AUSTIN (Nexstar) – President Joe Biden announced plans to visit the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time since he’s been in office. The Sunday visit to El Paso comes after he announced new plans to discourage asylum seekers from trying to cross the border without authorization.
“We can’t stop people from making the journey, but we can require them to come here in an orderly way under U.S. law,” said Biden at a Thursday news conference announcing the new policy.
The President said he’s expanding a migrant parole process to accept up to 30,000 people per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The policy aims to encourage people to apply for asylum in their home countries, rather than making the dangerous journey to the border. Under the rules, asylum seekers from those countries who cross the border illegally could be expelled to Mexico.
The actions are part of a plan to prepare for the eventual lifting of Title 42 restrictions, which were implemented early in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to expel many migrants for public health reasons. When that happens, the administration plans to return to enforcing Title 8, which expels migrants without a legal basis to remain in the country, banning them from seeking re-entry for five years.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the department is already implementing the new measures. However, several Republicans have said the administration is not doing enough.
“Secretary Mayorkas thinks the border is secure, but anyone with eyes on their head and ears to hear can see and hear that’s not the case,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview. Cornyn is leading a delegation of U.S. Senators on a visit to El Paso on Monday, one day after the President’s visit.
Record revenue boosts calls for property tax relief
Texas lawmakers will return to the State Capitol on Tuesday to start the next legislative session. But one of the key moments shaping the path of the session will happen Monday. That’s when State Comptroller Glenn Hegar will reveal the Biennial Revenue Estimate, which tells lawmakers how much money they’ll have to spend on the state budget.
Hegar has said the state will have more money available than ever before, fueling a push for property tax relief. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have vowed to work toward that goal.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt could be a key player in the reform debate. The Houston Republican serves on the Senate Finance Committee and has worked on previous legislation aimed at cutting property taxes.
“We’ve had some success where in many of the major urban areas of the state, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, homestead tax bills are actually down,” Bettencourt said of the effect of previous legislation.
In May, Texas voters approved two property tax relief amendments. The constitutional changes included a tax freeze for the elderly and Texans with disabilities starting in 2023 and an increased homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school district property taxes.
Bettencourt said there could be a similar situation this time around, with Texas voters once again being asked to vote on constitutional changes as a result of tax relief legislation at the Capitol.
“There’s nothing wrong with letting people vote on their own money,” Bettencourt said. “That’s really what these excess tax collections are. It’s the public’s money.”
Bettencourt said the revenue forecast should improve the prospect of lasting tax relief.
“So now we’ve got billions more to spend, and we’re going to take more action,” Bettencourt said. “Because long-term property tax relief is good not only for homeowners, but business owners, and it’s especially good to keep the Texas economic engine going, which is jobs and job creation.”
Governor calls for action, citing ‘no criminal consequences’ for ankle monitor violations
Abbott also wants to see reform around ankle monitor violations in the upcoming legislative session, as indicated in a Wednesday letter to leaders of the Texas legislature.
In a letter to Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan, the governor said there are currently “no criminal consequences” for parolees who cut off their ankle monitor. He cites previous cases in which parolees wearing ankle monitors still committed crimes, saying the devices “were not effective” in deterring and preventing individuals from committing violent crimes.
One of the fatal incidents Abbott referenced is the October 2022 Dallas hospital shooting that left two employees dead.
The alleged gunman, Nestor Hernandez, was able to visit the hospital for his girlfriend’s delivery of their baby, but was already on parole for aggravated robbery and had an “active ankle monitor,” according to the Dallas Police Department. In October, DPD Police Chief Eddie Garcia called the shooting an “abhorrent failure of our criminal justice system.”
Last month, Abbott directed the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) and Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to investigate “any lapses” in the release and supervision of Hernandez, as well as another Zeric Jackson, another parolee who had an ankle monitor and is accused of murdering a man in Dallas.
The report that BPP and TDCJ sent to the governor found that Hernandez and Jackson’s parole panel did consistently follow rules and policies for addressing their violations and releasing them. Abbott says because of these findings, there is a clear need for legislative action.
“Currently, there are no criminal consequences for a parolee cutting off an ankle monitor,” Abbott said in his letter. “Texas cannot allow violent criminals who jeopardize public safety back into our communities.”
