AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In an overnight hearing, families of victims of the Uvalde school shooting gave tearful testimony to a Texas House panel, begging lawmakers to pass reforms they think would have stopped the state’s deadliest school shooting.

Kimberly Rubio, who lost her daughter Lexi, waited nearly 13 hours before she was able to take the witness stand in the House Committee on Community Safety hearing Tuesday. With more than 100 people signed up to testify, the hearing went on until nearly 4 a.m. Wednesday.

“I arrived here today at 8 a.m. and as we waited more than 13 hours, I’m reminded of May 24 2022 when we waited hours to be told our daughter would never come home,” she said.

In her emotional testimony, Rubio told lawmakers how she replays that day in her head over and over — wondering what might have been different if Lexi had been sick that day, or if she would have pulled her out of school after the award ceremony earlier that morning.

Rubio reiterated the one thing she says she knows would have changed the outcome: if the laws in Texas would have required the gunman to be 21 years old, not 18, to purchase the semi-automatic weapon he used to murder 19 children and two teachers.

“No action you take we’ll bring back our daughter. But you do have the opportunity to honor Lexi’s life and legacy by voting for House Bill 2744 which will make our community safer and save lives,” she said while fighting back tears. “Our hearts may be broken but our resolve has never been stronger.”

Veronica Mata, who lost her daughter Tess, echoed Rubio’s sentiment — imploring lawmakers in teary-eyed remarks to pass a law she believes will protect future children.

“You as leaders have a choice of what my daughter’s life will be remembered for. Will she die in vain or will her life have saved another child,” she said. “I’m begging you to please hear me out and don’t let my daughter’s murder mean nothing to you.”

Rubio, Mata and several other Uvalde families drove to Austin to testify in favor of House Bill 2744, which was written by their district’s legislator, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville.

King’s bill would make it a felony for a person to transfer a semi-automatic rifle to someone under the age of 21.

It was a first for the Republican-controlled legislature to even give a hearing to bills that would change how people can purchase firearms and how authorities have to report the purchases of those weapons. The Committee heard 18 different bills that also pertained to firearm safety, many of which were introduced as a direct result of the mass shooting in Uvalde.

More than 100 people signed up to testify during the House Select Committee on Community Safety, including family members of victims 2018 Santa Fe school shooting.

While the families and longtime gun control advocates were encouraged that the bills were getting a hearing, each bill heard was left pending in Committee. In this session, legislation must make it out of a committee by May 8 to have a shot at becoming law.

While there are some options to advance a bill after that deadline, the proposal faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Legislature that has moved to loosen gun laws in previous sessions following mass shootings.

In a February exclusive sit-down interview with Nexstar, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan reiterated that he does not believe his chamber would have the votes to support any age limit restrictions on firearms.

“I don’t think the votes are in either chamber,” Phelan said. “The federal courts are actually going in a different direction, they’re actually moving the age down to 18.”

The speaker’s remarks were in reference to a Texas federal court decision related to a state law that previously banned 18 to 20-year-olds in Texas from carrying handguns. U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman said the law was unconstitutional since the Second Amendment does not mention age limitations.

Supporters of the proposal point to that conservative Florida successfully raised the age limit after the Parkland mass school shooting in 2018, and the law has been held up.

Over on the Senate side, another legislator who represents Uvalde has been a leading voice in calls for tighter gun restrictions. Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, held regular press conferences with the families to unveil more than a dozen bills he filed as a direct result of the Robb Elementary school shooting last May.

Out of all the 21 bills Gutierrez filed, 13 have been referred to the committee but none have gotten a hearing or have had one scheduled.

The House committee gaveled in at 9 a.m. and discussed a handful of other bills before taking a recess for the House floor session. Lengthy floor debate, amounting to nearly nine hours, delayed the committee’s return — sparking criticism from Congressional Democrats about wasting the time of families who traveled hours to wait more than half a day to testify.

The Community Safety Committee resumed at 7:20 p.m. and gaveled out just before 4:00 a.m.

