FEATURED, FROM LEFT: Opal Lee of Ft. Worth, a civil rights champion known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, pose in the Texas Senate on Thursday, July 22, 2021, after Lee was honored by the Texas Senate for her lifetime of activism. According to the Washington Post, on Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Biden signed legislation establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
Photograph Courtesy SENATE MEDIA SERVICES
81 bills by Sen. Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, ranging from COVID-19 to Winter Storm Uri, to become law on Wednesday, September 1, 2021
By LAURA FÉLIX
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, passed 106 bills during the 87th Regular Legislative Session – 81 of which become effective on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.
Texas’ 87th Regular Session took place from Tuesday, January 12, 2021, through Monday, May 31, 2021.
A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives of the Texas Legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state.
Legislation is a proposed or enacted law or group of laws.
Her legislation ranges from addressing timely issues such as COVID-19 and Winter Storm Uri to expanding her longstanding priorities of education, public safety, and guardianship.
“2021 presented novel challenges that compelled my staff and me to adapt our legislative approach,” she said. “Flexibility, collaboration, and problem-solving enabled our productive session.”
COVID-19 outbreaks and power outages in nursing homes, for example, inspired two of her newly effective bills:
• Senate Bill (SB) 930 requires disclosure of the occurrence and number of cases of a communicable disease in long-term care facilities; and
• House Bill (HB) 1423 mandates regular, unannounced inspections of these facilities.
During the pandemic Texas’ unemployment rate surged to a record-high of 12.9 percent, inundating the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) with requests for assistance.
Accordingly, Zaffirini filed an unemployment reform package comprising SB 695, SB 2099, and SB 1801, which authorizes TWC:
• To serve notices of assessment to employers via certified mail;
• Guarantees that claimants inquiring about their benefits will receive a timely return phone call or email from TWC; and
• Diversifies the acceptable methods for Texans to repay overpaid benefits, respectively.
A proponent of enhancing public safety and reducing violent crime, Zaffirini passed SB 957, which prevents crime victims from being denied benefits from the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund for failure to talk to the police at the crime scene or the hospital; and HB 103, which establishes a statewide Active Shooter Alert System.
She also sponsored and passed HB 39, which ensures protective orders are enforced adequately and issued timely; and HB 375, which makes the sexual abuse of a person with a disability who cannot consent a first-degree felony.
“Although we can’t right the wrongs survivors of these heinous crimes faced, we can provide them with a sense of justice,” she said. “My prayer is that survivors and their families find peace and healing and that these laws will preclude future tragedies.”
Other new laws taking effect in September include a series of guardianship reform bills that adopt recommendations from probate court judges (SB 615) and the Real Estate, Probate, and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas (SB 626); establish a guardianship mediation training course (SB 1129); and create specialized guardianship courts (HB 79).
“I look forward to monitoring the implementation of these laws to ensure Texans benefit from their effect,” she said. “I’m delighted to see the bills my staff and I devoted months — and, in many cases, years — to finally improving the quality of life for Texans in Senate District 21 and throughout our great state.”
Zaffirini’s additional bills effective Wednesday, September 1, 2021 include:
• SB 45, extending sexual harassment protections to employees of businesses with 15 or fewer employees;
• SB 884, transferring The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio’s Laredo Campus to The UT System;
• SB 959, requiring the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to consider achievement in qualified continuing workforce education programs when recommending performance-based funding;
• SB 1019, disaggregating student loan data demographically, including by race and gender;
• HB 33, facilitating the award of postsecondary course credit leading to workforce credentialing based on military experience, education, and training;
• HB 119, prohibiting discrimination against organ donors on the basis of disability;
• HB 428, mandating health insurance coverage of ovarian cancer screenings;
• HB 604, requiring animal shelters to scan pets in their custody for microchips;
• HB 700, awarding college credit to foster youth who complete the Preparation for Adult Living Program;
• HB 780, establishing a statewide bone marrow donor recruitment program;
• HB 1434, requiring a doctor to obtain a patient’s informed consent before performing a pelvic exam;
•HB 2058, ensuring children in the foster care system have access to age-appropriate normalcy activities; and
• HB 3529, amending the civil definition of identity theft to include coerced debt.
CRITICAL GAPS EXIST WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, CHILD WELFARE SERVICES IN TEXAS, ACCORDING TO RESEARCHERS WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, AND THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MEDICAL BRANCH AT GALVESTON
Domestic violence and child welfare agencies in Texas do not have enough resources to provide survivors with consistent housing, child care, and counseling services, according to a new analysis funded by the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Governor that highlights the gaps facing the state.
The findings were released on Tuesday, August 24, 2021.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Medical Branch drew from surveys and interviews with numerous stakeholders including survivor parents, youths exposed to domestic violence, and legal aid professionals.
