Value Work and Aspiration

 
"By valuing work and aspiration, we give everyone a chance to succeed."

              - State Representative Mike Villarreal 
 

Texas has one of the strongest economies in the world, but we can do a much better job of giving everyone an opportunity to be a part of it. Seventeen percent of Texans live below the poverty line of $20,000 for a family of four, compared to 12.5 percent nationally.  About 700,000 Texans live in poverty despite at least one family member working fulltime year-round.  Many more Texans are above the poverty line but living paycheck to paycheck, working harder and harder to get ahead but facing growing economic uncertainty. 

 

We can expand and strengthen our middle class in a way that honors our Texas values of self-sufficiency, work and entrepreneurship. Along with investing in education, here are nine areas where I am working with my colleagues to clear a path for hard-working Texans.

 

Access to Fair Lending

 

We need to help working Texans access fair lenders when they are looking for a loan. Individuals must take personal responsibility for their borrowing decisions; however, government has a responsibility to ensure consumers are provided basic information before they sign a loan and that lenders follow best practices in lending. Disclosures should include the full cost of the loan in the form of APR and loan alternatives, and be communicated in the language the loan was solicited. Where possible, interest rates should be capped at reasonable rates and incomes should be verified.

 

We took an important step in this direction when we passed HB 1344 during the 80th Legislative Session. This bill for the first time regulates the facilitation of Refund Anticipation Loans (RAL's), high-interest rate loans to taxpayers who can't wait for their tax returns. I'm also committed to protecting borrowers from shady home mortgages, perpetual payday loans, and punishing credit cards debts.

 

Building Assets and Economic Security

 

Too many hard-working Texans are not getting ahead.  We must reward their hard work and give them a foothold into the middle class. One way to do that is encouraging them to file for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In San Antonio, for example, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers have successfully assisted working families in claiming their tax credits and avoiding high priced tax preparers and loan facilitators, bringing $52 million back to our community in 2007.

 

Today many Texans learn about the EITC thanks to a bill I passed in 2005, HB 630. This bill requires state agencies to notify families they work with about EITC. Two years later I authored HB 1948, a bill to set up a state grant program to expand the free VITA tax preparation program throughout the state.  We should use the EITC and other innovative programs to help Texans save for college or a down payment on a first house.

 

Child Support for Single Parents

 

Nationwide, poverty rates are highest for families headed by single mothers.  In Texas, 30% of families with children are led by only one parent.  We need to ensure that single parents and their children receive the child support they are due.

 

In 2007, I successfully amended SB 228 to assist the Attorney General's office in compelling delinquent parents to pay overdue child support. I also joint-authored HB 670 to remove the time limit on the collection of back payments to single parents and their children.

 

Affordable Health Care

 

Our health care system is broken, threatening Texans' lives and financial security. The one-and-a-half million uninsured children in the state are less likely to see a doctor when they get sick. They're more likely to develop serious health problems, cost taxpayers more by relying on emergency rooms, miss school and weigh down their parents with crushing medical bills.  Every year fewer businesses offer insurance to their employees, leaving one quarter of all Texans without health insurance and others dedicating larger slices of their paychecks to private insurance with shrinking benefits. We must invest in prevention and encourage individuals to take responsibility for healthier lifestyles, but we also need to make sure all Texans have access to affordable insurance for physical and mental health.

 

Making health care affordable will require the active participation of our federal government.  However, there are important steps that our state can take. For example, after filing HB 822 to restore greater access to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for children of low-income working parents, I was pleased that the 2007 Legislature passed a modest CHIP restoration bill.  As co-chair of the Women's Health Caucus and Treasurer of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, I'm fighting the health threats to these particular populations, such as cervical cancer and diabetes.  As my amendment to HB 2426 in 2007 expanded nursing education opportunities, we must also continue to address the scarcity of certain health care professionals in the state.

 

Supporting Small Businesses

 

Small businesses play a vital role in our state economy. They employ about half of the non-farm workers in the private sector.  Every time a Texan launches a successful new small business, it not only creates jobs but also exemplifies what the American dream is all about.  We must make sure that every Texan with a smart idea, a business plan and a commitment to hard work, has a clear path to pursue that dream.

 

We need to grow the capacity of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), such as ACCION Texas. CDFI's grow new entrepreneurs by coaching and lending to small businessmen and women who can't access a conventional loan.  I wrote HB 727 in 2005 to establish a state CDFI grant program and have led the fight to fund CDFI's and the Capital Access Program.  We also need to reform the Texas Enterprise Fund so that its purpose is not to steal jobs from other states but grow new jobs in Texas. Today, the Fund only benefits large businesses.

 

Protecting Texas Workers

 

Texans want to work, knowing that hard work is the key to success. But even the best work ethic in the state will only take you so far if you have an irresponsible employer.  Some employers, for example, fail to take care of workers injured on the job or notify employees if they don't carry workers' compensation insurance.

 

Fortunately, I now expect the Texas Department of Insurance to begin cracking down on businesses that flout their responsibilities to their workers.  The 2008-2009 budget includes language I wrote to improve compliance, requiring the Department to report on its enforcement efforts. I also filed legislation to allow construction workers and employers to reach workers' compensation agreements that meet the particular needs of their industry.

 

Welcome, Wanted and Planned Childbirths

 

Today one-third of all pregnancies nationwide are unwanted, and about half are unplanned.  Whether these mothers are in their teens or 20s, they are rarely in the stable, healthy, financially-secure marriages in which children are statistically most likely to thrive. They and their children face diminished educational and economic prospects, and their dependence on government programs rises. Half of all abortions result from unplanned pregnancies to unmarried women in their 20s. 

 

We can begin to address these problems by providing more Texas women with preventative healthcare that includes family planning services and empowering young men and women with better opportunities and education. Many of these solutions are included in the Texas Prevention First Act that I wrote in 2005.  I believe we can bring together diverse groups of Texans to find common ground and turn the corner on this pressing issue.

 

Safe, Quality, Affordable Child Care

 

Today fewer Texas families have a fulltime stay-at-home parent than in the past.  The reasons vary by household, as economic realities require two paychecks, women pursue career interests, welfare rules mandate a job, and single parents strive to raise their children.  What many of these families have in common is a struggle to find safe, high-quality, affordable child care.

 

As more parents are forced into the workforce, the state must help meet their child care needs. HB 1385, a bill I passed in 2007, gives businesses a safe and effective way to set up on-site child care for their employees' kids.  In 2005, I authored successful legislation to help create a one-stop system for parents looking for public early education and child care programs.  I'll also continue to work to reduce the waiting list for subsidized child care, which exceeds 30,000 families, and invest in improving the quality of centers that shape the children entering our schools. 

 

Helping High-Need Texans

 

Many of the Texans who have the greatest difficulty becoming self-sufficient require special attention.  One-and-a-half million Texans cannot fully function at work or school because of serious mental illness, while many others struggle with alcoholism or drug addition, yet treatment programs are grossly under-funded. As the war in Iraq grinds on, more veterans come home struggling with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or recovering from severe physical wounds.  Many foster care children face instability and even abuse during their most formative years, and then are suddenly on their own at the tender age of 18. Finally, ex-offenders often struggle to effectively integrate into communities after they serve their prison sentences, particularly if they have faced the abuse recently discovered in our state's juvenile justice system.

 

While each population faces different challenges and arouses different levels of sympathy, we strengthen our communities by investing in programs that heal their wounds and put them on a path to self-sufficiency.  I have passed legislation to expand early education benefits for former foster children and another bill to give them a voice on foster care policies. We must continue to give Texans who faced trauma and other significant challenges a chance to succeed.