Saturday, December 8, 2018

Rep. Gonzalez Supports Wall Street Over Constituents

Last week I wrote about our congressman, Vicente Gonzalez, co-sponsoring legislation that empowers debt collection attorneys to our detriment. Just a day or two later I saw him promoting his successful efforts to encourage the US Department of Agriculture to load $50 million to the San Miguel Electric Co-op so it can continue providing electricity to 40 or so South Texas counties with 220,000 customers. That sounded like something to be proud of until I learned that it will keep one of the dirtiest coal burning plants in the country operating for another 19 years so that investors don’t lose $489 million if it is forced to shut down before the loans are paid off.

The reality then is that rather than let the “market” work and wealthy investors lose money he’s proud of using our tax dollars to bail them out while polluting our air with both toxins and climate damaging greenhouse gases. This particular plant is so dirty and inefficient because it burns lignite coal, a fuel so inefficient that operators build plants on top of coal deposits as it is too expensive to haul it by train.

The volume of carbon dioxide put out by the San Miguel plant is much higher per kilowatt of electricity generated than almost any other type of generator. That excess carbon dioxide just hastens the very climate change that is already damaging the residents of the district. Both Seguin and McAllen where the bulk of the district’s population resides have experienced several devastating floods in recent years and such floods are likely to become both more frequent and more damaging as the climate heats up.

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) was released by the federal government the Friday after Thanksgiving, it assesses the science of climate change and variability and its impacts across the United States. Among its findings were that “In the absence of significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities. Regional economies and industries that depend on natural resources and favorable climate conditions, such as agriculture, tourism, and fisheries, are vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures are projected to reduce the efficiency of power generation while increasing energy demands, resulting in higher electricity costs. The impacts of climate change beyond our borders are expected to increasingly affect our trade and economy, including import and export prices and U.S. businesses with overseas operations and supply chains. “

Overall “…the continued warming that is projected to occur without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century, especially in the absence of increased adaptation efforts. With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states.”

I don’t know about you but I’m more than frustrated that the man we elected to represent us seems to be more interested in his Wall Street backers like Charles Schwab, Credit Suisse Securities, and UBS Americas Inc. just to name a few, than he is in the wellbeing of his constituents. If you feel the same way call his office and let him know. His Washington office number is 202-225-2531.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - December 7, 2018

Saturday, December 1, 2018

We Deserve Better Democrats Than Gonzalez

It’s deeply disappointing to find that someone you voted for isn’t living up to their stated principles. Late last week I noticed a news article about a bill that if passed will make it legal for attorneys doing debt collecting to harass debtors once again. While that in itself is disturbing the fact that our congressman, Vicente Gonzalez, is the co-sponsor of the bill is even more so. The bill passed out of committee with a largely party line vote with Gonzalez being the only Democrat voting in favor.

The bill Gonzalez sponsored would prevent the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB) from exercising supervision or enforcement authority over them and exempt debt collection attorneys from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). H.R. 5082 will enable some debt collection law firms to engage in abusive and deceptive practices and get away with it.

Public interest attorneys like Carolyn E. Coffey, the Director of Economic Justice at Mobilization for Justice, and Claudia Wilner, Senior Attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, who wrote the article say they know that debt collection attorneys engage in some of the worst debt collection misconduct. Only the FDCPA and the CFPB keeps them even partially in check.
In an example they wrote about their organizations used the FDCPA to sue a debt collection law firm for obtaining hundreds of thousands of default judgments against unsuspecting people,  mostly low-income people of color, by filing false affidavits with the court. The debt collection attorneys used the fraudulently obtained judgments to freeze their victims’ bank accounts, garnish their wages, and coerce them into entering “voluntary” payment agreements. Our FDCPA lawsuit returned tens of millions of dollars to their clients as part of a settlement and resulted in reversing of 200,000 state court judgments.

In a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, Rubber Stamp Justice: US Courts, Debt Buying Corporations, and the Poor, the authors documented widespread abuses by debt collection attorneys in courts across the country, including cases brought beyond the statute of limitations and hundreds of cases where people never received notice of the suits, all of which resulted in wrongful judgments, often against the wrong people.