Push for higher pay for caregivers of people with disabilities

Glen Bradley’s son, Todd, had a cancerous tumor and a stroke as a baby, leaving him with brain damage, loss of vision and some issues with fine motor skills. Todd was just three months old when the father learned his son would need around-the-clock supervision for the rest of his life.

“You have to start preparing and making plans for what that’s going to look like when they’re older,” Bradley said.

That planning paid off when Todd was accepted into a state program offering long-term care services in the Dallas area. Now, as an adult, Todd receives these “Home and Community-Based Services” (HCS) while living in a group home with a few other men.

Bradley said it allows Todd a level of freedom he might not have otherwise, while still getting all the care he needs.

“We had started talking to Todd early on about that,” Bradley remembers. “We had said, you know, ‘His sisters are going to graduate from school, go to college, and then they’re going to go out on their own. And Todd, you’re going to get out of school, and you’re going to go out on your own, as well.’”

He described the caregivers in his son’s group home as “amazing,” helping with daily tasks such as bathing and feeding. However, in the last few years, the Bradley family has noticed more staff turnover and — at times — a shortage of caregivers in his home. 

“He develops relationships with his caretakers, and then they’re gone,” he said.

It’s why Bradley made the three-hour drive to Austin to testify before state lawmakers about the need for better retention methods for these kinds of caregivers.

“I don’t think he could ever imagine that he would lose his home,” Bradley said. “But now I realize how fragile and how tenuous the situation is that he’s in — and other people in those homes — because without those frontline workers there to take care of them, I mean, you can’t provide a home.”

The state offers different types of care options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), they can receive services while living in their own home, a group home with around four other people, a slightly larger intermediate care facility (ICF/IID) in their community, or one of the 13 State Supported Living Centers (SSLC).

People living in their own homes or a group home can apply for several different Medicaid “waiver” programs, including HCS, which are funded through a combination of federal and state dollars.

Demand for these programs remains high, with a notoriously long waitlist. According to HHSC, as of February 28, more than 157,000 people were waiting on an “interest list” for these kinds of community-based services.

Despite the demand, advocates feel the program has been historically underfunded.

“There’s so much fear, and we are seeing an extreme number of group homes having to close,” said Sandy Frizzell Batton, executive director of the Providers Alliance For Community Services of Texas (PACSTX).

PACSTX has been advocating for the legislature to fund an average wage of $15 an hour for these caregivers.

In April, the House passed a version of its budget bill, including funding for that $15-an-hour average wage. Meanwhile, the Senate budget bill being considered by lawmakers in that chamber instead calls for what Batton refers to as a “floor” — an $11 an-hour base wage.

According to state records, it would be an increase from the current base wage of $8.11 an hour. The base wage has increased only 11 cents from the $8 an-hour base wage passed by the Legislature in 2015. Prior to that, an HHSC report states it was $7.84 an hour.  

Batton said if either version of the budget passes this session, it will be the “most significant investment” they’ve seen from lawmakers for wages for several years. Still, her group is hoping the legislature will provide for an average — as opposed to a base wage — to avoid wage compression, where current and more experienced workers are devalued compared to newly-hired employees.  

Batton said, right now, the legislature has funded an average of around $9 an hour.

According to a survey of community and personal care attendants published by HHSC in February, survey respondents’ median wage was approximately $10 per hour, “indicating that half of the respondents make less than $10 per hour and half make more.”

Batton pointed out that HHSC recently announced higher salaries and starting wages for staff at SSLCs, another type of care option for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In a release in January, HHSC said pay for direct support professionals would start between $17.50 and $21.

“We’re all fighting over the same workers,” said Denise Gasmire, CEO of Champion Services. “Everybody knows that the fast-food restaurant has $15 an-hour in their window. So, I think everybody knows that it is essential.”

Champion Services operates several support, services and group homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including the one where Todd lives. It’s personal for Gasmire, who started Champion because her son needed these kinds of services, too.

