Table of Contents
Overview of Texas' Government Structure
The Texas Legislature
I. Size and Partisanship
Over the 140-day regular session of the 88th Texas Legislature (2023), lawmakers debated a wide range of issues. Almost 12,000 bills were filed. But did those issues and bills represent the interests of Texans? And are the lawmakers themselves representative of Texans?
II. Qualifications for Office
IV. Legislative Sessions
V. Pay (traditional culture, limited government)
VI. Comparing and Rating State Legislatures
Read your text carefully to get a good idea of the general characteristics of the Texas legislature. Our legislature is a bicameral one – meaning it has two houses. The House of Representatives has 150 members who serve two-year terms. The Texas Senate has 31 members who serve four-year terms. Our legislature has one regular session that is 140 days long and occurs in odd-numbered years. The governor – and only the governor – can call special sessions of the legislature in between the regular sessions. These special sessions will be discussed in more detail when we discuss the governor.
Legislators make $7,200 per year. Remember that our current constitution was written as a reaction to reconstruction and the writers were determined to make it impossible for the government to gain power. You see, therefore, low salaries, limited sessions and specific mandates of power. These things were attempts to rein in the power of state government. Individually, legislators are surprisingly homogeneous. They are predominately Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist. They are, by and large, conservative. Most of them are attorneys or real estate agents. Many of them have inherited money. And the majority is Democrat, although that is changing. In order to run for the legislature, the constitution requires only that you be a US citizen, a qualified voter, and have lived one year in your district. Do you know who your representative or senator is? Do you know how they vote on the issues? How well do they represent you? Why or why not?
VII. Leadership and Procedures
E. highlights of legislative process
1. three readings of each bill
2. committee stage and second reading most important
3. during committee considerations of a bill citizens can give testimony
4. first and third readings less important
5. ⅔ rule in Senate: ⅔ of Senators must agree to debate a bill, empowers minority
6. House Calendars Committee: can speed up, slow down, or kill a bill
7. riders: obscure amendments to benefit a member’s home district
8. For budget legislation, which has its own processes and calendars, see the Texas Finances section below on this page.
F. legislative calendars
2. major: bills that require a lot of debate
3. minor: bills that are uncontroversial
G. logjams: most bills passed at end of session
VIII. Informal Rules
A. norms of behavior
1. do not conceal real purpose of bill
2. avoid personalities during debate
3. do not block unanimous consent
4. no publicity hounds
5. avoid public disclosure of private decisions
B. leadership style
1. consensus builders: decentralized decision-making process
2. hard driving: more centralized decision-making process
The primary function of the legislature is to pass legislation. Let’s take a few moments to look at how a bill becomes a law. The first step is the Introduction. The bill may start in either chamber and is introduced only by a member of that chamber. The bill is given a name and number and goes through the First Reading, at which time the bill is read by name and number only to the entire chamber.
The Speaker or Lt. Governor, depending on the chamber, then refers the bill to committee. Committees have life and death power over a bill and the power of the presiding officers to refer bills to the committee of their choice can determine the future of the bill. In committee, a bill may be pigeonholed – meaning it is filed away and never considered – in which case it is dead. The committee may conduct hearings, investigations, etc. This is the point in the legislative process at which citizens have an opportunity to provide testimony regarding a bill. The committee may amend or change the bill. If, however, the bill is not pigeonholed, the committee votes on whether or not to send it to the entire chamber. If a majority of the committee vote against the bill, it is dead. If a majority vote for the bill, it continues to the second reading. Perhaps because there are so many bills to be considered in a 140-day session, most bills die in committee.
The Second Reading is the only time the entire bill is read to the entire chamber. The chamber may debate, amend or change the bill. At the end of this process, the chamber votes to engross (print) the bill. If a majority of the chamber vote against the bill, it is dead. If a majority vote for the bill, it continues to the third reading. Prior to the Third Reading, the bill is printed and members are given a few days to read it. The third reading before the entire chamber is by name and number only. At this time, the chamber votes to pass the bill. If a majority vote against the bill, it is dead. If a majority vote for the bill, it goes to next chamber. In the second chamber, the bill must go through all of the above steps and be passed in identical form in both chambers.
If the bills that came out of the two chambers are not identical, a Conference Committee is set up to resolve the differences. A conference committee is a joint committee – half of its members are appointed from the House by the Speaker and half from the Senate by the Lt. Governor. A conference committee must agree to accept either the House version of the bill or the Senate version of the bill or a third compromise version. If the committee cannot agree on a bill acceptable to both chambers, the bill is dead.
Enrollment is the final step in the legislature. If both chambers approve a bill (with or without the help of a conference committee), it is enrolled. At this time, all of the necessary legislative signatures are put on the final printed version of the bill and it is sent to the Governor. The governor may sign a bill into law. He may ignore the bill and it will become law without his signature. The governor may veto a bill, in which case both chambers must vote by a ⅔ vote to override his veto or the bill is dead.
How to Follow a Bill
Below are the basic steps involved in passing a bill into law. Links to information available on the Texas Legislature Online are provided to aid in following these steps.
As you can see, there are a number of forces influencing legislation. The presiding officers (Speaker and Lt. Governor) greatly influence the legislative process through appointing committees and referring bills to committee. Their enforcement of the rules of their chambers can also affect the legislative process. Remember that the Lt. Governor is primarily a legislative officer. If legislators oppose their presiding officer too often, they will not be able to pass their own bills. It is in everyone’s interest to go along.
As we will see in more detail in the next section, the governor has influence over the course of legislation through his veto and through his ability to call special sessions. The governor can also send messages to the legislature urging them to certain courses of action. Too, through his appointments the governor can have some influence over how vigorously legislation is enforced. As we saw previously, interest groups can greatly influence legislation. They are perhaps the number one factor affecting legislation in Texas today. And coming up, we will see how the courts play a role in influencing legislation as well.
There are a number of problems with the Texas legislature. Because most legislators have little experience, there is usually a lack of legislative experience as well as a lack of expertise in the various issue areas. Too, beyond the presiding officers, there has traditionally been a lack of leadership. The normal hierarchy found in most legislatures is missing in Austin. Since the legislature meets biennially, there is always an enormous amount of proposed legislation. Usually, thousands of bills are considered in one 140-day session. Add to this the excessive number of special and local laws that the state legislature must deal with because of the nature of the state constitution. The amount of proposed legislation is beyond the possible. Finally, there are a number of constitutional limitations on the legislature. Your text goes into more detail on those.
A number of possible solutions to the problems of the legislature have been suggested over the years. Among those are to change to a unicameral legislature, create a joint committee system within the bicameral legislature, impose a limit on the number of special and local laws, change the constitution to give more power to localities, use more bracket bills, increase salaries to attract more diverse legislators and move to annual sessions.
The Texas Governor
I. Roles of the Governor
III. Powers of the Governor
The term weak executive refers to the fact that the governor of Texas has no direct control over most of the agencies in the state government.
A. executive power
a. 4 years, no limit on terms
b. no lame ducks, more influence on legislature
2. oversees, to some extent, state agencies
a. Appointment is probably the most important executive power of the governor.
b. plural executive limits power, many offices elected separately
c. ⅔ Texas Senate approval for most appointments
d. can fill state court and US Senate vacancies only until next election
e. some appointees serve at pleasure of governor, most do not
f. needs ⅔ Senate approval to fire board/commission member
As with the legislature, the status of the Texas governor created by the Constitution is a reaction to Reconstruction. The governorship was not meant to be a powerful position. The governor is only the nominal head of the executive branch. Texas has a plural executive in which other executive branch officials have more power than the governor in certain areas. The Lieutenant Governor, for example, is considered to be the single most powerful person in Texas government. The Attorney General is the most powerful official in law enforcement, although the governor is considered the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Both the Commissioner of the General Land Office and the Commissioner of Agriculture have more power over their respective areas than the governor. And, in his ability to certify the state budget, the Comptroller of Public Accounts, the principal collector of state revenue, has arguably more power over the budget than the governor. The Texas governor is not without some power, though.
Although a member of the executive branch, some of the governor’s most important powers are legislative in nature. The governor’s power to veto legislation is his most direct legislative power. Gubernatorial vetoes have rarely been overridden since the 1940s. The governor may impose a general veto on an entire bill. He may impose a line-item veto on specific items in appropriations bills. He lacks a pocket veto, meaning legislation becomes law without his signature. Due to the unique nature of the legislature, however, the governor can impose his vetoes after adjournment. These "post adjournment" vetoes cannot be overridden by the legislature once they have adjourned.