Congressional District 15 here in Texas is one of the poorest in the nation and based on the propensity for debt collection attorneys who abuse the law to do so in low-income communities it is likely that we’ll be among those to suffer the most. I find it deeply disturbing that it is our elected representative working to open the door to abuses that were outlawed 30 years ago when Congress first added attorneys to the definition of debt collector in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. When Vicente Gonzalez met with voters in the district during the 2016 primary he claimed he would work for all the people here, his actions say something else entirely. Apparently Gonzalez made friends with the wrong kind of people at the New York office of his law practice.

It isn’t enough to elect more Democrats to Congress or the Texas legislature, we have to work to elect better Democrats too.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Blue Wave Really a Progressive Wave

My Republican neighbors are in denial about the “blue wave” that swept the country earlier this month which led to 38 and possibly 39 or 40 more Democrats in the House. Democrats lost four seats they held in the Senate but won two others previously held in by Republicans from Arizona and Nevada. Nationally turnout was the highest for a mid-term election since 1914 so no one can claim that low turnout caused the swing. In addition to the progress I wrote about two weeks ago made by Democrats in Texas; over 330 state legislative seats switched from Republican to Democratic hands. Democratic governors were elected to replace Republicans in seven states and six state legislatures switched from Republican to Democratic control. There were many county governments and other elected offices like Secretary of State, Secretary of Agriculture, and judgeships changing hands as well.

2019 will be a tremendous year for diversity in our federal legislature. At least 123 women will be in Congress next year, all but 19 are Democrats. The 116th Congress will have the highest percentage of women ever at 23%. The first two Native American women won seats in the House, Deb Haaland from New Mexico and Sharice Davids from Kansas. Religious diversity also increased as the first two Muslim women; Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib were elected to the House and a record 53 other Muslims won elections to state legislatures and local government bodies. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest member ever elected to the House.

Nine newly elected members with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are headed to the House of Representatives seven of them are Democrats; one Democrat won in the Senate.

Elected officials were not the only evidence of the change in the body politic as three Republican controlled states, Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah voted on propositions to take advantage of the Affordable Care Act provision enabling Medicaid expansion. Some of the states where Republican governors were replaced had denied Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act was a campaign issue so their defeat was at least in part a repudiation of the Republican efforts to repeal it.

Three states voted to legalize marijuana, Utah and Missouri for medical treatment and Michigan for recreational use. Florida voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who have served their time. In New Mexico the newly elected Democratic legislature is already preparing to repeal the existing state law prohibiting abortion so that any action by the Supreme Court on the issue will have no effect there. Arkansas and Missouri both voted to increase the minimum wage, which will give raises to a combined total of 900,000 workers in the two states.

Automatic voter registration, which disproportionately enfranchises young people and people of color, passed in both Nevada and Michigan. In Michigan voters approved same-day voter registration and made it easier to request absentee ballots. Voters in Maryland passed a ballot measure to implement same-day voter registration by a wide margin.

Given all this it wasn’t just a “blue wave” it was a progressive wave and that’s actually more important in the long run.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Democratic Priorities in the 2019 Texas Legislature

Last week I wrote about how the election results changed the makeup of the state legislature and courts here in Texas. Here’s a look at what that change means to you and me in terms of over 400 pieces of legislation filed on opening day of pre-filing with the state legislature based on analysis by the Texas AFL-CIO.

There was more good than bad for workers in that first batch including a strong group of bills raising wages, strengthening pensions and other workplace benefits, expanding health care and improving access to higher education were filed as well as addressing sexual harassment.

First the bad, HB 222 by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would eliminate the ability of cities to enact earned paid sick leave ordinances. The ordinances, like those recently enacted in Austin and San Antonio, could provide hundreds of thousands of Texans the freedom to stay home when they are ill, are under challenge in court as well. Keep in mind that this issue is about more than benefitting employees since it actually protects other employees and customers from contact that could spread the disease further. Think about the restaurant worker who feels the need to work with the flu so they can pay the next month’s rent or put food on the table for their family.

SB 32 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would establish the Texas Promise Grant Program to pay tuition and fees for Texas students whose annual household incomes are less than $150,000; SB 33 by Zaffirini specifically addresses two-year colleges.

HB 48 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, would create a publicly available database of employers who have been found to have committed wage theft. As it stands now business owners can get fined for stealing from their employees and then weeks later start it all over again with new employees who have little chance of finding out that the person hiring them is likely to steal from them. Should Rep. Gonzalez’s bill be passed into law there would be a website that prospective employees could check to see of a business makes a habit of stealing wages before it happens to them. Having such information widely available should also provide a deterrent to employers as such behavior will become widely known in the community and they’ll be shamed for it in addition to finding it harder to find good workers. In addition HB 83 by Rep. Romero raises penalties for repeated failure to pay wages and HB 106 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would increase protections against employer retaliation when an employee files a claim for unpaid wages.

