Day ceremonies from the House Gallery. As expected, Joe Straus was re-elected Speaker of the House after Rep. David Simpson withdrew his candidacy. Straus pledged to be a fair Speaker and laid out his top priorities for the session: 1) Education, including possible revisions to the accountability system; 2) Transportation/Infrastructure; 3) Water; and 4) Budget Transparency, stating that he’d like to see collected fees go to their stated purpose or not be collected at all. Amen to that! However, it was a little disappointing not to hear any mention of health and human services–let alone mental health and substance abuse–but that just makes our advocacy all the more important.

Senate Happenings

On the east wing of the Capitol, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst pledged to make the 83rd Legislative Session “the most conservative session in Texas history.” His priorities included drug testing for unemployment benefits, school choice, a balanced budget, and securing the border. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte was elected President Pro Tempore, making her third in line for the Governorship. Her top focus areas will be education, veterans, and human trafficking. Former Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum also stopped by to support newly elected Sen. Ken Paxton.

One more development worth mentioning is last Wednesday’s vote to maintain the 2/3 Rule in the Senate. This longstanding policy requires that at least 21 members of the 31-Member Senate agree to bring up a bill before it is debated. This means that some of the more controversial bills–including some of the Leadership’s priorities–may never see the light of day.

A Word from the Governor

Governor Perry addressed both the House and Senate on Opening Day and had a message to legislators about advocates like myself: “They all want more for their causes, they all figure we have money pouring out of our ears now, and they all have your address and phone number.” No disagreement there!

The Governor’s priorities echoed some of the priorities set forth by Speaker Straus and Lt. Governor Dewhurst: Infrastructure for water, energy and transportation, an educated workforce, and budget transparency. He also brought up the prospect of tax relief and opposed using Rainy Day funds for ongoing expenses. Specific legislative initiatives for which he indicated his support were drug screening for public assistance and unemployment benefit programs and banning abortion after 20 weeks of development. Again, besides the drug screening push, no mention of mental health or substance abuse.

So after week one, behavioral health advocates need to prepare for a looooooong session. We’ll have to be in full force in order to shed the spotlight on these issues that, if funded appropriately, could lead to substantial savings in other areas of the Texas budget, potentially resulting in even more taxpayer relief. After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal of our state’s Leadership?

Shift for Therapeutic Courts

Locally, we’re going to see some changes in the felony mental health court over which Judge Jan Krocker previously presided. After a decision by the criminal court judges last week, the felony mental health court will now be split between Judge David Mendoza of the 178th Criminal Court and Judge Brock Thomas of the 338th Criminal Court. I encourage everyone to thank Judge Krocker for her tireless efforts over the past several years to bring this court to fruition.  Please also support Judges Mendoza and Thomas as they carry this important work forward.  We must all continue to be vocal about the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health and substance use disorders. 

In related news, in a recent meeting with MHA Houston, District Attorney Mike Anderson informed us that he has approved $500,000 from his office’s asset forfeiture funds for the mental health dockets to use for staffing, transitional housing, medications and outpatient treatment. We appreciate his support of these important programs.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this post and for more on our meeting with the DA, updated mental health and substance abuse legislation, and other legislative news!

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