As we saw previously, only the governor has the power to call special sessions. Special sessions last for thirty days and may be called as often as the governor wishes. Too, only the governor may set the agenda for the session. The Texas constitution requires that the governor set legislative priorities in a state of the state speech at the opening of each regular session. Although the legislature is not required to listen to these priorities, often they do use the governor’s priorities as a starting point in the session. The governor is also required to recommend legislation for these priorities. Usually, but not always, the legislature ignores the governor’s legislation.
As a member of the executive branch, the governor also has a number of executive powers. His power to make appointments is his most important executive power. It is limited in a number of ways, though. For most appointments senate confirmation and senatorial courtesy are required. Too, many of the appointed positions in most states are elective positions in Texas. The Secretary of State, our principal election officer, is one of the few top-level appointments the governor makes. The governor’s power to remove is severely limited in Texas. The governor cannot even remove his own appointments without Senate approval.
Although the governor is considered to be the state’s chief law enforcement officer, he has very few powers in that area. Check your text for details. Too, the governor’s powers in the area of clemency are limited. It is the governor who grants and requests interstate rendition – but that is only because the federal government made it the governor’s responsibility. The governor’s budgeting powers are limited, as we shall see in our discussion on budgeting in Texas. As with interstate rendition, the federal government has made the governor responsible for federal grants-in-aid. Finally, the governor oversees, to some extent, the state agencies. The ombudsman, an official in the governor’s office, handles complaints by citizens against state agencies. The governor is, however, referred to as a "weak executive" because he has no direct control over most of the agencies in state government. Texans seems to like the idea that our governor only has limited power. Do you agree/disagree?
The Texas Bureaucracy
I. The State Bureaucracy
II. Democracy and the Bureaucracy
The Texas Courts
I. Judicial Decision Making
II. Judicial Federalism
III. Types of Texas Courts
E. high courts
1. Court of Criminal Appeals
a. except in death penalty cases, has discretionary jurisdiction (The power of appellate courts that permits them to decide which cases they will review. Appellate courts beyond the first level, most commonly courts of last resort, typically have discretionary jurisdiction. The procedures used by appellate courts with discretionary jurisdiction to screen cases varies by law and by volume of cases.)
2. Supreme Court
a. civil and juvenile cases
b. discretionary jurisdiction
IV. Judicial Selection
4. nonpartisan elections
5. partisan elections (used in Texas, except for municipal judges)
B. problems with partisan judicial elections
1. voting by name recognition
2. party line/straight ticket voting
3. campaign money
a. from lawyers and corporations who appear before the courts
b. conflict of interest for judge
4. minority representation
a. county and district-at-large elections hurt minority candidates
Look at the structure of the state court system shown above. The lowest court is the justice of the peace court and, in some cities, the municipal court. This court has only original jurisdiction in lesser cases. Municipal courts, for example, are often called traffic court because they deal mainly with traffic violations. County courts at law and specialized county courts, such as family or probate courts, have original jurisdiction in cases too serious for justice of the peace courts and have appellate jurisdiction in cases appealed from the justice of the peace courts. Check your textbook for the specific types of cases heard in each of these two levels.
If a defendant wishes to appeal the decision of a county court, he or she must appeal to the Texas courts of appeal since the next level, the district court, has only original jurisdiction. The district courts are often called the chief trial courts of Texas since this is where the most serious of our cases begin. Murder, rape, aggravated robbery – felonies are heard for the first time in the district courts.
The Texas courts of appeals hear appeals from both the county courts and the district courts. If a defendant wishes to appeal beyond this level, civil cases are appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and criminal cases are appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Texas has two high courts.
To get a different look at the structure of our state courts, click on the icon below.
In Texas, judges are elected by partisan elections. In fact, as a citizen, you are most likely to participate in the judicial process through voting for a judicial candidate. In recent years, however, there has been a concerted effort to reform the method by which judges are elected. The term merit selection of judges refers to the provisional gubernatorial selection based on recommendations of a nominating commission, followed by a nonpartisan referendum for permanent selection. An alternative plan involves gubernatorial selection with uncontested, recall elections on a regular basis. As judicial selection now stands, few citizens have any idea who is running or whether they are qualified. This allows judges in most cases to act unsupervised and, while most Texas judges are honest, qualified people, some are not. Knowing that most people don't vote and that many of the ones who do are voting in ignorance, do you like the idea of electing judges? Why or why not?
The most important role in disciplining judges is now played by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. This involves a long and secret process that seldom results in meaningful action. The final stage in the judicial removal process involves a court of review – something that will rarely happen.
V. The Role of Juries
VI. Crime and Punishment
I would like to define some terms which are essential to any discussion of the courts but with which you may have some difficulty. Jurisdiction refers to the types of cases a court is competent to hear. Some courts have only original jurisdiction, meaning that court may only hear a case the first time it is tried. Don’t let the idea of ‘first time’ confuse you. If a case ends in any way other than a verdict, if for example it ends in a mistrial or hung jury, it still hasn’t been heard the first time. If you are on trial for murder your first trial is an original case. If the trial ends in a hung jury – they cannot decide your guilt or innocence – and the district attorney decides to retry the case, the next case will still be an original case and must be heard by a court that has jurisdiction over original cases. Once a verdict has been reached, however, you may appeal the decision to a court that has appellate jurisdiction, meaning that court hears cases on appeal. Some courts have only original jurisdiction. Some have only appellate jurisdiction. Some courts have both original and appellate jurisdiction.
We also need to differentiate between criminal law and civil law. Criminal law is considered to be crimes against the state. Crimes in Texas are divided into misdemeanors and felonies. Check your textbook for the graded offenses system we have in Texas. Pay attention, as well, to the newest type of offense – the state jail felony. Civil law, on the other hand, deals with relations between two private parties – for example, a business contract that has been violated. Because criminal law deals with crimes against the state, a person accused of violating the criminal code is tried by the state. The state pays for the trial, provides the defendant with an attorney if necessary, and pays for the punishment if the defendant is punished (e.g., prison time). In a civil action, though, the people involved must pay. The person who sues you must pay for his or her attorney and court costs. You must hire an attorney to defend you. The defendant pays for any punishment – a cash settlement, for example. In any given act, there may be grounds for both a criminal trial and a civil trial. The two are very different things, however, with different rules and what occurs in one has no bearing on what may occur in the other.
VII. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
In contrast to the US Constitution which included its Bill of Rights only as an addendum in the first ten amendments, the Texas Constitution puts the Bill of Rights at the beginning in Article I. Freedom of speech and the press is protected in section 8. Peaceful public assembly, the last of the US 1st Amendment rights, appears in section 27. Protection against unwarranted searches and seizures is assured in section 9. The rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions are specified in sections 10 through 21, including:
I. Local Governments
II. City Government
Texas is 83.7% urban. That means that most Texans live in or near an urban area. Texas cities may be general law (governed by the state constitution) or, if over 5,000 in population, they may vote to become home rule cities. Home rule cities have more local control over the city charter, so that there is greater flexibility in determining their form of city government. This is the principal advantage to home rule status. There are three basic types of city government.
A mayor-council city government is composed of a mayor and a council. The mayor may be considered a strong mayor if he is elected and has the power to veto, write the budget, make appointments and so on. Mayors may be considered weak if they are appointed by the council and have little or no powers. These mayors may be nothing more than figureheads. Often, however, the power of the mayor depends more on the personality of the official himself than on any formal institutional arrangement. City councils vary widely from city to city. Some are elected from single-member districts. This usually leads to a council that is representative of their constituents, but not very cohesive. A council that is elected at large will be much more cohesive, but not as representative. Council members elected at large tend to all come from the same neighborhood in the city. Too, minority groups are usually represented only on district elected councils. The strong mayor-council is the most popular form of city government in America’s ten largest cities.
A commission city government is composed of the elected heads of the various city departments – police, water, fire, streets, etc. - rather than representatives of geographic areas. The commissioners, who may also have an elected or appointed mayor, collectively act as a city council and individually as the heads of their departments. The commission form of city government was supposed to take politics out of city government. It didn’t. There are problems associated with the commission form. Those elected to head departments are often inexperienced. Even if experienced, commissioners still have reelection concerns so they may not make the hard decisions. Often commissioners are more concerned with the success of their department than with the success of the city. The people, then, are not represented at all.
With the council-manager form the city government may look like any of the forms of city government but, in addition, the city hires a person who is an expert in all areas of city government. This is the city manager. The city manager was supposed to take politics out of city government. The rest of the government – the mayor, council, whoever – could play politics if they wished but the professional city manager would be the expert who made the hard decision. This is the most popular form of city government in home rule cities in Texas. It does have its problems, though. The manager may really be an expert, but people with political concerns hire him. Often city managers either protect their jobs by doing what is politically popular, or the politicians fire them in order to protect the politicians' elected positions.
