AUSTIN, Texas – When the legislative session began in January, there were dozens of new members in the Texas House. Spectrum News met five of them before they were sworn in, and now, they reflect on what they accomplished and what work they say still needs to get done.
Rep. Mihaela Plesa, D-Dallas, started the legislative session on a mission to expand women’s reproductive rights, especially since lawmakers passed a near-total abortion ban two years ago.
“We need to make sure that women are protected,” she said at the beginning of the year.
She filed a bill to create an exception to the abortion law for women over 35 who have higher risk pregnancies, but it didn’t go far.
“We always aim for the stars,” Rep. Plesa said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get more clarification around that abortion language.”
Rep. Plesa is proud of her public safety bill that Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed. It allows police to impound vehicles that are involved in street races.
“Those [street takeover] exhibitions are deadly, and they cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,” Rep. Plesa said. “I’m really proud that the governor signed our bill to make it easier for the police to deal with that issue.”
Rep. Plesa said she was also able to attach an amendment to the budget to add more than $6 million to early childhood intervention care.
She, along with other Democrats, hoped to pass a bill to raise the age to purchase an assault-style rifle from 18 to 21. It was the number one priority of the Uvalde families. The gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers there last May purchased AR-15s as soon as he turned 18.
“People just do not feel safe anymore,” she said. “It’s not just in our schools or in our churches. It’s in movie theaters. It’s in shopping malls. People are afraid to go to restaurants. People are always looking behind their shoulders to see, ‘Do I know where the exits are?’ And it’s crazy. It’s crazy that we are thinking that more guns make us more safe. We need to have a serious conversation about protecting children. I own a gun. I come from a family that has owned guns. I was born and raised in Texas, but I strongly believe that we can protect the Second Amendment and protect second graders at the same time… It’s honestly about political courage and fighting against the gun lobby.”
Rep. Plesa also worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on a bill to increase insurance access to children and young adults who are experiencing first-episode psychosis. The bill died in the Senate.
“The reason why we need this aggressive care is because we know that individuals who aren’t treated early are… there’s like a 15% chance that they’re going to be either committing or victims of homicide, violent crime,” Rep. Plesa said. “Unfortunately, when this bill came to the House floor, I was very surprised to see so much pushback from my Republican colleagues, especially since this bill hit the House floor the Monday after the tragic shooting in Allen, which was the second largest shooting in our nation this year, and where I lost three constituents to gun violence.”
Rep. Plesa said she plans to file that bill again during the next legislative session if she’s reelected.
In January, Republican Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock, also said she wanted to support moms-to-be during the session.
“As the laws have changed about abortion in Texas, there is a greater need,” she said earlier this year.
During the session, she voted in favor of increasing postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to a full year and adding more funding to the “Alternatives to Abortion” program.
“This is more than just medical support for pregnancy,” Rep. Harris said of the Alternatives to Abortion Program. “It really is walking hand-in-hand with that mom. A lot of these programs that have parenting classes, and there’s even classes for the men. So if the men want to go to parenting classes, or even if they need job help, for both the man and the woman, that opportunity is there too.”
Rep. Harris is excited about a bill she worked on with her former boss, Sen. Bryan Hughes, which requires hospitals to provide patients with an itemized bill.
“I’ve always been a huge advocate for more transparency, and really accessibility, when it comes to health care,” she said. “Along the campaign trail, just crazy to me, I heard all these stories, whenever I would bring that bill up, from people having issues with medical billing… So that gave me even more motivation… I had over 112 members sign on to the bill, who helped me get it passed. And that is definitely something I’m most excited about that I passed this session, because I know it will help so many people, not just my constituents, but you and I and Texans all across the state.”
Rep. Harris was also named Freshman of the Year by the Republican Caucus.
“I was so honored and so blessed to get that award. I was so excited,” she said. “I have so many people to thank for that. The Lord has really blessed me in this role, and so I just am so grateful for all the opportunity He gave me before even becoming a member, to get to work for Senator Hughes for eight years. That has definitely shaped a lot of who I am as a member. He’s an excellent statesman, and I also want to be an excellent statesman.”
Rep. Venton Jones, D-Dallas, hoped to fight for LGBTQ rights during the legislative session. But that community took several hits, with new drag show restrictions and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.
“Out of the 140 that were initially proposed, only about eight got through,” he said. “While we didn’t want any of these bills to pass, we’re very proud of the work that we did to fight the bad bills that were being put forward as well as to support good bills.
And his bill to end the state’s unlawful sodomy ban made it to the House floor with some Republican support but didn’t go further.
“Unfortunately, it did not get a vote, but this is the most progress that this bill has made,” Rep. Jones said. “And it’s something to be extremely proud of, not only in the climate of all of these different anti-LGBTQ bills, but as a freshman state representative, to be able to bring that bill forward and to move it as far as we did. We were proud of that, but still understand the amount of work that still has to go on to continue to protect our communities right now.”
Rep. Jones said he’ll keep pushing to get this bill across the finish line in future sessions if he’s reelected.
Rep. Jones also filed legislation to increase routine HIV testing, but they didn’t make it.
