House lawmakers tentatively approved a series of bills Monday aimed at helping Texas curb its unusually high rate of women dying less than a year after childbirth.
The primary measure, House Bill 9, would direct the state’s Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity to continue studying pregnancy complications and maternal deaths until 2023. Last year, a study in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that Texas’ maternal mortality rate had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014.
State task force data shows that between 2011 and 2012, 189 Texas mothers died less than a year after giving birth, mostly from heart disease, drug overdoses and high blood pressure.
State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale and the bill’s author, said giving the task force more time to make recommendations on how to prevent those types of health issues in pregnant women and new moms would help save lives and lower costs Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance programs for the poor and disabled.
“As in many things, prevention is better and often cheaper,” Burkett said.
HB 9 charges task force members with finding solutions to help Texas women struggling with postpartum depression; looking at what other states are doing on maternal care; and examining health disparities and socioeconomic status among mothers dying in Texas. The measure still needs one more House vote.
The Senate passed a similar bill on July 24. Both chambers will likely head into conference committee to reconcile the two measures.
The maternal mortality bill’s passage comes as state legislators quickly approach the halfway point of a 30-day special legislative session that started July 18. Gov. Greg Abbott‘s 20-item agenda for legislators — along with extending the lifespan of the maternal mortality task force — includes a bill that would restrict bathroom use for transgender people; one that would require voters to approve property tax increases above a certain threshold; and another that would prohibit insurance companies from covering abortions unless they are medically necessary.
House lawmakers gave initial approval to three related measures on Monday:
House Bill 10 and House Bill 11 give the task force more guidance on what to study, including giving financial incentives to managed care organizations that have good postpartum outcomes, and comparing rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status. House Bill 28 would add a labor and delivery nurse to the task force.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Both chambers passed bills on Tuesday aimed at curbing postpartum depression and the alarming rise in Texas mothers dying less than a year after giving birth. [link]
Reproductive rights advocates have expressed concern that Texas lawmakers will take bolder steps in the upcoming session to defund abortion providers and dismantle access to abortion, birth control and other sexual health services. [link]
That’s why the openly gay, 49-year-old Dallas Democrat who owns five businesses — including The Dallas Eagle, a popular gay bar — is doing what some might say is impossible: attempting to win the governor’s seat by running against one of the most popular and well-funded governors in recent memory.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Payne — who is a political newcomer — said he realizes this is a difficult feat given Texas’ history as a predominately red state. But he says the challenge doesn’t scare him.
He says his background in business, rather than politics, will help him win the governorship. His businesses include a court reporting firm, a retail clothing outlet, a property management company and a land holding company.
Born in Maine, Payne grew up in Louisiana — in a children’s orphanage and in foster care — and moved to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hours before Gov. Greg Abbottannounced his own plans to run for re-electionin 2018, Payne filed his paperwork with the Texas Secretary of State’s office to challenge the governor. Abbott’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Payne’s announcement. The Democrat quickly made headlines after he announced his plan to loan his campaign $2.5 million. Several other people have also filed paperwork to run for governor, including Democrat Tom Wakely, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, last year.
The Tribune spoke to Payne about his ideas for the state and how he plans on building momentum ahead of the election to mobilize Texans. The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
What changes would you try to implement as governor?
Our educational system is very much underfunded, and we need to get back to the basics. We have too many rules and regulations in place and we need to give the power back to the professionals — those are the teachers and the parents. We also need to make our colleges and universities more accessible to everyone and stop the huge increases in tuition happening each and every year.
Currently we have 2.2 million undocumented individuals in Texas. We need to provide a compassionate, and strict, policy to allow those undocumented individuals a pathway to citizenship. We need to stop treating undocumented individuals with the venom that we’ve been treating them with.
We also need to bring Medicaid expansion to Texasand ensure that women’s health is brought back to the forefront.
I support and uphold the Second Amendment wholeheartedly, but we need to continue to design policies that will provide more education and the promotion of gun safety.
Gerrymandering is not democracy, as far as I’m concerned. I believe our districts should be designed by an independent group so that they’re fair to all Texans and not just a particular group of individuals.
The last thing I’ll tackle is foster care. We had a law come down this past regular legislative session that allows adoption agencies to actually turn people away. There’s already a small group of people within our state who want to adopt or are eligible to adopt, and to limit that sends a horrible message to those children who need adopting. As someone who came out of the foster care system myself, that’s a law I would work to change almost immediately.
What was your experience in the foster care system in Louisiana like, and how has that experience shaped your thoughts about what should be done with Texas’ foster care system?
