Texas State Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) spoke to and took questions from about 50 people at a town hall meeting in Paris on Tuesday evening. The event was hosted at Paris Junior College’s Bobby R. Walters Workforce Training Center at 2400 Clarksville St.
VanDeaver is touring House District 1 in advance of the special session of the Texas Legislature set to begin July 18. VanDeaver held a town hall meeting in Clarksville on Monday and has scheduled forums in Texarkana on Wednesday and Mount Vernon on Thursday. The district includes Bowie, Franklin, Lamar and Red River counties.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the special session after lawmakers failed to pass crucial "sunset" legislation during the regular session necessary for keeping several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, existing. The Texas Medical Board licenses physicians in Texas. Abbott has said that once the legislature has taken care of those items, the legislature will move on to other unfinished business. Under Texas law, the governor’s office sets the agenda for special sessions.
“It was a tough session,” VanDeaver said of the recently concluded regular session of the Texas Legislature. “It was a very trying session, at times. Many would say we didn’t get a lot done and maybe that’s true.”
VanDeaver spent some of the evening providing those in attendance with a review of the regular session’s accomplishments, beginning with a report on efforts to reform the state’s Child Protective Services agency.
“We had children dying in the acre of our foster care system – that’s unacceptable,” VanDeaver said. “Absolutely unacceptable. Texas can do better than that.”
The agency is being structured to improve response time to crisis situations, VanDeaver said. The agency will also be hiring 597 new caseworkers, he said.
“What we found was, CPS caseworkers were doing a wonderful job, working many hours a week,” VanDeaver said. “We had children spending the night in the offices of CPS caseworkers. But those CPS caseworkers were so overwhelmed with their case load, that they could not manage all the children that were in their care.”
VanDeaver said that the reduced case load for CPS staff would not by itself solve the state’s problem with its foster care, but that addressing staffing was “part of” a solution.
The state also allocated about $32 million to a program within CPS called Kinship Care, which compensates family members willing to take custody of a child. Under Texas law, state courts are required to consider a temporary placement with a relative and ask the parents of the child or children in question to recommend relatives who may be able to care for the children at least temporarily.
“When I first heard of that, I was a bit skeptical,” VanDeaver said. “But as I learned more about it and had more explained to me, I really think it was a good thing . . . Statistics tell us that if a family member can take that child in those situations, that child’s likelihood of being successful is much higher.”
VanDeaver also described laws passed this year improving funding of telemedicine programs, which he described as crucial for rural communities facing a lack of medical practitioners and facilities.
Other topics addressed included the unsuccessful effort to overhaul the state’s school finance system, the emergency funding of the retired teachers’ health insurance program, the increased funding of border security measures and the “sanctuary cities” bill, which faces legal challenges.
VanDeaver also presented the results of a poll taken by his office regarding issues likely to come up in the special session.
Abbott’s agenda includes several education-related items including an unfunded mandate to raise teacher salaries by $1,000, giving school administrators flexibility in teacher hiring and retention, and the ongoing matter of school finance reform, including a voucher system for special-needs students.
Other issues likely to come up in the special session include mandatory rollback elections for certain property tax increases, as well as caps on certain state and local spending.
The highly publicized bill placing restrictions on bathroom use for transgender Texans is expected to return.
Women’s health is another likely topic, with Abbott having identified priorities including prohibition of taxpayer funding to subsidize health providers that also perform abortion, requiring women to get separate insurance policies to cover non-emergency abortions, and increasing existing reporting requirements when complications arise during abortions.
The Texas Legislature is expected to extend the state's maternal mortality task force, which is studying the state’s alarming statistics in that area. In 2016, the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study that found Texas’ maternal mortality rate had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014.
Wednesday night's town hall in Texarkana is scheduled for 4:30-6:30 p.m. in the Patman Room on the 2nd Floor of the Truman Arnold Building at 2500 N. Robison Rd. The tour is set to conclude in Mount Vernon, with that town hall scheduled for 4:30-6 p.m. at the Mount Vernon High School Lecture Hall, 509 U.S. Hwy. 37 South.