Almost all cities have problems with city finance. The state mandates that cities perform more and more types of services for larger and larger groups of people without raising taxes. Traditional city services include such things as police and fire protection, water and sewer services, and street maintenance. Increasingly, though, cities are required to also provide new services such as cable, health care and recycling. The major sources of city revenue have been and remain the property tax, the sales tax, and the mixed-drink tax. Increasingly, cities are turning to non-tax revenues, such as grants, to make up their deficits. However, the major problem facing cities today is citizen apathy. Less than 10% of all voters participate in local elections. Even fewer are aware of who their local officials are and what issues are facing their city. Do you know who your local officials are and where they stand on the issues? Do they truly represent you? Why or why not?
III. County Government
County governments hold a unique position in Texas. Under the Texas constitution, our 254 counties are administrative arms of the state and, as such, are governed by the state government and constitution. This means that all county governments look and operate the same regardless of their differences. The structure and operation of county government in Texas is oriented to serving a rural population – a holdover from the culture of the 1800s. County governments all have a county judge, commissioners court, county sheriff, county clerk and county tax assessor-collector. Many have a county treasurer, county attorney, county auditor, county surveyor, and a county budget officer. All officials are elected to a four-year term of office. Each official is given very specific duties. Check out your text for these.
Like cities, finances remain a problem for county governments. County expenditures are state-mandated. This means that counties are required to maintain a jail, provide indigent health care, hold elections, keep records, and so on. Expenditures, then, increase at the whim of state government. Revenue does not. Counties are restricted by the state in their revenue sources. The primary source of revenue for counties is the property tax. The commissioners court, within state guidelines, sets the property tax rate and adopts the county budget. A countywide tax appraisal district evaluates property. There are certain approved fees and bonds for capital improvement, but the property owners of the county are the major source of revenue.
County government remains plagued by problems. Counties lack ordinance-making power. They are allowed to do certain specific things, such as police junkyards, but they may not pass zoning or other laws. Counties lack a true chief executive officer. The county judge is the nominal head of the commissioners court, but few county judges have any power over the rest of county government. For most citizens, the county road system remains a problem. The main function of each of the four county commissioners is to maintain the roads in their precinct. Counties may adopt a unified system so that they turn this duty over to a road engineer, but few counties have, and even then there are problems with unified quality, cost and corruption. The inflexible structure of county government remains a problem for those counties that do not fit the mold of the 1800s. Lack of money is a continuing, and often worsening, problem. Property owners can only pay so much. Most counties have to live with poor salaries for county personnel (not the elected officials), substandard jails, poorly equipped and poorly trained law enforcement, and so on. What counties often wind up with, then, are poor quality personnel. Personnel who are able to move on to better paying jobs usually do so. As with city government, the underlying problem and the cause of most of the others is citizen apathy. The levels of government that affect us the most are the ones about which we know and care the least.
IV. Special Districts
Special districts are units of local government that perform a single function for a particular group of people in a designated geographic area. There are as many types of special districts as there are problems people wish to solve. Among them are water and soil conservation districts, utility districts, hospital districts, fire districts, mosquito control districts, junior or community college districts, and public school districts. Voters within an area establish special districts for the purpose of performing a specific function more cheaply and efficiently than could be done by the individuals within that area. Public school districts are the most visible and common special districts. Special districts are usually financed through taxes established in an original vote and administered by some type of board for the specific function established in the original vote. The major source of revenue is, again, property taxes.
Finally, councils of government are voluntary associations of local governmental units that come together to aid in regional planning and coordination. Your text has a much more detailed look at these regional organizations.
Public policy is the response, or lack of response, of government decision makers to an issue.
I. Stages of the Policymaking Process
II. Dynamics of the Policy Process
I. Measuring State Taxes
A. tax capacity: ability to tax and raise revenue based on a population's wealth (or lack of it)
C. per capita: taxes per person
D. tax burden
1. progressive: based on the ability to pay (federal income tax)
2. regressive: not based on the ability to pay (sales tax)
E. Texas tax system
1. average tax capacity
2. below average tax effort
3. below average per capita
4. very regressive
5. symptomatic of the Texas traditional/individual political culture
II. State Revenue Sources
Spending directives by the legislature are the most important factors in determining the level of state services available to Texans. Below are the budget spending categories for FY2023.
Texas operates under a balanced budget policy. The state constitution requires that budgets not exceed the estimated revenue for the budget period. The Comptroller must certify that the state will bring in enough money to cover the proposed budget. Our fiscal year is September 1 though August 31 for a two-year period (odd year to odd year).
We also have a dual budget process, which includes the Legislative Budget Board (controlled by Speaker and the Lt. Governor) and the Executive Budget Office (controlled by the governor). The Legislative Budget Board, a more recent creation, usually gets more attention from the legislature than the Executive Budget Office – for obvious reasons. In recent years, governors have often not even bothered to propose a budget.
The area of governmental policy that deals with taxation and spending is fiscal policy. The traditional Texas fiscal policy is the achievement of a balanced budget through a low tax policy and a low spending policy. Our tax policy calls for low, regressive taxes - lower, in fact, than all but three or four other states. Refer to your text for a complete discussion on regressive vs. progressive taxation. Keep in mind, though, that regressive taxes tend to hit the hardest the people who can least afford to pay. Progressive taxes tend to hit the hardest the people who can most afford to pay. Texas’s total state revenue in 2023 came from state taxes (45%), state nontax revenues such as fees and interest (19%), and federal funds (36%). Of the state taxes, the sales tax was our single most important tax and our most productive tax, accounting for 51% of all state tax revenue ... but it is a highly regressive tax and hurts lower- and middle-income Texans. Other taxes (property, gross receipts, etc.) bring in little revenue.
Our spending policy calls for low spending for public programs. Spending directives by the legislature are the most important factor in determining the level of state services in Texas. Historically, those spending levels have been low. State spending for public assistance, for example, ranks Texas near the bottom of the fifty states in public assistance available to indigent people. Public education is our largest single budget expenditure. In order, our remaining budget expenditures are health and human services, and public safety and criminal justice.
In recent years, taxes have remained relatively low because of the growth in the Texas economy. Unfortunately, the economic growth of Texas in the recent decades has rested substantially on growth in the service industry, which provides predominately lower paying jobs. If Texas is going to maintain the same tax base it must depend on economic growth. If the economy goes through bad times in the future, as it has in the past, our lower- and middle-income tax payers will be hard hit by the structure of the Texas tax system.
Issues in Texas Politics
I. Issue: Water Resources
Texas’ relationship with water can be summarized as a battle of growing demand against dwindling supplies. The state’s population is one of the fastest growing in the US and is projected to increase more than 70% by 2070, with water demand going up 3.2 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.) Historically, most of Texas’ water use has been for agriculture, but expanding populations are shifting the focus to urban areas. The previous geographic variability of water stress across the state - traditionally with east Texas being wetter than west Texas - will become more uncertain in coming years due to climate change.
Texas’ surface water resources are divided among 15 primary river basins, with networks of dams and reservoirs to collect and distribute water. Warmer and drier temperatures will increase evaporation from soils and open water bodies to reduce the total volume of lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs. Surface water availability is projected to decline 10% by 2040, combined with an estimated 5% decrease in soil moisture. These percentages may seem small, but they translate to a loss of millions of acre-feet. While the number of extreme rainfall events will likely increase in the coming years, hotter temperatures negate any positive effect of excess precipitation on water availably, especially with the rise in mega-drought frequency and severity. The occurrence of consistent soaking rains is projected to decline, decreasing the number of light showers that keeps soils wet and plants happy, lengthening the average time between precipitation events. A greater prevalence of drought exacerbates already water-intensive sectors such as agriculture and municipal use.
Texas primarily relies on groundwater, held under the surface in aquifers, to meet water demands. Large areas of Texas deficient in rainfall and having few perennial streams available for water supply contain vast quantities of underground water in storage. There are 9 major and 22 minor aquifers spread across the state, including the southern part of the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the country. Underground water is a principal water resource in Texas, and its importance as a source of supply for municipal, industrial and irrigation uses, as well as domestic and livestock purposes, is immeasurable. Currently, groundwater is being pumped at a rate 10 times faser than it can be refilled, well over the maximum sustainable amount. Rainfall that seeps into the ground moves through the soil at a rate of only 10 feet per year. Since aquifers are hundreds of feet below ground, it might take more than a decade for that rain to reach an aquifer or water-bearing strata. And slower recharge rates will lead to a decline in groundwater storage capacity.