I was in an orphanage for most of my childhood. I didn’t enter the foster care system until I was 15. [Both experiences] were very positive ones. I had incredible people who cared, loved and, when needed, would discipline. I believe it was an experience that gave me the ability to have empathy and sympathy for people who are in that situation. This would help me shape Texas’ system because I’d make sure that we’re not leaving any children behind — whether its in the adoption or the foster care sector — and that we’re giving them every opportunity we can to succeed.
Do you think the Democrats are capable of coming up with good candidates, or is their inability to do that the reason people like you have to step up?
I consider myself a good candidate, but I’m not sure why the Democrats were not able to — or have not been able to — find someone. I’m running no matter who they find.
This is a job I would take very seriously and would be No. 1 on my list of things to do, but it’s not my career. I believe public service is something we should do where we’re not depending on that to supplement our living. We should all have careers outside of politics and serve out of a duty and love for our state.
When are you going to give your campaign the $2.5 million, and how will you sustain your campaign beyond that?
I’ll give it as soon as it’s needed. Right now, we’re building our campaign headquarters and the money that I have is something that we’ll fall back on when we need it. We already have a huge grassroots campaign out there. We already have donations coming in from all over the state [and] as we build momentum, more and more people will get on the bandwagon.
I plan to be a lot smarter with the spending of money. This is a campaign where I’ll be going out all over Texas and speaking with people one-on-one to get our message out. We know that people want to hear alternative solutions to the issues facing our state, so I know they’re going to listen.
I’ve never believed that you have to compete dollar for dollar. I’m not worried about that. I have no doubt we’ll be able to raise quite a bit of money and we’ll use any donations we receive in a very smart and effective manner.
A lot has changed in four years. We’ve had a Republican governor for more than a quarter-century now and people want the change. They want to see alternative methods to the issues facing our society. Texans have had enough in the last four years and they’re ready.
Why should Abbott see you as a threat?
I don’t think he expects me. I don’t know that he sees me as a threat right now, but we’re 16 months away from the election and that’ll change.
Right now, I believe Abbott sees me as a single issue — meaning [he likely thinks], “Jeffrey is gay so there’s not much to worry about.” But that’s less of an issue to people than I believe he’s giving credit to. People want someone who’s going to shoot straight with them. They want to know that the person speaking with them is not just looking for the next vote whenever re-election comes up.
When people hear my story, they’ll see that for the last 49 years I’ve been a fighter. I don’t back down and I fight the good fight, but I’m also able to work with people.
In what ways do you see yourself as a fighter?
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I walked away with my two dogs and $2,000 in the bank — that’s it. But I was able to land in Dallas, fortunately, and I count my blessings for that. I was able to pull myself up by my bootstraps and surround myself with good, caring people and succeed.
I believe that’s a testament to the fighter that I am and believe that’s literally the way Texans live. We don’t let things get us down. We fight for what’s right and we continue to fight. That’s the type of person I am and that’s what I’m bringing to the governor’s office.
How will other campaigns compete with you? What do you think are the weaknesses of your candidacy?
I won’t be surprised no matter what they throw at me. Some may throw the “gay” issue at me, some may throw out “he owns the bar” or “he has no political experience,” plus whatever someone decides to invent.
It’s politics and all I’m going to do is go out there and show them exactly why I’m the governor for all the people of Texas and that’s what I’ll concentrate on.
They’ll throw everything and the kitchen sink at me. And I welcome it.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Before sign-waving supporters, Gov. Greg Abbott formally launched his re-election campaign Friday in San Antonio, days before he brings the Texas Legislature back for a special session. [link]
One of the country’s largest civil rights groups is cautioning against traveling to Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott signed what critics have called the most extreme state-based immigration bill in history.
Though the bill, Senate Bill 4, doesn’t take effect until Sept. 1, the American Civil Liberties Union said in its announcement that it “is concerned that some law enforcement officers may begin to treat residents and travelers unfairly now.”
The bill allows peace officers to question the immigration status of people they legally detain or arrest, and also punishes department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents. Abbott and other supporters of the bill insist it’s needed to enforce the rule of law and deter people who are already in the country illegally from committing more crimes.
Many law enforcement agencies and faith-based organizations have said the law opens up the state to legalized racial profiling and could place U.S. citizens in the crosshairs of local police who want to enforce immigration law.