“These folks are our brothers; they’re our sisters; they’re our children; they may be our aunts, and uncles — whatever, they’re our friends,” Gasmire said. “We want them in the community, with us, and not placed away in an institution. So, that’s why it’s so important so that they can maintain their connections with their families and their friends, and be a part of the community. They are a part of humanity.”

Unlike some other types of long-term care that accept private pay, Gasmire explained all her revenue comes through the state’s HCS program. She said Champion recently increased pay for caregiving staff to $12 an hour, but that money has to come out of other operating expenses and services. She believes, without an increase from the legislature, it’ll be tough to keep her group homes in business.

Gasmire said 33% of all the necessary shifts at Champion Services are open, even after offering higher wages.

“I don’t have staff to fill them,” she said.

Batton called it a trend across the state: “That means at any given time, one out of three homes doesn’t have regular staff on-site — meaning staff that are there that have already worked 12 hours, 18 hours, and there is no one there to relieve them.”

She acknowledged staffing shortages and extended shifts also increase the likelihood of mistakes on behalf of the caregivers, and subsequently, the care for patients.

Last year, an investigation from the Austin American-Statesman found the state has investigated nearly 80,000 allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation in the programs that provide services to the IDD community. The Statesman investigation also uncovered attacks on these caregivers in the system.

Gasmire and Bradley testified about the need for a rate increase at a hearing in late February. They both told KXAN they were hopeful that this session lawmakers were listening.  

“Our direct care workforce sometimes feel like they’re forgotten. It just would mean a lot, just not only financially to them but for the legislature and for the state, to let them know that they’re important enough to pay a fair wage for the work that they do,” Gasmire said.

Senator fueling push for conservative priorities named to budget conference committee

“We’re gearing up to advance one of the most conservative sessions in Texas History,” Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, announced at January’s inauguration ceremony. The line from his speech introducing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick drew applause from the audience outside the Capitol.

Since that January day, Creighton has been on the front line of several battles over priority legislation for conservatives. He chairs the Senate Education Committee and authored Senate Bill 8, which would create Education Savings Accounts. The plan to allow parents to use public dollars to go toward private education is a key issue for both Gov. Greg Abbott and Patrick.

Creighton also authored bills to end tenure at public universities, as well as a measure to require those institutions to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices.

This week, Patrick named Creighton as one of the Senate members who will serve on the budget conference committee. That committee will work to resolve differences between the two budget bills passed in both the House and Senate. The committee consists of five members from the House and five from the Senate.

Creighton spoke about his work this session in a one-on-one interview for the State of Texas politics program. The interview started with a discussion of the floor debate before Senators passed his bill to eliminate DEI offices at public universities.

Monica Madden: The debate on the bill got heated at times. We just heard from Senator West who said he didn’t feel as though you and your other Republican colleagues were listening to persons of color in the legislature and their concerns on this issue. How are you addressing that?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: We have great respect for Senator West. We had a long seven-hour debate on the Senate floor for the Diversity Equity and Inclusion legislation. Personally, I feel like the committee process was very thorough. Senator West was in the Subcommittee on Higher Education to vet the legislation. He was also in the larger at large Senate Education Committee when the legislation came through, was very active in committee with the witnesses, many, many conversations related to the bill.

Monica Madden: So when he said that, you know, people of color know best on these issues of inclusion, do you disagree with that sentiment?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: I don’t disagree with that sentiment. I think that it is a little bit of a narrow sentiment because the assumption is that people of color weren’t for the bill.

Monica Madden: We talked about DEI programs and how in the original format they were formed to create more opportunities. But you said that, you know, these aren’t working as-is and you mentioned the Baylor study a couple times on the floor. Why do you think that eliminating these programs is the best path forward towards a more inclusive environment on college campuses?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: Well, the case I presented in hearings, and also through so many hours of debate on the Senate floor, it clearly showed just irrefutably showed that DEI is not working for minority faculty recruitment. Over the last 10 years, there have just been dismal results. The DEI units and programs have been somewhat weaponized with these loyalty oaths or required diversity statements, that has a chilling effect on those that feel comfortable applying in general. Maybe they don’t agree with the political ideology that’s exhibited through those required oaths. That’s the same thing that we’re seeing in California. We’re seeing it among Texas universities, that is compelled speech, right? When you have compelled speech, you do not have free speech. And if you don’t have free speech, you have exclusivity. And if you’re being exclusive DEI falls.