As one example, the Ogallala Aquifer is pumped on a massive scale, irrigating corn, cotton, wheat, and sorghum crops in the areas around Lubbock and Amarillo and accounting for about 40% of all the water used in the state. Of course, it is being slowly depleted and sometime in the next century will run completely dry. Within 50 years, the entire aquifer is expected be 70% depleted. Some observers blame this situation on periodic drought. Others point to the individual choices made by farmers, since irrigation accounts for 90% of Ogallala groundwater withdrawals. But the Ogallala is not alone. The Trinity Aquifer, which provides much of the drinking water to the Texas Hill Country, has seen a sharp decline amid rapid growth and years of extreme drought.
Texans face the same challenges as the global community. The state’s population is expected to nearly double by 2060 and will become more urban. From 2000 to 2060, total statewide demand for water is projected to grow 27%, while water supplies from existing sources are expected to decrease by 18%. These circumstances paint a dire picture. Without a significant, persistent climate change that brings increased moisture, this growth is likely to mean that more people will live with less water. Ensuring reliable water supplies for the future, and balancing those supplies appropriately between rural and urban areas, and among agricultural, municipal, industrial and electricity-generating users is the challenge.
II. Issue: Criminal Justice
Texas is known for its tough-on-crime mentality. Once the Texas court system is finished with an offender, he comes under the jurisdiction of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The stated purposes for which Texas imprisons felons are to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime. Texas has a history, however, of simply punishing offenders.
The first Texas prison was constructed in 1849 and opened with three incarcerated offenders. Today the system is huge. As of 2022, the population of the Texas prisons was about 140,000 inmates, giving Texas the highest prison population among the states. And if you add up all the people in prisons and jails, and on probation, parole or some other form of community supervision in Texas, it comes to over 700,000 people (2021). Texas has an incarceration rate of 840 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities), higher rate than any democracy on earth. Inmates are housed in 98 facilities located throughout the state, 87 of which are operated by TDCJ and 11 that are privately operated. The 87 facilities operated by TDCJ include 60 prison facilities, 3 pre-release facilities, 3 psychiatric facilities, 1 developmental disabilities program facility, 2 medical facilities, 13 state jail facilities, 1 geriatric facility and 4 substance abuse felony punishment facilities. TDCJ also maintains 67 district parole offices, supervising 79,418 offenders (2022) released from prison to parole supervision.
Texas has been a pioneer in how to do mass incarceration on the cheap and even turn prisons and law enforcement into profit-making centers. Today it operates not only the largest penal system in the country but also one of the cheapest and meanest. Despite past unprecedented prison booms in Texas, spending on corrections remains a tiny fraction of state spending. The TDCJ’s budget comprises just 3% to 4% of the state’s total budget - or roughly half of what it spends on highways - each year. Because of the TDCJ’s size and lack of funding, mass incarceration in Texas has led to a number of problems, a few of which are listed below.
Aging facilities: Some prisons in Texas are more than 100 years old. Many penal facilities are in dire need of basic repairs and renovations for items such as leaky roofs, faulty fire alarms and antiquated water systems. Texas has air conditioned inmate housing areas in only 30 of its facilities and the options available to others in the Texas heat - showers, cold water, etc - are generally unavailable to inmates.
Physical and mental health problems: Overcrowded prisons lead to increased health risks and decreased psychological well-being.
Costs: Increasing numbers of prisoners put a major strain on the state budget. The prisons control and administer all aspects of inmate life, resulting in a long list of costly necessities. Costs include food, clothing, recreational activities, educational opportunities, adequate security, utility costs, infrastructure maintenance, health care and so on.
Cost shifting: To alleviate the economic costs of mass incarceration, Texas has increasingly shifted the cost to the people behind bars and their families. Jails charge up to $11.25 for a 15-minute phone call, reaping profits for companies, while prisons charge 90¢ for a 15-minute phone call and up to 47¢ for an e-message to or from the prison. Texas charges incarcerated people $13.55 to access medical care. In units without air conditioning, purchasing a fan from the prison commissary costs $20. The poorest get some items for free but they are required to pay the state back. And people in Texas prisons are not paid for their work.
Staffing: Prison guard turnover has soared in Texas. Chronic staffing shortages have impaired prison safety, making it even harder to recruit and retain guards. Incidents of the major use of force against people incarcerated in state prisons have increased about 50% over the last decade (even though the prison population has declined), likely due to chronic staffing shortages, high staff turnover, inexperienced guards and the brutally hot facilities in the summer.
Sexual abuse: Newsweek and other publications have referred to Texas as the “prison rape capital of the US” because it leads the country in sexual abuse in prison. Almost half of TDCJ facilities surveyed have rates of sexual victimization by staff members and inmates that exceed the national average, in some cases by 2, 3 or even 4 times higher.
Isolation: Texas leads the country by far in the number of people housed for long periods of time in solitary confinement. Nearly 70% of all prisoners in the country who have been isolated for six or more years are housed in Texas state prisons, and nearly half of all US prisoners who have been in solitary for three to six years are held in Texas.
Civil rights violations: Mass incarceration in Texas is a civil rights issue. Many argue that incarceration dehumanizes the poor and minorities and damages already marginalized communities, without increasing public safety. In rulings made in the 1980s, federal Judge William Wayne Justice criticized the state for its treatment of prison inmates (1979 Ruiz v. Estelle) and demanded specific reforms, many of which were short-lived. Inmate deaths from lack of air conditioning during Texas heat, the use of long-term solitary confinement as a punitive measure, solitary confinement of prisoners suffering from mental illness or physical disabilities, the use of excessive force, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and other charges are among the current civil rights issues of which TDCJ is accused.
Lack of reintegration support: Studies show that if an offender does time without proper counseling and assimilation back into the community, incarceration is ineffective and harmful to offenders, their families, the victims and law enforcement. Texas inmates are not prepared for reintegration and many prisoners have difficulty reestablishing relationships, finding jobs and staying away from criminal activity after being released.
There is a correlation between violent crime rates and poverty rates. Texas had the 9th highest poverty rate in the nation in 2021 and so ranked 11th on the list of the most dangerous states, with 391.1 crimes per 100,000 people. Despite that, the crime rate has generally dropped since the 1990s, sometimes dramatically. Yet TDCJ incarceration has remained high. Why?
Lack of money: In the Lone Star State, you can be arrested, booked and jailed for nearly any violation, including most misdemeanor traffic offenses, such as a broken tail-light or failure to signal. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are sent to Texas jails only because they are unable to post bail or to pay off fines and fees for offenses that are technically not punishable by jail time. Class C misdemeanors - the lowest-level offenses in Texas - routinely result in an avalanche of unconstitutional and devastating consequences. People unable to pay off their traffic tickets or other Class C fines quickly end up in a situation that almost guarantees that they will receive even more tickets, fines and penalties. Many of them eventually end up in jail, incarcerated without a hearing, legal representation or consideration of their ability to pay.
Female offenders: The number of women held in Texas state prisons has ballooned by nearly 1,000% since 1980, more than twice the rate of male incarceration. Texas now incarcerates more women than any other state. Additionally, the number of women serving 10 years or more in Texas increased over 50%. A multitude of factors have contributed to the growing rate of female incarceration: poverty, lack of education, lack of treatment for mental illness, tough-on-crime prosecution of drug crimes, psychological and physical trauma, and overly broad conspiracy and accomplice laws, which women are more likely to be swept up by.
New crimes and enhanced penalties: Since 2007, lawmakers have created hundreds of new crimes and dozens of enhanced penalties. For example, cheating or lying about the size of a fish caught in a tournament is now a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In recent years, the legislature has approved new criminal penalties to stem environmental activism. One common thread in most of the new restrictions is punishment for interference in fossil fuel infrastructure. In Texas it is a felony to damage, impair or interrupt the operations of oil and gas facilities. Under consideration is making it illegal to engage in riot boosting - a vague term that includes not only protesters themselves but also anyone who directs, advises, encourages or solicits the participation of others, including organizations and people not directly involved.
Drugs: The war on drugs rages on in Texas, which has yet to reduce the penalties for even low-level drug crimes, let alone more serious offenses. In 2019, the number of new misdemeanor cases fell to its lowest level in decades. But the number of new felony cases filed in Texas reached an all-time high, thanks largely to the growth in possession cases, according to the annual report of the Texas Judiciary. Reflecting public desire for reform, a number of legislative attempts have been made but law enforcement strongly objected to most substantial legislation and the legislature bowed to their interests.