“The ACLU’s goal is to protect all Texans and all people traveling through Texas — regardless of their immigration status — from illegal harassment by law enforcement,” Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s director of immigration policy and campaigns said in a statement. “Texas is a state with deep Mexican roots and home to immigrants from all walks of life. Many of us fit the racial profile that the police in Texas will use to enforce Trump’s draconian deportation force.”
Between 2008 and 2012, the ACLU said, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requested local jails to hold 834 U.S. citizens, including some who spent additional days in jail because of the error.
After the national civil rights organization issued its travel advisory Tuesday morning, a state business group said they feared it could be the firstof more sustained warnings — or even boycotts — that could adversely affect the state’s economy.
“I think what this bill brings with it is the perception that Texas’s welcome mat comes with qualifiers,” said Cathy Stoebner DeWitt, vice president of governmental affairs for the Texas Association of Business. “And businesses looking to come to Texas look at things like that. So it causes us great concern.”
The ACLU said more than a dozen of its state affiliates have issued their own travel advisories against Texas including California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that he and state lawmakers will pursue legislation that would “remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities,” raising a new consequence as Republicans crack down on local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Abbott is threatening to cut off state funding to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez after she announced Friday she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. If she continues with the policy, Abbott suggested a more serious punishment.
“We will remove her from office,” Abbott said in an interview on Fox News.
It was not immediately clear how legislation would remove Hernandez from office. She won her election last year. Sanctuary cities opponents view such officials’ immigration policies as a violation of their oaths of office.
The Fox News interview appears to be the first time Abbott has suggested officials like Hernandez could lose their jobs under sanctuary cities legislation. Abbott is expected to prioritize the legislation in his State of the State address on Tuesday.
Hernandez’s office did not have an immediate comment on Abbott’s remarks. The governor’s comments, however, quickly drew ire from other Democrats, with the state party saying in a statement that Abbott was “launching a new assault on the will of Texans.”
“I don’t know how the governor would suggest to do that,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said at a news conference that was called to push back on sanctuary cities legislation. “Typically people are elected by the voters. Democracy, in fact, works.”
“And unless the governor wants to be king and remove people from office unilaterally, then I think the people of Travis County will have an opportunity to speak on the sheriff, the governor and all other elected officials when they stand for re-election,” Anchia added.
By the end of Wednesday morning, the Texas Senate GOP caucus released a letter, signed by all 20 GOP senators, backing up Abbott in his showdown with Hernandez. The letter did not address Abbott’s proposal to remove officials like her, but told Hernandez her policy “is a reckless and blatant political stunt that not only prohibits law enforcement officers from doing their job, but also jeopardizes the safety of the citizens of Travis County.”
Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.
Abbott demanded Monday that Hernandez reverse her new policy or lose state dollars.
Hernandez announced Friday her office would scale back its cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
The number of people apprehended by immigration agents while trying to enter Texas illegally dropped by more than 35 percent during the federal government’s 2015 fiscal year, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics released Tuesday.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stopped some 210,470 people in Texas between October 2014 and September 2015, compared to 332,457 the previous year. On the entire southwestern border, 331,335 people were apprehended in the 2015 fiscal year, compared to 479,371 the year before.
Homeland security leaders attribute the dip to lower numbers of would-be illegal crossers and a ramped-up border security effort that has nearly doubled the number of agents on the southwestern border since 2001. The number of Mexican nationals apprehended decreased by 18 percent, they said; apprehensions of people from countries other than Mexico — mainly Central Americans — decreased by more than 65 percent.
The new data is not likely to allay the concerns of GOP state leaders, who argue the Obama administration is failing in its duty to secure the border and remove undocumented criminals already present in the country.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he’d be keeping National Guard troops on the state’s border with Mexico instead of sending them home as planned, the result of a spike in illegal crossings by minor children in the Rio Grande Valley in October and November of this year.
The Guard is deployed to assist federal agents and state troopers in surveillance and border crossings but has no arresting or removal powers.
The downward trend in federal apprehensions wasn’t just limited to the border; nationally, they decreased by about 30 percent between 2014 and 2015.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also removed roughly 80,000 fewer undocumented people from the country — a total of 235,413 — in 2015 than the agency did the prior year.
During a conference call with reporters, homeland security officials said of Immigration and Customs Enforcement removals in 2015, about 86 percent were considered “Priority 1” — immigrants who pose a viable threat to national security, border security and public safety.
The 2015 totals also include roughly 40 percent fewer unaccompanied minors and family units.
Homeland security officials said their focus in 2016 would be “more interior enforcement” to return “convicted criminals” to their home countries.