Monica Madden: Do you think there’s something that the Senate you know if this bill does become law should put into place for alternatives for still making sure that you know, we’re meeting those goals but you said you are for?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: You know, Texas Women’s University is an example, one of the most diverse universities in the state does not have a university-sanctioned for faculty driven DEI department, yet they’re accomplishing incredible diversity. I think that the DEI departments and those particular units, are not defining the overall mission of seeking diversity for our Texas universities. And I think we’ll be more successful without them.

Monica Madden: Senator, you’ve also been leading the front carrying a bill on a priority of both the Lieutenant Governor and the Governor. That is the education savings account, which for our viewers who might not be familiar, that is, you know, public allocating public dollars to families who want to send their children to private school. You know, talk a little bit about some of how you’ve been addressing some of the concerns from your colleagues from rural districts. Rural Republicans have said that they are concerned about this because some of them don’t even have private schools in their area. So how are we making sure that this is applicable to anyone?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: You know, for school choice, and parental education, freedom, all the things wrapped up in Senate Bill 8, the parental rights that are just paramount for our moms and dads across the state to make the decisions that are best for their children’s education. I stand for that. And so I think, knowing that we would be the 31st state in the nation to advance a major school choice program, we’d be the ninth or 10th state with an education savings account. They really haven’t from Arizona in its fourth iteration over 30 years, Florida in its third iteration, over 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of use of the ESA’s in rural areas. But what I would say to our friends that represent rural areas, and I’m one of them. Right? I would say that if those alternative private schools, as opportunities or choices are not available, then the ESA is not really an issue in the first place, because kids are going to stay in those private schools and not seek them.

Monica Madden: How do you address some of the concerns that we’ve heard from teachers and public school organizations who are worried that this might take away funding from public schools that otherwise would have gone there?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: Right, we’ve got historic funding for public schools. This session, we’re lifting up public schools with in between 14 and 18 billion dollars of state funding that wasn’t there even two years ago, right? We’re lifting up public school teachers like never before to be safe, and better compensated in the classroom. And separate from our public school funding initiatives. We have a surplus, and the surplus, like the border, like property tax reform, like strengthening the grid, all of these big issues that we have as priorities for the session, education, freedom should also be one. And so that separate money, it’s going through the Comptroller, not the Texas Education Agency, it’s a very measured plan, and the dollars are set. So it’s about 1% of our public school students, that would be served.

Monica Madden: Now your bill, of course, has cleared the Senate, but is facing a little more resistance, if you will, in the house. Talk about your conversations with members in the lower chamber on how you’re getting that moved forward in the house.

Sen. Brandon Creighton: Yeah, you know, I have great respect for my friends in the house. I loved serving in the Texas House of Representatives. And I understand that it’s a process, they have to make decisions that are best for their districts, and I encourage them to do so. But I think we’re in a different day on the public education landscape. I believe that members that were not for education, freedom or school choice in the past, I think the last 36 months in the public education landscape, really, in Texas and nationwide has changed dramatically. And I think we’ve got some open hearts and minds that are considering the ESA more than ever before, even if even last session, they weren’t for it.

Monica Madden: Now, pivoting to another topic that’s important. This week, the House and Senate named its members of the conference committee to hash out the differences of the budget. You’re one of those five senators talk about some of the challenges that lie ahead in those negotiations.