Last summer in Austin, one of the suspects involved in a string of robberies and a shooting near The Domain shopping center had previously cut off his ankle monitor, according to Austin police.
While Abbott’s letter only specified penalties for parolees who remove their ankle monitors, criminal justice advocates and families of crime victims are hoping potential legislation goes further.
Candice Atwood’s best friend, Catherine Dyer, was murdered in Austin in 2015. Dyer’s then-boyfriend, Kevin Michael Waguespack, was charged with her murder but fled days before his trial was set to start.
Waguespack disappeared while out on bond after a judge granted the removal of his GPS ankle monitor, one of the conditions of his bond.
“It just doesn’t make sense to us. And none of it makes sense to us,” Atwood said. “And then we weren’t notified — nobody was notified until three days before his trial was to start. Then they’re like, oh, we can’t find him.”
Atwood said the judge’s decision ruined their chances of getting justice for Dyer. More than five years later, Waguespack is still a missing fugitive.
“We would have had our closure by now. He would have been sentenced he would be sitting in prison,” she said, “but we don’t get that because that Judge chose to let him off his monitor.”
Jennifer Toon is a criminal justice advocate and project director of Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance. Formerly incarcerated herself, Toon said there is a host of problems with the ankle monitor system as is.
“Quite frankly, they just don’t work the way the public envisions,” she said. “There’s a complete breakdown in the process of how an officer or the police are notified when there’s a problem. Oftentimes, there are mechanical glitches — my monitor had to get it replaced three times.”
She hopes that any legislation that addresses ankle monitors will be more robust, rather than just adding criminal penalties for those who break them.
“It is another type of incarceration that is just not effective,” Toon said. “It creates barriers for people who want to be successful. And it’s not a deterrent for folks that are not ready to follow the conditions of their supervision.”
Atwood wants any new law to make sure law enforcement, attorneys and other involved parties are notified if a suspect on bond removes or is granted the removal of their ankle monitor.
“It just doesn’t make sense to us. And none of it makes sense to us,” she said. “We’re being really too lenient on the ones that actually need to be in prison or jail and monitored.”
Whether or not this will be part of Abbott’s emergency items for the 88th Legislative Session is not clear. When state lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday, they cannot move any legislation, except for the governor’s emergency items, until early March.
Non-partisan group tackles long-term challenges facing Texas
The new legislative session brings renewed efforts to tackle long-term challenges facing the state. It’s a key time for people with the non-profit Texas 2036. The group works toward non-partisan, data-driven solutions as the state approaches its bicentennial in 2036.
State of Texas host Josh Hinkle spoke with John Hryhorchuk, Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy for Texas 2036 on Sunday’s program. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview:
Josh Hinkle: We’ve reported on the deep divisions over policy in Texas, but your group finds that there are some areas where Texans agree on what needs to be done. What are some of those areas of agreement?
John Hryhorchuk: You know, across the board on a lot of these nonpartisan issues, Texans agree on how we can spend this surplus to really advance major investments to make our state more productive in the future. Things like investing in water infrastructure, things like better aligning our community college system to meet the workforce challenges of our future.
Josh Hinkle: The revenue estimate that’s coming out on Monday is expected to show the state has more money available than ever before. Texas 2036 has put a spotlight on using some of that funding for water infrastructure. What are the needs you see there?
John Hryhorchuk: You know, our state has faced in recent years, some very high-profile challenges. Historically, we thought a lot about the availability of water and that is still a long-term challenge for us but also the physical infrastructure. When we have cities across the state that are dealing with bursting pipes, leaking pipes, pumps, all these challenges the water boil notices in Houston and Austin and Midland and Laredo, these are big systemic problems that are going to take investment that’s much easier to address on the front end than waiting until the crisis occurs to address.
Josh Hinkle: Your group has also put an emphasis on improving the community college system. What’s your focus there?
John Hryhorchuk: You know, the thing about our community college system is right now 0.2% of all the funding in our community college formulas is dictated by does the graduate get a job in a career field, that is high demand for Texas employers. And when we’re able to marry together the idea that, you know, this is good for the student, and this is good for the employers. That’s how we grow the Texas economy. That’s how we get families to build generational wealth, and really advance equity throughout our state.