Criminalization of social issues: A number of social issues have been criminalized in recent years, all of which (to varying degrees) increase TDCJ’s numbers. Aimed at the homeless, it is now illegal to camp anywhere in Texas unless you have permission from the landowner or are in a designated camping area. Further, Texas local governments are not allowed to adopt or enforce a policy that prohibits or discourages the enforcement of the camping ban. Multiple bills that would criminalize issues affecting LGBTQ people, as well as the parents and doctors of transgender children, have been introduced in the last several legislative sessions. Few passed, although supporters have vowed to reintroduce them. Among those that did pass is one that criminalizes drag show performers and any business that hosts them, but the language is so vague the bill could end up criminalizing behavior common at everything from Pride parades to bachelorette parties. Following the US Supreme Court 2022 ruling, both the performance of an abortion and providing the instrumentality or the means of an abortion are felony offenses. There has also been an increase in criminalizing elections, used to a certain extent to justify the additional involvement of law enforcement. A record number of people have been charged with alleged voter fraud and lawmakers have passed new laws that increase potential criminal penalties against voters and election workers.
Illegal immigration: About 40% of arrests of those suspected of illegally crossing the border involved only charges of suspicion of trespassing on private property, a catch-and-jail system allowing the state to skirt constitutional restrictions that bar states from enforcing federal immigration law. Arrestees are held in state jails for months at taxpayer expense and without the benefits of US citizens. Although border counties have asked for humanitarian aid rather than law enforcement, the state has funneled millions in grant dollars only to those counties willing to engage in criminal prosecution. Texas outlawed sanctuary cities, requiring local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain. Local authorities are forbidden from adopting policies that prevent a peace officer from asking about a person's immigration status. Department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents by turning over immigrants subject to possible deportation face criminal charges.
Recidivism: High recidivism rates (criminal acts that resulted in re-arrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the person's release) contribute to the number of people in the system. The three-year recidivism rate in Texas is 20.3% (2023). As mentioned earlier, the lack of reintegration support for Texas inmates leads to their inability to rebuild their lives after release and thus often leads them back into criminal activity. When asked about rehabilitation while in prison, one former Texas inmate laughed and told me the only thing he’d learned in prison was how to be a better criminal. And not only do repeat offenders add to the number of those incarcerated, they usually do so for a longer sentence. Texas has a graded penalty system that uses the concept of enhancement to address the problem of recidivism. Enhancement means a person punished for a second offense similar to the first can be given a greater penalty.
Public defense: Since cash-strapped counties in Texas are required to bear the cost, the state ranks among those states that spend the least per capita for public defenders for indigent defendants. Overburdened lawyers, in turn, contribute to so-called plea mills, in which they encourage defendants to plead guilty because they are either too swamped to investigate claims or incentivized not to. In Texas, the crisis is exacerbated by a key structural flaw: Indigent defense is largely overseen by judges. Judges in most Texas counties decide which lawyers get cases, how much they are paid and whether their motions - say, to reduce bail or test DNA - have merit. Given that judges are elected based, in part, on the efficiency of their courts, this is an inherent conflict of interest. Whatever the judge wants to do, it’s probably not to acquit the defendant.
Death by incarceration: Until 2005, Texas was one of the few states that did not have a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) statute, preferring the death penalty for serious crimes. Since then, Texas legislators have sanctioned LWOP and expanded the list of crimes punishable by it, as support for capital punishment has waned. The number of people serving life sentences in Texas has exploded even though serious crime is at its lowest level in decades. As of 2019, more than one out of every 10 prison inmates in Texas was serving a life sentence or a virtual life sentence (sentences with a term of years that exceed an individual's natural life expectancy) of at least 60 years. More than 1,200 of them had been sentenced to LWOP, also known as the other death penalty or death by incarceration. Less than 5% of the people serving life sentences in Texas who are granted a parole hearing are ever actually released. Texas requires juveniles sentenced to life to serve 40 years before receiving a parole hearing. If current trends continue, they are likely to die in prison.
Aged and ailing: Texas has hundreds of permanently bedridden inmates and many others who are elderly, gravely ill and unable to take care of themselves, let alone commit new crimes. But these aged and ailing prisoners are not likely to be granted medical parole, even though the compassionate release laws in Texas have some remarkably liberal features, at least on paper.
As the number of life sentences has exploded in Texas, the state has not entirely lost its appetite for capital punishment. Texas has capital punishment for specific crimes, called capital felonies. In determining punishment for a capital felony defendant, jurors consider whether the defendant would constitute a continuing threat to society. A defendant convicted of a capital felony and sentenced to death will spend at least seven years from arrest to execution. These inmates are given an automatic appeal unless they convince a judge to waive that appeal. Normally, a capital felony for which the death sentence was imposed is appealed directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Surprisingly, imprisonment is cheaper than execution. Texas leads the nation in the number of convicted felons who are executed. Although the annual number of executions is down in Texas, the state continues to operate the most active death chamber in the US by far.
Texas has lagged behind the rest of the country in juvenile justice reform.
Historically, Texas has been exceptionally punitive to juveniles. 60% of all public school students in Texas have been suspended or expelled at least once between the 7th and 12th grade. Even though Texas finally ended criminal penalties for truancy in 2015 and eliminated some of the most egregious aspects of its punitive ticketing system that sent many children and teen-agers to criminal court for minor incidents or offenses at school, its school-to-prison pipeline has not been ruptured. Harris County, which includes Houston, routinely sends hundreds of youths to juvenile lockups each year - often for weeks at a time - for minor probation infractions, such as curfew violations, school absences and failed drug tests.
Texas is one of just three states that still prosecute all 17-year-olds as adults. Raise-the-age bills have repeatedly stalled in the Texas legislature. Juveniles awaiting trial as adults in Texas jails are routinely kept in long-term isolation with no access to education programs and little human contact.
In 2012, the state was forced to shut down its juvenile detention agency and transform its juvenile justice system after a media exposé documented widespread physical and sexual abuse of youths that state officials were aware of but had not addressed. Violence and abuse continue to plague state juvenile facilities despite the overhaul.
Mass incarceration - for adults or juveniles - may not be the best answer to all crime. Rather than the recent practice of creating new crimes and stiffer penalties, lawmakers could look at reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for crimes when doing so would not affect public safety. Texas could expand the use of alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes and divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues away from the criminal justice system altogether. According to statistics compiled by the TDCJ, illiteracy and drug or alcohol use are two characteristics shared by more than half of the inmates in state prisons. Investing in crime prevention – treatment for substance use and mental health, housing and employment assistance, and trauma recovery centers, for example - and community resources might be a better answer.
III. Issue: Public Education
Texas spans 268,597 square miles. It truly is one of the most diverse states in the union - and the same holds for its more than 1,200 public school districts. The needs of one school district can often be completely different from another just a short drive away. In general, Texans express a deep reservoir of goodwill for the state’s public schools. The majority of parents (89%) are satisfied with their child’s public school and the quality of education their child is receiving and would choose it again given other options. This compares to 80% nationally. Even if given other public school choice options, 82% of public school parents would keep their child in their current public school,
However, there are concerns that should not be ignored. What do Texas parents see as the current problems in their children’s education? (1) a serious lack of state funding, (2) a lack of teachers due to low pay (89%), (3) the need to assist low-income students with material needs such as clothing and school supplies (82%), (4) the mental health of students and teachers (67%), (5) safety, with children at risk of bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and gun violence (6) vouchers (54%), (7) charter schools, (8) library book censorship, and (9) standardized tests.
Funding: The pandemic had a negative effect on student enrollment and attendance. Texas schools are funded based on their average daily attendance, which means COVID-related absences hurt the bottom line. Beyond the pandemic, however, public education funding has been a problem for a long time. Funding problems for Texas public schools can be traced to the state’s tax system, including a lack of income taxes and a combined state-and-local tax rate that places Texas 46th among the 50 states. Local property taxes and general state revenue together make up the revenue sources for Texas public schools. Between 2008 and 2018, the state revenue stream for schools declined by 12.6%, while the student population simultaneously increased by 13.7%. In 2019, legislators adopted a budget that included some modest increases in public school funding but, in general, years may go by without any increases, including increases for teacher and staff pay or any of the enhanced funding promised by the state in past years. (For a more complete discussion of the problems of public school funding in Texas, please look at the discussion on State and Local Spending for Texas FY2023 above.) Again in 2023, lawmakers didn’t approve extra money to help schools balance their budgets or pay for raises, despite an unprecedented $33 billion revenue surplus.
Teacher recruitment and retention: Texas is in and will continue to face a severe shortage of certified teachers. Teachers name low pay, excessive workload, increased duties and workplace culture as some of the reasons they are leaving. (For issues on workplace culture, see Long-term viable solutions rooted in policy changes are needed now.) The purchasing power of a teacher’s salary has not kept up with inflation over the last 10 years. Teacher salaries lag behind the national average and pensions from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas are stagnant. In FY2021-2022, TRS retirees’ average pension was $2,174 per month and many cannot afford to live on that. Teachers are certified, highly-qualified experts in their field and should be compensated as such.
