Winter 2014
LEGISLATOR PERSPECTIVE

Legislative Opportunities in the Age of Gridlock

By The Honorable Eric Johnson, Texas State Representative represents District 100, which includes parts of Mesquite and Dallas, in the Texas House of Representatives. He was first elected in a special election in April 2010. He was re-elected in November 2010 and again in November 2012. Today, he serves on four prominent committees: as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, as Vice Chair of the House Committee on General Investigating & Ethics, the House Committee on Elections, and the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. He also serves on the House and Senate Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education, Governance, Excellence, and Transparency.

Legislative Opportunities in the Age of Gridlock

Now that the November elections are over, we must turn our attention to the task of governing. In an era defined by legislative gridlock, however, we must put our differences aside, find common ground, and develop new allies if we are going to bring about positive changes for our constituents.

Many politicians appear to have concluded that if they cannot have their way entirely, inaction is preferable to action. Compromise and bipartisanship are dirty words that will either summon hordes of angry primary voters, intent on imposing ideological purity, or make the majority party or chief executive seem too competent at administering the people’s business.

Congress is the obvious offender with current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy quoted on the evening of President Obama’s inauguration telling other leaders, “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority… We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill.”  Given President Obama’s approval rating, he may have been on to something, but given the track record of Congress, no one goes unscathed. 

In the Texas House, I am part of the minority, but unlike Rep. McCarthy, I do not believe that we should pass up opportunities to improve the lives of our constituents, even if it makes the majority look more capable of governing. I am not suggesting that we should take whatever scraps are offered to us.  On some issues, such as denying our constituents their basic civil rights, there can be no compromise.  However, if our constituents are better off by a potential deal, we are obligated to pursue it. As such, I have identified what I think are some prime opportunities for finding common ground with non-traditional allies.

Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K)

Consensus is growing that funding full-day Pre-K for four year-olds will be one of the best education investments in America, which is great news for African Americans, since many of our children are entering kindergarten significantly behind their classmates. The data shows that this disparity will haunt our children throughout their education with many simply never catching up. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Governor in Texas campaigned on expanding Pre-K, albeit with different specifics. The business community is also on board with conditions. 

The good news for our constituents is that those conditions are basically good for them.   The most significant one is that public funding should only go to those who need it most: English language learners and children from military, homeless, or lower-income families. Enrolling these children in quality Pre-K should improve educational outcomes because they are otherwise likely to be placed in unlicensed or lower quality childcare. Funding higher-income children who are likely to have been enrolled in a Pre-K program with or without such funding is more of an economic subsidy to their families than an educational investment.

Even a common flashpoint of conflict in education policy – the involvement of private schools – can be an opportunity here. Since federal Head Start dollars are already channeled to private providers, any comprehensive Pre-K policy must include them. Including private providers is also essential for providing the capacity necessary to quickly ramp-up enrollment. In order to accommodate all of these participating programs, a hybrid model can be utilized where funding and top-level administration are done by school districts but Head Start and other non-district programs participate as stand-alone campuses. 

Criminal Justice Reform

I urge everyone to seek out and foster groups like The Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition, which is composed of businesses, traditionally liberal reformers, and small-government conservatives. Many conservative groups have seen the massive costs associated with warehousing millions of Americans for petty and non-violent crimes, and are willing to support innovative solutions. There are plenty of reforms backed by solid data that show cost savings and reduced recidivism through a focus on diversion and rehabilitation.  The African-American community has borne the brunt of the collateral damage of the War on Drugs and other misdirected criminal justice policies and, therefore, has the most to gain from reforms to the criminal justice system.

Another potential opportunity for legislative accomplishment is the adoption of police body-mounted cameras. Both the police chief and officers’ association in my hometown of Dallas have recently come out in favor of body-cams. The use of body cams has the potential to reduce questions surrounding officer-involved shootings and could also provide valuable evidence to aid in the conviction of dangerous criminals in our communities. Perhaps the greatest upside of body-cams is the cities that have adopted them have seen a dramatic drop-off in police officers using force as well as civilian complaints against police departments. As one such city’s police chief noted, “Everyone – police and civilians – seem to be on better behavior when they know they’re on camera.”

College Completion

One of the biggest debates in higher education policy in Texas today is tying public university funding to performance measures like graduation rates, as opposed to current formulas that focus more on class attendance in the first weeks of a semester. 

Completely upending the funding formulas for massive educational institutions is obviously a very complex task that should not be done without careful study, but I believe there is merit in evaluating the success of our public higher education institutions through the lens of public interest goals. Prime among these for me is the African American graduation rate, which is 15 points lower than the six-year graduation rate of 55% for White students.

Institutions like the University of Texas at Austin have piloted programs that have been wildly successful at improving completion rates, so it is past time for us as African-American legislators to demand the programs are scaled-up and adopted universally. 

Access to Mainstream Banking and Loan Services

The push to place meaningful regulations on payday lenders—a cause more associated with liberal reformers—has been led in the Texas Legislature by one of its most conservative members, Representative Tom Craddick. This shows that we can build bipartisan support to address some of the scourges of our community if we are able to frame the issue in terms of fairness and protecting citizens from predators.

But such a frontal attack on a big industry is almost always an enormous task demonstrated by the number of legislative sessions in which reforms have seemed close to passage, yet ended with nothing to show for all the time and effort.  So in the name of finding solutions that could enjoy broad bipartisan support, we need to also look at alternative—or at least complementary—solutions that address the fundamental problem: many of our communities are under-served by mainstream banking services, both at the consumer and small business level.

Several states have recently legalized “crowdfunding” for equity investments in small businesses. These operations typically use online portals to steer many small investors towards specific capital needs of local businesses. Texas regulators just did so here, but failed to specifically allow cities to operate such portals and promote credit-worthy businesses, something I intend to address in legislation next year. City governments have often been the most active in redevelopment initiatives, and crowdfunding could open up new strategies. For example, Washington, D.C. is using urban renewal grant funding to help local small businesses produce and promote crowdfunding investment opportunities.

We can also address the reliance on non-mainstream financial services by encouraging banks to begin servicing our under-banked communities at greater levels. For over a decade, banking development districts have been used by the State of New York to encourage banks to open branches in under-banked communities. The State offers to give such branches the business of large state agencies, and guarantee them substantial deposits of public accounts. After researching the issue and consulting with stakeholders, I am reconsidering that approach.  Instead of determining eligibility for those incentives based on opening a new brick-and-mortar location, it may make more sense to simply set levels of consumer and small business lending in under-served communities and let the banks figure out for themselves how to best meet those standards. 

I am sometimes asked—as I am sure many of us are—how I avoid becoming frustrated at the powerlessness of being a legislator in the minority. The same probably goes for many of you in the majority in legislatures bogged down in gridlock of various causes. I ran for office as an optimist who believes that governments can do things for people to measurably improve the quality of their lives. So I choose to believe that gridlock is just an opportunity to try new approaches with new and perhaps, unexpected friends.

The Honorable Eric Johnson

Texas State Representative represents District 100, which includes parts of Mesquite and Dallas, in the Texas House of Representatives. He was first elected in a special election in April 2010. He was re-elected in November 2010 and again in November 2012. Today, he serves on four prominent committees: as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, as Vice Chair of the House Committee on General Investigating & Ethics, the House Committee on Elections, and the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. He also serves on the House and Senate Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education, Governance, Excellence, and Transparency.

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