“We’re very proud that this bill, for the first time, made it off of the House floor,” he said. “And just understand the challenges that’s happened right now, where we’re seeing a very public fight in between our leadership in both the House and the Senate right now. And so I hope that gets resolved because many bills like mine, and many other member’s bills, didn’t make it across the finish line when those were some of the most important issues that we should be addressing right now. But I think that we did spend an enormous amount of time attacking LGBTQ people and not focusing on what we really should have been focusing on, which was property taxes, our public education system, and just making sure that our streets and our roads and our communities are safer for all Texans right now.”
He had also hoped that teachers would get pay raises, but that didn’t happen either.
“It was very disappointing to see more did not happen to support our teachers in the way that we need to, and I’m hopeful that in these special sessions, we do what’s necessary and we do what’s right to support our teachers at this time. I’m also proud that we had bills that were supporting our schools, but unfortunately, that was another one that wasn’t able to make it across the finish line,” he said. “However, we still continue to fight, and I still continue to be proud of the progress that so many made who were advocates for public schools and for teachers… Because as of right now, we do not have vouchers.”
Top Texas leaders such as Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, have pushed passing a school voucher program for months. It would allow parents to use public school tax dollars for private education.
Rep. Jones was named Freshman of the Year by the LGBTQ Caucus.
“The amount of work that had to go into fighting for the LGBTQ community is not something that I take lightly, and it was such an honor to be recognized by my peers for that hard work,” he said.
Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, focused on border issues.
“It’s the most serious thing we’re dealing with,” he said before Day 1 of the session.
He still believes that and said the Legislature is doing what it needs to in the absence of federal help. Lawmakers allocated another $5 billion to border security during the legislative session.
“Somebody has to challenge these people coming across the border,” he said. “We’re doing all the right things. The federal government is still asleep at the wheel.”
Another issue close to Rep. Tepper’s heart is water. Back in January, he said “we have no water… we’re having trouble with infrastructure, sewer, water supply, water treatment.” He filed bills to try to address those concerns.
With the help of Sen. Charles Perry, whom Rep. Tepper calls the “water guru,” they passed a bill to fund the Texas Produced Water Consortium. The legislature allocated $5 million for this “pilot project.”
“With our rate of growth in Texas, we do not have enough water for our future.” Rep. Tepper said. “We just don’t have it. There’s no way we’re going to survive as a state without it. So that’s a multi-pronged plan… to clean fracking water, which would be cleaning it to use for prairie land, feed crop, probably feed corn. So we need to figure out what to do with the fracked water and all the chemicals and how to get it out of there and reuse the water.”
Rep. Tepper also filed a bill to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices at public universities in Texas. A similar one by Sen. Brandon Creighton passed.
“Ultimately, my bill got pushed aside, like I’m just a freshman,” Rep. Tepper said with a laugh. “I’ll admit that Brandon Creighton’s bill was better than mine, so I was very happy and celebrated when his bill passed… The final bill that came out of [the] conference committee is an excellent bill. It essentially shuts down the DEI offices starting January 2024. And they needed to be shut down. These offices, they call them ‘diversity, equity and inclusion.’ I call them ‘division, inequity and indoctrination.’ They were blatantly partisan offices, embedded within our university systems, spreading out through the systems. And people were intimidated; they were afraid for their jobs. I didn’t realize that we’d hear from so much faculty, not just from Texas, but from around the country, who are concerned about these operations and wanted to see them shut down.”
Those who support DEI offices say they’re designed to support historically marginalized communities.
Rep. Salman Bhojani is the first Muslim and South Asian elected to the Texas Legislature. One of his goals in January was to improve the state’s education system. Although teachers didn’t get pay raises as he and educators had hoped, he’s proud that retired teachers are finally getting a cost of living adjustment.
“I think that’s a great win, in my opinion,” Rep. Bhojani said.
He also made history when he used a Quran during his swearing in ceremony. He tried to make his community feel included throughout the legislative session. He hosted days at the Capitol to honor Texans with Muslim, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali backgrounds.
“I think it’s just sort of promoting awareness because they’ve never had a representative that looks like them,” Rep. Bhojani said. “So they feel like they’ve never been connected because of that. So my goal was to bring as many people as possible in the State Capitol.”
Before the month of Ramadan started, Rep. Bhojani said a Muslim staffer asked to put a Quran in the Capitol chapel. That started a chain reaction, Rep. Bhojani said. The Quran, which belonged to Rep. Bhojani’s family, was stolen. It was eventually recovered and returned to him. After that, Rep. Bhojani said Rep. Charlie Geren purchased a Quran from the state to place in the chapel instead.
“That was really special,” Rep. Bhojani said.
Then, he set out to include other religions in the chapel.
“It sort of led me to think, ‘Why am I only fighting for my faith?’ So we added the Hindu Gita from their tradition. We added the Torah from the Jewish tradition,” he said.
Rep. Bhojani said it’d be nice to eventually have an Interfaith Caucus in the House so “everybody’s faith is recognized, celebrated and respected.”
Three of his bills passed, one of which was to ensure that the STAAR test and other end-of-course exams aren’t administered on religious holidays.
He tried to pass a bill that would have made it easier for residents to access Texas-based doctors via telehealth when they’re traveling, but it died in the Senate.
House members serve a two-year term. While not all of them were ready to announce a second run in 2024, several said they have unfinished business.
“I’m very proud of all of our wins,” Rep. Plesa said. “We still have a lot of work to do, though.”