Josh Hinkle: We’ve heard for years that the state and its employees need higher pay, the record revenue estimate could make raises more likely. Do you see this as a priority for lawmakers this session?
John Hryhorchuk: It should absolutely be a priority for lawmakers to address both state legislative pay for their staffs, but also for state agencies because there are real consequences when our state agencies can’t hire and retain high-quality talent. When we think about the major electricity bills, for example, that were passed last session, the Public Utility Commission has been struggling to hire regulatory attorneys to implement those bills two years later. The legislature will have a chance with this budget to go through and strategically invest in itself and its people so that the state can better serve the people of Texas.
Josh Hinkle: What kind of response are you getting from lawmakers when you’ve been talking to them ahead of the session?
John Hryhorchuk: It has been very warmly received and understanding that at the end of the day, it is humans who are in the state agencies doing this work. And that investing in Texas means not just investing in, you know, the pipes in the roads, but investing in the people of Texas, the workforce broadly to grow the economy, but also the workforce to serve the people of Texas and provide that excellent customer service that they want to provide.
Texas rural mental health advocates call for change in 2023
As lawmakers prepare to return to the Texas Capitol this month, many rural communities hope the legislature will make significant investments in their mental health resources.
Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner handles mental health cases in her county seat of Amarillo and in more than two dozen rural counties around the Texas Panhandle. Even though Tanner said she has processed more than 5,000 cases in her tenure, the closest mental health hospital to her constituents is more than 200 miles away.
“I can tell you some sad, sad stories,” she said. “I don’t want people to tell me, ‘well, he killed himself.’ That is what we have to stop.”
She said only about one in five people with mental healthcare needs in the cases she has handled have made it to a state hospital. Often when they do, Tanner added they are released without proper care and end up back in the system.
“There’s never an available bed,” she said. “We’re just backlogged with the same people.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick estimated at a press conference last month that out of about 2,500 beds for mental health patients in Texas, at least 1,000 are empty because of nursing staff shortages. He named rural mental health access as one of his top priorities for the 88th legislative session.
“As I’ve traveled around the state I have seen the need,” Patrick said. “We don’t have a mental health facility in the Panhandle, so I’m proposing we build one there. This is something we have to do for our communities.”
He estimated his plan to add a new state hospital in Amarillo and hundreds of beds to existing locations will cost $2.2 billion. He was specific in advocating for more beds in El Paso, 300 more in Wichita Falls and Terrell, as well as 140 more in the Rio Grande Valley.
Patrick also proposed new investments in tuition coverage and pay raises for nurses to cut down on staffing shortages.
In Kingsville, Dr. Steve Bain with the new Institute for Rural Mental Health Initiatives said the priority should be on graduate school programs that train new mental health professionals and incentivize placement in rural communities. The Texas A&M Board of Regents approved the institute this November as a first-of-its-kind center for rural mental health research and education.
“Our state ranks very low on its delivery of mental health resources, particularly to remote population,” Bain said. “We’ve got to be constantly connected with these communities, and that’s going to take time and organization through our institute. It’s going to take research and research funding. And it’s going to take putting our graduate students who need their practicum and internships into these rural communities.”
In testimony to the Texas House, Bain told lawmakers that one in five Texas children have a mental health disorder. Just between 2019 and 2021, the Texas Poison Control Network saw a 50% increase in calls for suspected suicide among teenage girls.
“We are in an unprecedented time in our state’s history where great leaders like you can make a difference for children, their families, and those who are committed to the holistic success of our young Texans,” he testified. “With your support, we can and must expand rural mental health programs.”
Tanner said she is optimistic this session will bring tangible improvements.
“Lt. Gov. Patrick said there’s money in the budget,” she said, adding that the Senate Finance Committee was “very open” to her proposal for an Amarillo mental health hospital. The Amarillo Area Foundation has already donated seven acres for the facility — combine that with the local medical school students at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and she said it only makes sense.
“I’m praying that it happens. It will be my biggest venture and my biggest success as judge to get this done before I leave here,” she said.