Sen. Brandon Creighton: Yeah, I’m excited that Lieutenant Governor Patrick asked me to serve as a budget conferee. As you mentioned, those were the final negotiators between the Senate and the House to reconcile those two budgets and their differences. So we’ve got some major work to do. There are always differences in the priorities of the Senate and the House for the budget. There’s also great alignment. So we’ve got some incredible opportunities to land the plane for historic support for public schools for our teachers, for our retired teachers and cost of living adjustments and a 13th check combined. That’s really incredible. We’ve got to show our teachers that when they enter the profession that we’ve got a destination for them when they leave the profession later on after their career is over. And we’re addressing both. School safety is an incredible opportunity. We have between 600 million and a billion three invested in school safety. We have a lot of incredible initiatives there.

Monica Madden: One area where there isn’t alignment is the differences between the House and Senate proposals on property taxes, we’ve heard the Lieutenant Governor say he doesn’t want to negotiate with bad math. So how specifically are you and your members in the House going to iron out those details?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: Yeah, I think property tax overall, if we’re negotiating on how to lower property taxes for everyday Texans and businesses, I think we’re all winning. Right? So the House and the Senate have different plans. But that’s what the budget conferees are for is to work out the details on how to reconcile and blend the best aspects of both plants. And I believe we’ll do it.

Monica Madden: Do you think constituents like one plan more than the other?

Sen. Brandon Creighton: We’re hearing from constituents and on both they’d really like both plans put together. So we have scarcity of dollars, we have to make sure that we can fund basic state services. And just as California found last session, the surplus goes away. And we have to be measured with what we can sustain in spending going forward in future sessions. So we have worked, I think we’ll have a historic cut and property taxes, reform and relief, which is changing the system and lowering the amount of dollars that, you know, our homeowners are expected to pay, and I think overall will win.

Capitol vs. capital: Texas to strip some local powers to standardize regulations

A bill to assert the state’s preeminence over many local regulations passed the Texas House on Wednesday and is likely to be signed into law this legislative session.

The Texas Regulatory Consistency Act is intended to standardize regulations between cities. It would nullify many local ordinances and prohibit municipalities from adopting ordinances that relate to broad areas of law the state already addresses. These include the state codes relating to labor, business and commerce, agriculture, finance, insurance, natural resources, occupations, and property.

The bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said the bill will save small businesses from navigating often confusing and costly regulations.

“We want those small business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families, not trying to navigate a Byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time they cross city limit sign,” he said.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) said their members are often burdened with complicated compliance requirements that impact their business.

“The compliance nightmare is just unimaginable,” State Director of the NFIB Annie Spilman said. “Anything that is regulating a small business across county lines, across this state, comes from a one-stop shop… not 1,600 jurisdictions all across the state of Texas.”

Just blocks from the state capitol, the capital city argues local governments are the best entity to govern their communities.

“We used to believe that the closer you got to voters, the more you understood their issues and represented their interests,” Austin City Council Member Ryan Alter said. “Now that cities have done things that some state legislators don’t agree with, they’ve decided that they know best.”

The City of Austin is particularly concerned for their Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, which prohibits companies with 15 or more employees from refusing to hire an applicant based on their criminal history. Under this bill, that kind of labor regulation would be reserved for state and federal governments.

“We as a community have decided that we think it’s important for individuals to have the best opportunity to gain employment if they have a criminal history. And that’s something that the state is trying to take away,” Alter said. “If a community wants to advance a certain value, then we should have that ability to do so. Just because certain state lawmakers don’t agree with it doesn’t mean that they should be able to impose their values on somebody 500 miles away.”

The NFIB rejects the argument that the bill would harm employees or hamstring local governments. They argue many of the strongest protections are already mandated by state and federal agencies.

“Worker protections and worker safety is number one for a small business owner,” Spilman said. “Their employees are their family, they want to take care of them. If we’re going to do anything that is going to be any sort of worker protection, it needs to be one set of standards that is passed here so that all employers in the state have to pass it.”

Alter also mentioned the city’s requirement relating to minimum rest break requirements for construction workers. NFIB cited federal OSHA requirements they say already offer those protections.

Alter believes the law will pass and said the city will try to preserve as many regulations as they can.

“There will be things we’re just not going to be able to do anymore,” he said.