Legislative Session Ends With Big Victories for Kids and a Few Disappointments

That’s a wrap. On Monday, after 140 days of ups and downs, early mornings and late nights, the 84th regular session of the Texas Legislature came to an end.

We’ll provide a more complete legislative recap after the Governor’s veto period ends June 21, but here’s a preliminary look at how Texas children fared during the legislative session. Thanks to the hard work of our staff, our partners, and supportive legislators, we have a number of important victories to report.

Passing new legislation

After a year of tragic child deaths in foster care, numerous legislative hearings, and disturbing reports by our organization and others, the Legislature passed a number of critical child protection bills. For example, the Governor just signed SB 125, our proposal to conduct standardized comprehensive assessments as soon as children enter foster care so CPS can provide them the right support and place them in an appropriate home. Our proposal to protect foster kids by strengthening screening and training requirements for prospective foster care parents, filed as HB 781, is one of a number of other key child protection measures sitting on the Governor’s desk.

This was also a busy year for juvenile justice. The Legislature passed HB 2398 to decriminalize truancy, HB 2684 to improve training for school police officers, and SB 1630 to keep more juvenile offenders in local programs rather than far-away state facilities. Texans Care for Children successfully advocated for adding an amendment to SB 1630 to authorize the state’s juvenile justice ombudsman to protect the rights and safety of county probation youth in private facilities.

Of course, one of the highest profile bills of the session was HB 4, the Governor’s proposal to provide a bump in funding to school districts that meet new pre-K standards. We succeeded in adding class size requirements, robust and equitable funding, and other improvements to the debate on the bill, but ultimately lawmakers didn’t add these provisions to the final legislation. Nonetheless, the Governor helped cement a near-consensus in the Legislature about the importance of pre-K, and the bill provides a first step towards stronger pre-K policies.

We also supported our partners in successfully passing HB 786, which requires school districts and other public sector employers to provide basic accommodations for staff who express breast milk at work. An unfortunate Senate amendment classifies single-use restrooms as acceptable accommodations, but the bill still provides a foundation for improving infant and maternal health.

On the mental health front, we were concerned that the first draft of the HHSC Sunset bill proposed eliminating the successful Systems of Care approach to coordinating services for children with severe mental health needs. But by the end of the session, we managed to keep and even strengthen the program.

We scored a few victories in the state budget as well. For example, leading the Partnership for a Healthy Texas coalition, we helped secure funding for the Brighter Bites and Feeding with Impact programs, both of which improve access to healthy food for low-income children and families. As part of the steering committee for the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, we supported successful efforts to secure additional funding for women’s preventive healthcare programs.

Other recommendations fell short

Many of these policy victories were preceded by years of building support, coming up short, and trying again. That history provides some comfort as we consider the policy priorities that failed to make it across the finish line this session.

For example, this session we worked closely with our partners on legislation to include 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system rather than automatically sending them to theadult system. We’re deeply disappointed the bill did not pass, but we made significant progress marshaling support for it inside and outside the Capitol, paving the way for passage during the next legislative session.

While legislation to improve child care also fell short, we picked up new support and laid the groundwork for action by DFPS during the interim. Other policy recommendations that got short shrift from legislators this session include health coverage for low-wage workers and children, proposals to boost the financial security of low-income families, and a variety of anti-obesity measures. Despite widespread statements of support, legislators also failed to prioritize access to postpartum screening and treatment for low-income women

Wrong priorities in the budget

Lawmakers arrived in Austin with enough revenue to make smart, strategic investments in our state’s future, but for the most part they chose not to. The final budget shortchanges Early Childhood Intervention services for young kids with disabilities and developmental delays; maintains dangerously high caseloads for CPS caseworkers; and provides an inadequate increase in pre-K funding in light of promises to create a “gold standard” program.

Instead of investing in children, budget writers prioritized huge, permanent new tax cuts. The final $3.8 billion tax cut plan, a combination of business tax cuts and a higher property tax homestead exemption, threatens to create another round of deep cuts to education and health services during the state’s next economic downturn.

Legislation that hurts children

The permanent tax cuts weren’t the only legislation that posed a threat to children and families this session. We are disappointed that the Legislature combined three health and human services agencies – DADS, DARS, and HHSC – into a mega-agency, a move likely to create new inefficiencies and distract the agencies from serving children and families. Fortunately, DFPS and DSHS were removed from the final consolidation plan – for now.

We were more successful stopping other harmful bills, including proposals to eliminate fitness assessments for students and make it even more difficult for low-income families to receive SNAP, TANF, and other assistance.

Moving forward

Stay tuned for an updated, in-depth review of the session. We’ll also let you know about the work that needs to be done in the coming months as state agencies begin to implement legislation and other opportunities arise for shaping state policies and programs.

Thank you to everyone who helped move the ball forward for Texas kids this session.