In a 2022 poll, 77% of Texas teachers said they had seriously considered leaving the field. That figure was 58% in 2020. And teachers are not just thinking about leaving the classroom, they’re actually doing it. After the 2021-22 school year, 42,839 teachers left their jobs. That’s up from the previous school year when 33,949 teachers resigned. The major reasons given were economic and a lack of respect from the state leadership.
Leading into the 2022-23 school year, some districts reported hundreds of openings for teachers just weeks and days before the school year started. Unfortunately, when so many teachers leave, it results in overcrowded classrooms and potentially cutting programs and classes due to understaffing. Specifically, dual language and special education programs often bear the brunt of staffing shortages, programs students need to succeed academically. Keeping teachers in the classroom is reaching a tipping point. Half of the teachers who entered the profession in 2010 have already left the classroom, and research shows half of Texas teachers are quitting within the first five years of becoming a teacher. The teacher shortage is not something local districts can recruit their way out of in the foreseeable future.
The Texas public agrees that teacher pay and retention is a problem. In a 2023 poll, 89% of Texans believed the state should fund increased teacher salaries. This included broad approval among political parties, including 95% of Democrats, 90% of independents, and 83% of Republicans. When asked about salary amounts among different teacher tenure levels, Texans strongly supported increased pay for experienced teachers. Texans prioritized experience and cost-of-living over test scores for teacher salary increases.
Fewer Texans than ever (39%) want their child to become a teacher. 74% of Texans believe teachers are undervalued and receive too little respect in society and 66% believe teachers are overworked. By and large, teacher recruitment and retention is the biggest concern of Texans across the state. Large or small, rural or urban, all school districts are struggling to find and keep staff.
Low-income students: Texans are concerned about how to help the growing population of low-income or disadvantaged students in public schools. When basic needs such as food and clothing are not met it is difficult for students to focus on learning. Disadvantaged students may not be able to afford basic school supplies and will likely not have computers or internet access at home. Disadvantaged students are often under a lot of stress and may lack the social and emotional skills needed for success in school, so it’s important that it’s a place where they can seek support and feel understood. They also may not feel accepted or be included by their peers, and they may respond through behavioral problems. Students who live in poverty are more subjected to health issues and may miss more classes. Most of these problems can be easily addressed through school meals, clothes closets, professional development for teachers, libraries with before- and after-school hours, clubs, regular physician and dentist visits, tutors, mentors and so on … but all of these require resources.
In schools with lower percentages of disadvantaged students, volunteers and community groups are often able to help with those resources. But 60.3% (and growing) of Texas public school students are considered low-income and school districts across the state are seeing increases in their percentages. Houston ISD’s population of low-income students, for example, has been at 80% for more than a decade, while Spring ISD”s has increased from 44% to over 73%. The state’s antiquated finance system ranks among the bottom five for providing adequate resources to high-poverty school districts. Despite multiple cases reaching the Supreme Court of Texas, including several rulings in favor of plaintiff school districts, lawmakers have never created a system that puts all students on equal footing.
Mental health: Another common issue facing public schools is the mental health of students and teachers. After two years of pandemic-related stressors, including continued uncertainty, isolation and safety risks, it’s no wonder metal health issues are affecting the classroom. Mental health resources are a big priority for school board members across the state. There have been calls for schools to have at least one mental health counselor, who would help students deal with such issues as gun violence, psychological struggles and suicide risk. Various anti-gang measures have also been advocated. School board members and administrators desperately want resources to help students and teachers cope with various stressors.
Safety: Texans are concerned about student safety, both in terms of physical safety and how students are treated at school. Many parents believe their children are at risk of bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. On the positive side, majorities of parents reported they are very/extremely confident in the following.
However, there is real concern around school safety and the treatment of students. In an open-ended question about the biggest problems facing local public schools, worry about school safety, including the risk of gun violence, rose to the number one spot in 2023. 53% of Texans see at least a moderate risk that public school students in their own community might experience a mass shooting event at school.
Texans also worry about how students are treated at school. When asked about risks for students, Texans are concerned about cyber bullying (74%), physical bullying or fighting (68%), sexual harassment from other students (59%), discrimination based on learning abilities (58%), discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation (57%), discrimination based on economic status (55%), discrimination based on racial or ethnic background (54%) and discrimination based on English-language capabilities (52%).
Vouchers: During the 2023 legislative sessions, the lieutenant governor and several lawmakers attempted to push school choice, or vouchers. School vouchers would take public tax dollars from local independent school districts and use them for private school or homeschooling. Texas does not have a voucher program, in which the state allows public funds to be used for private school tuition, and a consistent 54% of Texans oppose the idea. Texans believe there must be transparency and accountability for all taxpayer dollars. In a hypothetical scenario in which private schools received state funding vouchers, the vast majority of Texans said they should be held to similar requirements as public schools (2023). Specifically, the following percent of Texans supported these requirements for private schools if they were to receive state funding.
Many school board members have expressed their opposition to vouchers because they would take much-needed funds from public schools and give the money to institutions with no accountability for how those funds are used.
Charter schools: Charter schools in Texas are tuition-free, publicly funded schools, most of which are privately run. Texas charter schools have a lower level of accountability and are subject to fewer state regulations than traditional public schools. Starting with 20 schools and just 2,400 students in 1995, charter school enrollment has ballooned to about 6% of the Texas school population. Charter schools are state-funded with no local tax base and account for 16% of state school funding. When charter schools recruit students out of a local school district, the state pays a higher price tag for the students now in charter school, and the school district loses funding for those students as well as the portion of per-student funding that benefited the entire district. When one or two students leave a classroom to attend a charter school, the local school district must still pay the teacher in that original classroom. The lights must stay on. The heater and air conditioner must still operate. In economic terms, charter schools have created inefficiency in the Texas public school system. Local school district leaders express concern about the loss of state funding to charter schools in already poorly-funded Texas education, as well as the lack of transparency around charter school operations and governance. For example, there’s been a lot of talk about making public school board meetings more accessible to parents. Yet charter school boards are not locally elected and the appointed members may not even live anywhere near the school.
Data show that, overall, charter schools do not outperform public schools in measures based on standardized testing, district accountability scores or student attrition rates. In 2019, charter schools had 6 times the failure rate of traditional public schools. According to a 2020 study: (1) public school districts outperformed charter schools on state STAAR tests in all subjects in each of the previous five years; (2) the four-year graduation rate for public school district high school students was 24 points higher than for charter schools (92.7% vs. 68.8%); (3) the dropout rate for charters was almost three times higher than public school districts (4.8% vs. 1.3%); and (4) public school districts earned more A and B ratings (85.1% vs. 54.8%) and fewer D and F ratings (2.7% vs. 16.2%) than charter schools in the 2019 state accountability system. However, a 2023 study showed that English learners enrolled in Texas charter schools showed slightly better progress in reading with very small losses in math and were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college, compared to peers attending traditional public schools.
Library book censorship: In 2022, Texas banned more books from school libraries than any other state in the nation. Texas educators say that censorship is concerning and could have unintended consequences. Librarians are trained to work with educators to place books for readers in school libraries in order to provide open access for students to be able to read at their particular reading level, which varies widely. In 2022, 22 Texas school districts banned hundreds of books from school libraries, including books with content on race and racism, abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. Educators believe this type of censorship hurts students who need to see themselves reflected in books and prevents librarians from serving their communities. In a 2021 poll, 66% of Texans said they had little or no confidence in the judgment of elected state leaders in deciding which books are controversial and should be removed from K-12 schools. While there is a vocal minority of Texans, as well as several politicians, that insist on censoring library books, most Texans and Texas parents disagree in poll after poll.
Standardized tests: Parents rely on data to inform their understanding of how their child performs academically and 88% of Texans believe that we need to care and know enough about how all students are learning to measure their progress. But there is doubt about the effectiveness of state standardized tests (STAAR) to measure student learning, and similar doubts that the state’s accountability ratings accurately reflect school quality. In 2023, only 42% of Texans believed the STAAR tests effectively measured student learning. Less than half of Texans (47%) believed state letter accountability grades for school campuses accurately reflected the quality of local public schools. It is worth noting, though, that only a third of Texans (32%) and half of public school parents (50%) were aware of the letter grade assigned to their local public school by the state.
Interestingly, 80% Hispanic and 91% Spanish-speakers were among the groups who most relied on the STAAR exam for information, perhaps because it provides a concrete way for them to understand their child’s performance that does not require English-speaking interaction. This is important because it means the parents who experience the most anxiety about their child’s public education are those that rely most on the STAAR exam.