HB 56 by Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, would provide for cost-of-living adjustments on pensions for retired teachers; SBs 92, 93 and 94 by Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, would add a supplemental "13th payment" for retirees and otherwise shore up the Teacher Retirement System.

HB 133 by Rep. Terry Canales, would make it state law that tips are solely the property of tipped employees and therefore the practice that some restaurant and bar operators of claiming a percentage of tips for themselves would be outlawed.

Minimum wage is a big issue that several bills address, HB 194 by Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, would raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour; HB 290 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour; SB 113 by Sen. Jose Menendez would set the wage at $10.10 an hour, as would SJR 5, his constitutional amendment proposal. SB 161 by Sen. Rodriguez would allow cities and counties to set local minimum wages.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - November 16, 2018

Saturday, November 10, 2018

2018 Election Results Not Bad - Hint at Better 2020

Although nothing much changed in the makeup of Guadalupe County government Texas Republicans shouldn't get too cocky given that Beto O'Rourke lost by just 220,000 votes, the narrowest margin of any state-wide candidate in well over a decade. Overall turnout in this election was nearly twice what it was just four years ago and only 8% less than the 2016 presidential election turnout. O’Rourke got 200,000 votes more than Hillary Clinton did just two years ago while Ted Cruz got 400,000 fewer than Donald Trump.

Beto wasn't alone as Lt. Governor candidate Mike Collier, Attorney General candidate Justin Nelson and Agriculture Commissioner Kim Olson all performed nearly as well. While not every state-wide Democratic candidate performed to those standards it wasn’t just Beto O’Rourke pulling the train. Good candidates running strong campaigns got within striking difference in the mid-terms for the first time in 20 years.

Those aren't the only signs that Texas is changing, two incumbent Republican congressmen, Pete Sessions and John Culberson, lost their seats, and four others are only won by 5% or less. One of those is District 23 running from northwestern San Antonio nearly to El Paso, currently held by Will Hurd, at under 700 votes difference is so close that it may require a recount to confirm the winner.

In the state legislature 2 incumbent Republican state senators, John Huffines and Konni Burton, lost to Democrats along with a dozen Republican held state house members. Other signs that Texas is changing include a switch to a Democratic majority on the State Board of Education and four Courts of Appeal districts also flipped to Democratic majorities due to wins against 18 incumbent Republican judges.

Results like Tuesday’s suggest that the 2020 election will be even more hotly contested than was 2016 if for no other reason that it indicates that Texas could be in play in a presidential election instead of being a considered a guaranteed Republican stronghold. That means a lot more spending of time, money and other resources by both presidential candidates and probably more funds available to candidates from both parties in at least the additional for really close congressional races from this election. If you thought there were a lot of television and radio commercials, mailers, phone calls and text messages this election just wait until 2020.

It won’t just be federal races drawing more funding either as there are 11 more Republican House seats that were close enough to be considered in play in the next election. With the Democrats now holding 67 state House seats it will only take 9 more to for them to attain a majority and be able to choose the Speaker of the House who would set the House agenda. A Democratic House majority would also have a lot more to say about redistricting which will be a major issue to be addressed by the legislature when it then meets in 2021. The main goal of Democrats would be to prevent the outrageous gerrymandering that currently gives Republicans the huge advantages they have with the current maps. You know there’s something fishy when state-wide Democratic candidates received 45-48% of the vote and yet even with this year’s wins they only hold 13 of 36 congressional seats instead of the 16-18 a reasonably drawn map would likely provide.

All this means is that 2020 is likely to be an even more hotly contested election cycle in Texas than even 2018 and within months of today party volunteers will start working once again on registering new voters and identifying likely supporters all over again.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - November 9, 2018

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Remind them their votes can change lives

At this point in the election cycle attempts by candidates to persuade people that they are the best choice are largely over and now their efforts are focused on persuading registered voters to take the time to go to the polls and mark their ballots. Volunteers are working full bore calling voters and knocking on their doors in the hope that they can turn out just a few more votes and that will be the difference between their preferred candidate winning and losing.