Although survivors identified long-term housing and child care as top needs, only 53% of agencies surveyed provide housing beyond emergency shelter, and only 40% offer onsite child care. Agency staff members reported a lack of resources and staffing to meet the needs of families.
The findings also showed that parents and youths report domestic violence programs to help families find safety, improve mental health, and access resources to heal after the violence, but there were consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on survivor parents, youths, and agency staffers.
Disruptions to the social safety net increased the risk for violence for survivors, with 69% of domestic violence agency staffers reporting decreases in client families’ safety since the start of the pandemic. Although domestic violence and child welfare agency staff members quickly pivoted to virtual services, staffers and clients both reported limited resources and service closures due to COVID-19.
The analysis underscores the need for more youth-targeted services, especially for teenagers.
Most Texas domestic violence agencies surveyed offer children’s counseling and child advocacy services, but more than half reported needing to increase counseling and advocacy capacity for youths by at least 50% to meet demand.
Researchers additionally found that youths benefited from a continued connection to resources — such as support groups, counseling, and after-school care — once they exited the program.
“When we spoke with survivors and their children across Texas, we found a deep need for services that address the impact of violence on kids,” said Monica Faulkner, Director, UT Austin Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing, who co-led the study. “Building the capacity of domestic violence agencies to offer trauma-informed and youth-oriented services such as counseling and mentoring will help ensure all kids in Texas are safe, healthy and thriving.”
Additional findings include:
• The top reported needs of youths exposed to domestic violence and their survivor parents were housing, child care, and counseling.
• Only 18.5% of Texas domestic violence agencies offer full-day, onsite child care.
• Since the pandemic began, 73% of Texas domestic violence agency and child welfare staffers have reported increased work stress.
“Housing is violence prevention. Child care is violence prevention,” said Leila Wood, Director of Evaluation, UTMB Center for Violence Prevention, and the lead investigator on the study. “Domestic violence and child welfare agencies do incredible work to support survivors and their children across Texas, but more resources and economic supports are needed to facilitate safety and healing in the aftermath of trauma. My hope is that this study provides the road map for filling resource gaps and addressing survivors’ needs.”
LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER PRIDE MONTH OBSERVED EARLIER THIS SUMMER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS RIO GRANDE VALLEY
When Pride Month was observed earlier this summer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV Allies wanted LGBT individuals in the community to know they are valued members of the Vaquero family, and always have a safe place to ask questions, be vulnerable and learn throughout the year with its Safe Zone Allies.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month (LGBT Pride Month) is celebrated annually in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots and works to achieve equal justice and equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) Americans.
In June of 1969, patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City staged an uprising to resist the police harassment and persecution to which LGBT Americans were commonly subjected. This uprising marks the beginning of a movement to outlaw discriminatory laws and practices against LGBT Americans.
Safe Zone Allies at UTRGV are staff, faculty, students, or campus partners who provide support and assistance to the LGBT community. To be an official ally at UTRGV, these individuals must complete Ally Safe Zone training.
“The UTRGV Ally Safe Zone training aims to create better spaces for students, faculty, and staff,” said Aaron Hinojosa, Program Coordinator, UTRGV Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
The training provides attendees with content and guiding tools pulled from the Safe Zone Project to educate faculty, staff, and students on the importance of allyship. The Safe Zone Project is a national movement that encourages individuals to learn about LGBT identities, gender, sexuality, and examines prejudice, assumptions, and privilege within the community.
“We talk about the importance of pronouns, the difference between sex and gender, LGBT history and tips and strategies on how to be a better ally, and we also make recommendations on how to communicate your allyship,” Hinojosa said.
The training also includes highlighting the added challenges that LGBT individuals from other marginalized groups may encounter which include race/ethnicity, immigration status, and class.
“We have learned a lot from history. Although we have come a long way there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done to help build stronger, better, and more supportive and inclusive communities, specifically within the LGBT community,” Hinojosa said. “So, considering other different identities of individuals, this kind of training and effort is needed, not just at UTRGV but in other organizations as well.”
Dr. Douglas Stoves, Dean of Student Rights and Responsibilities, UTRGV, said the university is committed to providing an environment that is diverse and inclusive.
“I am proud that our Center for Diversity and Inclusion has taken a leadership role in this area,” Stoves said. “The Ally Safe Zone is a commitment that we have made to make sure that we are providing those who choose to participate with the knowledge and tools they need to support members of our community that identify as LGBT. It is important that all students know they are welcomed, affirmed, and valued at UTRGV.”
Since 2019, more than 250 students, faculty, and staff from the UTRGV community have participated in this training, which is held throughout the year and is currently being conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas.
This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.
UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.
Victoria Brito Morales and Kate McKerlie contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).