Texans see areas in need of improvement in public schools, but overall want them to be successful and help all children to thrive. They express support for every investment item included in polls, with higher support than in the past. Texans want to invest in the needs of students - physical, mental and material - and in programs such as Career and Technical Education and universal, optional pre-Kindergarten. They believe the state should improve building security, invest in increasing teacher salaries and address learning gaps. These attitudes reflect a forward-thinking Texas, a Texas focused on championing public schools. Texans want to strengthen the support that their schools provide all Texas families and communities. The clear message from Texans is about investing in the future of Texas and its children. It’s a shame the Texas legislature doesn’t feel the same.
IV. Issue: Religion and Politics
Our society makes special efforts to separate two fundamental human experiences: religion and politics. Such separation, however, has proven impossible, as is demonstrated by the debates over abortion policy, public school curricula and the family. Especially in Texas, a very traditional and moralistic culture, it is impossible to talk about one without the other. When politicians begin talking about values and ethics, voters should listen with a skeptical ear. It's possible that their comments are rooted in deeply held beliefs. But they may also have purely strategic political goals in mind. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.
In Texas, the looming realities of climate change combined with rapid population growth and increased resource demand pose complex challenges to our communities, our ecosystems and our economic stability. Texas’ population growth rate (15.9% in 2021) has been more than double that of the US (7.4% in 2021). Over 95% of the state’s growth was attributed to the increase of persons of color. The fastest growing areas in Texas are the suburban ring counties (counties that are large urban counties in the core of the metropolitan areas), the counties along the I-35 corridor and the golden triangle counties (an area of Southeast Texas between the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange). However, population growth is not even throughout the state … 143 of the 254 counties in Texas lost population between 2010 and 2020. By 2050, the population is expected to reach 40 million, with most people clustered in urban centers including Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Limited resources like water and energy will be in greater demand, while our critical infrastructure and diverse ecosystems will sustain additional stress. At the same time, we face compounding threats from extreme heat, inland and coastal flooding, wildfire, drought, infectious diseases and other hazards.
The population of Texas has also dramatically changed in terms of its characteristics. Historically since 1850, a majority of the state's inhabitants were non-Hispanic whites. But the rapidly growing Hispanic segment of the population, African-Americans and other persons of color, especially Asians, edged up to the 50% mark by the 2000 Census and today are a growing majority. The Diversity Index expresses the likelihood that, when any two random people are selected from the population, the two selected are from different ethnic and racial groups. When a community has near-equal proportions of white, Black, Hispanic and Asian residents, it would have a higher diversity index than one that has a higher concentration of one group. The Texas index increased 3.2 points to 67% in 2020, ranking Texas as the sixth most diverse in the US. (The country overall has an index of 61%). These changes in the Texas population create additional stresses in the state.
Hispanics make up a sizable portion of the Texas population. The Spanish conquest of Mexico and the southwest began the amalgamation of the American Native American and the European. The Mestizo race (meaning mixed and generally used throughout Latin America to describe people of mixed ancestry with a white European and indigenous background) formed the core of the Mexican people that settled and colonized the frontier. In the early 1800s there were approximately 10,000 Hispanics in Texas. By 1830, there were approximately 30,000 Anglos and Blacks and approximately 6,000 Hispanics, with the disparity increasing. When Antonio López de Santa Anna declared himself dictator of Mexico in 1835, he met fierce resistance not just from Texians (Texans of Anglo descent, usually newly-arrived immigrants) but also from Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent). Hispanic Texans took an equal part in the war with Mexico as a just cause against the centralization of political power by Santa Anna. They were delegates to the 1836 Convention at Washington-on-the Brazos and signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The siege and battle of the Alamo involved a considerable number of Tejanos. At San Jacinto, Captain Juan Seguín led the charge of the Texans. Hispanics played a critical role in the constitutional convention that drafted the Constitution of the Republic, served in the legislature of the new Republic of Texas, and the first Vice President of the Republic was Lorenzo de Zavala. However, many Anglo Texans were deeply suspicious about the loyalties of Tejanos and many Tejano families were forced to flee their homes in Texas and seek refuge in other countries. By 1845, Hispanics were unwelcome in Texas. José Antonio Navarro of San Antonio was the sole Hispanic delegate to the Convention of 1845, where Texas accepted US annexation, the sole Hispanic to help write the Constitution of 1845, and the sole Hispanic elected to the Texas state legislature, serving two terms as a state senator.
After the US-Mexico War (1846) established the Rio Grande as the international border, Tejanos faced discrimination and violence fueled by intolerance. Despite this, most Tejanos became US citizens and remained in Texas to cultivate vibrant communities that built on their deeply rooted Mexican heritage. As Anglo numbers increased, though, Hispanics lost political standing completely. Texas Hispanics resisted the trend but were overwhelmed by Texas Rangers, government institutions, discrimination and racism. In the 1920s-1930s, approximately 700,000 Hispanics legally immigrated to Texas due to the Mexican Revolution. From 1940 to the present, a steady stream of immigrants from all over Latin America (legal and illegal) came to Texas due to economic conditions. And there’s no sign this trend is slowing down. While many crossing the border illegally today are still of Mexican descent, a growing number are coming from Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua), South America (Columbia, Venezuela) and the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti).
Regardless of their legal status, 70% of the Texas Hispanic population, including 72% of foreign-born Hispanics, contributes to the labor force, compared to 68% of non-Hispanics, accounting for more than 8% of the state’s workforce. Texas nets more than $420 billion from the so-called illegal Hispanic population, compared to statewide costs. For every $1 the Texas government spends on the people living in the state illegally, the state brings in $1.21 in tax revenue. It should be noted, though, that 72% (and growing) of Hispanic Texans were born in Texas and are US citizens, many of them descendants of the original Tejanos.
African Americans have a rich history in Texas. The first African in Texas was a Moroccan slave, Estevan, who came ashore with Cabeza de Vaca in 1528, near present-day Galveston. The first Africans that lived in Texas were Afro-Mexicans when Texas was still a part of Mexico. Because Mexico’s indigenous population declined rapidly due to Spanish epidemics for which they had no immunity, the Spaniards imported tens of thousands of African slaves into Mexico. Veracruz was the Mexican port of entry for virtually all Africans who came to Texas. As the Spanish colonial era progressed, Africans received better treatment in terms of opportunities for military service, intermarriage and even the right to hold public office. Indeed, the Hispanic period featured land grants given to free Africans as well as indigenous people (which the Texas Republic later nullified). During the earliest years of Spanish rule from 1528 to 1700, people of African origin made a modest but eventually substantial contribution to the development of Texas. One of the primary needs that Africans provided in Texas was military service. Many borderland garrisons experienced difficulty in recruiting replacements. Spanish authorities did not hesitate to enlist Africans to garrison the Texas presidios (colonial frontier military settlements intended to secure and defend Spain's claim to territories occupied by indigenous populations). Free Africans thus experienced greater social status which minimized the normal restrictions placed on them. (This resulted in a military tradition that increased during the 19th century in the form of the Buffalo Soldiers.) Because of the tolerance and increasingly enlightened tone of Mexican culture, only a few free Afro-Tejanos would later support the Texas revolt in 1835.
From 1800 to 1850, immigrants to Texas from the southern US brought African slaves into Texas, from which the majority of the present African American population comes. From 1821 to 1836, slavery grew very slowly. On the eve of the Texas Revolution about 5,000 Africans were enslaved in Texas (13% of the population). With independence from Mexico, however, White Texans made slavery an integral part of the Republic's and later the state's economic development, and the enslavement of African Americans grew rapidly. By 1860, 30% of the Texas population was enslaved. In contrast to other parts of the South, where the approach of the Union Army encouraged thousands of enslaved African Americans to free themselves and run away, Texas African Americans remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War (and beyond, in some parts of the state). Despite the use of violence and of the political and legal systems to restrict the lives of African Americans in Texan, during Reconstruction African Americans were politically active, holding legislative and other offices, actively participating in party politics, contributing to urban economic development and industrialization, and becoming part of the US military. But in 1873, Whites regained control of state government, and by 1900 the gains African Americans in Texas had made were lost.