I’d be willing to bet that nearly everyone reading this column has either already voted or has plans to vote on a specific day and probably a specific time. As a citizen in a democratic republic in addition to your right and responsibility to vote you have a duty to encourage others to vote as well. Some folks need encouragement to make the effort, some more than others.

Here are a few reasons you can offer that might make them feel it is worth their effort:

Ask the prospective voter if they or someone they care about lacks access to healthcare because they can’t afford health insurance. If they do, then let them know that Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez are all are fighting for increasing access to healthcare by expanding Medicaid. Mention that Republicans Governor Greg Abbott has the power to do so with the federal government paying for 90% of it and chooses to let Texans suffer and die instead. Remind them that their vote for Lupe Valdez can make that happen.

Ask a prospective voter if they believe that everyone who works a full time job deserves the dignity of being to live on their own without worrying where their next meal will come from. If they do, then let them know that Democrats like US Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke are fighting to raise the minimum wage to a living wage because no one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty. Remind them that their vote for Beto O’Rourke can insure the dignity of every worker.

Ask a prospective voter if their children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews deserve a good quality education that will prepare them to provide for themselves and their future families. If they do, point out that Democrats like Texas House District 44 candidate John Rodgers is committed to protecting public education and fully funding public schools so that every child no matter where they live in Texas and no matter how much or how little their parents earn has the opportunity to get a high quality education. Remind them that their vote for John Rodgers can change lives.

What it all boils down to is that those who vote choose the way our government works and who it benefits. Anyone not voting cedes their right to have a voice and allows those who don’t respect the dignity of working Texans, don’t share the belief that every child deserves a high quality education, and only the well of and those with good employer based health insurance deserve medical care for themselves and their families will continue to set the direction of our state and the nation.

Be a leader, be an activist and offer to drive your family, friends and neighbors to the polls if that’s what it takes to get them to vote.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - November 2, 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Heed John Lewis

Civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis, has taken to social media recently to encourage voters to use their right to vote. He tweeted “I have been beaten, my skull fractured, and arrested more than forty times so that each and every person has the right to register and vote. Friends of mine gave their lives. Do your part. Get out there and vote like you’ve never voted before.”

Congressman Lewis’ remarks are especially important this week when many Americans are going to the polls for early voting at the same time a right wing terrorist has mailed and hand delivered at least seven bombs to former president Obama, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, progressive billionaire George Soros, and the New York offices of CNN. Hate from the right; like the white nationalist/Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia last year that ended in the death of Heather Heyer, has been on the rise since Barack Obama began his campaign for president in 2007. The current White House stoked that hate during his campaign and enough Americans in the certain states accepted his hateful message so that he managed to take office even though he received nearly 3 million fewer votes. Since his inauguration he has thrown more fuel in the fire and claimed that the bigots marching in Charlottesville were nice people.

By continuing to spout hateful language toward his opponents and those in the media not associated with Fox News and AM talk radio the popular vote loser in the White House has incited and given permission for his followers to act on his words by striking out at those with whom they disagree. No prior president of either party has pushed the envelope the way the man in the White House today has done. Even Reagan using dog whistles like his imaginary welfare queen remarks didn’t stoop to calling for violence.

In the face of attacks and calls for violence it is of the utmost importance that we all heed John Lewis’ call to vote. Even though they were subjected to violence from both police and civilian bigots Lewis, Rev. Martin Luther King, Dolores Huerta, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and the many other activists forged a highly effective and non-violent path to achieve their voting rights and civil rights goals. Once their right to vote was established those pioneers were able to achieve and protect other civil rights for a time.

Over the last 30 years as the right has recognized the opportunity to rule by exploiting division amongst the electorate. One of the main fault lines exploited is race, others are generally religious biases like non-Christian faiths, a woman’s right to control her body, and non-traditional sexuality. Exploiting these fault lines requires generating fear, anger, and hate to move those who are susceptible to voting for those who claim to be protecting them. Of course the politicians who use these methods including the record setting liar in the White House aren’t really interested in or concerned about the issues surrounding race or religion. Their vociferous calls to protect white, Christian America are just tools to get access to the levers of power for the purposes of enriching themselves and their billionaire and corporate sponsors. The evidence for this is the single significant piece of legislation that the Republican controlled congress was able to pass was a giant tax break for those billionaire and corporate sponsors.

If you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors don’t vote, the hate mongers and their rich sponsors win. Don’t let them.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - October 26, 2018