Nothing seemed able to stop the tide of segregation and violence that restricted the rights of African Americans in Texas during the early 20th century. As a result, the percentage of the African American population declined in the early 20th century, after tens of thousands left the state in the Great Migration, seeking work and political opportunities in the northern and western US. Despite their second-class status, African Americans who remained in Texas built viable and progressive communities throughout the state. They established churches, schools and other social organizations to serve their own needs. They established newspapers, grocery stores, funeral homes, and other business establishments that served a predominantly African American clientele. Slowly, they were able through successful cases in the federal courts and the US Supreme Court, as well as political action and civil disobedience, to eliminate at least the most overt practices of racism and discrimination. During the 1990s and 2000s Texas has been one of the top states for African Americans to relocate and most of that growth has been in Dallas and Houston. The majority of recent Black migrants to Texas between 1990 and 2020 have come from other states within the US (CA, LA, IL) but there has been a significant increase in Black immigrants from African countries such as Nigeria and Ethiopia, bringing with them diverse cultural traditions and experiences.
These achievements were the result of the ongoing struggle of African Americans in Texas for equal opportunity and human dignity. African Americans have lived in Texas as long as any other ethnic group except Native Americans. People of African descent have worked with others to build the state's unique cultural heritage, making extraordinary contributions to its food, music, literature and artistic traditions. Throughout their history in the state, they have helped to make Texas what it has become today. Texas has the largest African American population of any state in the country. A large majority of the Texas African American population (about 65%) lives in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areas. Austin, San Antonio and Beaumont have smaller but still significant African American populations. Most of the remainder of African American Texans lives in the smaller cities, towns and rural areas of East and Southeast Texas. There are also small African American populations in the cities and towns of West Texas and the Texas Panhandle such as Amarillo, Odessa and El Paso. There is also an African American Louisiana Creole community, Freetown.
Over the past half-century, African Americans in Texas have made substantial social and economic progress but the very visible signs of improvement mask deep inequities that relegate most of African Americans to second-class status, with far fewer opportunities to achieve good health, political influence, prosperity and security than other Texans.
Texas has the third largest Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population, behind California and New York. Texans of AAPI descent, currently comprising over 5% of the Texas population, are predominately Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Pakistani. Filipinos may have been the first known Asian immigrants to arrive in Texas in the early 1800s, likely as sailors and deckhands. The Chinese were the first of the Asian immigrants to come to Texas in any great numbers and, until the influx of the Vietnamese in the 1970s, they were also the most numerous. Chinese laborers arrived in Texas in 1870 to help build the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, and others arrived in 1881 as they followed the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Pershing Chinese, individuals from Mexico who assisted Pershing’s troops in their pursuit of Pancho Villa, settled in San Antonio. Unlike these original Chinese immigrants, new immigrants have generally been products of China's elite culture and have tended toward professional careers in the sciences and engineering. Chinese Texans have always been overwhelmingly an urban population, successively drawn to the cities of El Paso, San Antonio and Houston.
Japanese immigrants began arriving in Texas at the turn of the 19th century where, like the Chinese, they were initially welcomed before suffering an increasingly hostile environment. Asian immigration continued, however, including Filipinos and Koreans, many of whom came as brides of servicemen. Immigrants from India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East were often professionals or students. The 1990 H1-B Visa program permitted Asian immigration for work in the US for up to six years. Texas companies were able to recruit highly educated workers from overseas when there was a shortage of skilled Americans. This visa program caused the Texas Indian population to double in the 1990s, with skilled Indians flocking to the state for professional and educational opportunities. In the 1970s, an increasing number of people immigrated to Texas from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as a result of nationalist led victories in those lands. These refugees were poor and turned to a traditional way of living by fishing on the Texas Gulf Coast, incurring the wrath of white fishermen and sparking renewed membership in the Texas Ku Klux Klan, which harassed the fishermen in sporadic and sometimes nationally publicized incidents. Sadly, discrimination and violence towards Asian Americans is part of a long legacy in Texas. The Texas AAPI population has often played an important role in historic civil rights and social justice movements.
Today, the AAPI population is booming in certain Texas counties and cities. In the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area AAPI immigrants now have expanded access to authentic food, cricket matches, a Hindu temple, Indian grocery stores and a community radio station, but also face difficult realities around racism and assimilation. And those things are exhibited not simply by individuals. The 2023 Texas legislature considered a bill to ban citizens, governments and entities from China and other countries from purchasing any land in the state. The governor said that he would sign it if it reached his desk. There’s nothing in the bill to exclude citizens and permanent residents, purchasing homes and businesses, or any of the things Texans do on a regular basis.
Native Americans (American Indian & Alaskan Native, AIAN) were never a large part of the Texas population. From Sam Houston on, there always were those Texans who preferred to live in peace with Native Americans, or at least the ones whose stable agricultural lives somewhat mirrored theirs. That more pacific point of view did not win out. An original group that was forced to migrate or was killed was comprised of the Caddo, Wichita, Kiowa, Karankawa, Tonkawa, Apache, and Comanche. A second group, forced into Texas from the eastern US, were also forced to migrate or killed. They were the Cherokee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Seminole, Shawnee, Alabama, and Coushatta. Texans remained in a virtual state of war for nearly 50 years, the longest continuous struggle of its kind in American history. Anglo-Americans, in particular, tended to believe that Texas was a Promised Land, and that those who lived here before them had little or no claim to it. The terms under which Texas joined the US complicated matters. The new state held on to all public lands, so federal forces, which inherited direct relations with the tribes, could not easily do what they had in other western jurisdictions: offer land for reservations. Today, only 3 federally recognized tribes still have reservations in Texas, the Alabama-Coushatta, Tigua and Kickapoo. Currently there are approximately 400 Alabama-Coushatta on a Polk County reservation. A small group of Tigua lives near El Paso. A small group of Kickapoo migrates in and out of the Eagle Pass area. The state recognized Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas has its headquarters in McAllen
Texas Economic Characteristics: Economically, Texas is among the states with the highest income inequality, ranking 5th in the country. Its richest residents - the top 5% of households - have average incomes 15 times as large as the bottom 20% of households and 5 times as large as the middle 20% of households. The top 5% of Texas households receive 20% of the state’s income. Income gains over the last 30 years have gone largely to the richest households, while middle- and lower-income Texans haven’t shared in the state’s growing prosperity. The share of jobs that have historically paid middle-class wages has been declining. This has reduced opportunities for Texas families striving to get ahead and weakened the overall economy. In 2020, the US unemployment rate surged to 14.7%, a side effect of the arrival of COVID-19. Texas lost proportionately fewer jobs than the nation during the pandemic, yet the unemployment rate rose above the national rate - a gap that has persisted. Women and minorities were affected disproportionately at the outset. The gender unemployment gap has largely dissipated but the gaps between White workers and both African American and Hispanic workers have persisted above pre-COVID levels.
Texas also ranks among the worst states for poverty, minimum wage jobs and the uninsured. Uninsured Texans, the working poor, include about 1.4 million hourly or low-wage workers. These people, disproportionately Hispanic (61% of the uninsured), tend to have low levels of education (48% of the uninsured don’t have a high school degree), and earn less than $35,000 a year despite typically working full-time, often in jobs such as construction or the service industry. Hispanic residents are more than twice as likely as White residents to live below the poverty level. Although 14.3% of Texans overall are considered poor, 19.4% of Hispanic residents live below the poverty level, compared with just 8.4% of White residents.
Texas households are also divided by significant income inequality. The median income for a White household is $81,384, but it is just $54,857 for a Hispanic household, according to the estimates. The median White household in Texas has $215,000 in wealth holdings compared to just $39,280 for the median African American household and 16.5% of African American families live below the poverty level. The typical African American household earns a fraction of White households - just 59¢ for every $1. Even though African American education, homeownership and income levels have improved over time, the African American-White racial wealth divide continues to widen. And the wealth gap between Black and White households increases with education. Leading indicators of social and economic well-being show that, on average, Texas African Americans face much more difficult circumstances than their White counterparts, taking home less income, being far less likely to own their homes and living shorter lives (3.6 years less).
Up against longstanding educational disparities, Hispanic children have been less likely to graduate college-ready compared with white students and left unprepared to succeed in a flourishing Texas economy that increasingly requires some form of education after high school. The new estimates show that 95% of White adults have at least a high school diploma, compared with only 70% of Hispanic adults. Only 18% of Hispanic and 28% of African American adults have graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 42% of White adults. Conversely, 60.6% of Asian Americans 25 years and older had a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2019, compared to 30.8% of the total Texas population.
Despite formidable opposition, Texas has become one of the most diverse states in the nation and that diversity is one of its great strengths. With the demographic shifts in Texas, the state must adopt policies that will ensure equitable health and economic outcomes for all Texans. Among other things, state legislators need to make significant investments in public education and access to health care services. While Texas has made some progress, very large disparities continue to exist. Recognizing both the progress and the challenges is essential to ensuring that all Texans have a realistic chance to achieve success.
VI. Issue: The Environment and Climate Change