Many topics tackled in lawmakers’ conversation

Immigration, sanctuary cities, the so-called bathroom bill, education and health care were among the issues tackled during a conversation with state Reps. Brooks Landgraf and Cesar Blanco in the Zant Room of the Saulsbury Campus Center at Odessa College today.
Organized by the Texas Tribune and moderated by Tribune CEO and co-founder Evan Smith, the event attracted a full house.
Before the conversation began, Smith said there are a lot of people who don’t have enough of an idea of what goes on in Austin during the legislative session, so the Tribune brings the elected officials home to explain their decisions.
“Everybody in the state is affected by public education, healthcare, transportation – all the decisions made by elected officials. But the farther you live from Austin, the less likely you are to know about the fights going on at the Capitol and the stakes you have in the outcomes of those fights,” Smith said. “People in Odessa deserve to know what their representatives are doing, the laws they’re passing, how they’re spending tax dollars, what they’re deciding about public school funding, or sanctuary cities, border security, how they’re dealing with the problem of the uninsured.”
State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, was scheduled to participate, but had a conflict, Smith said, so Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, stepped in.
On sanctuary cities, Landgraf said they are an affront to the rule of law.
“… I’m very much in favor of legal immigration,” Landgraf said. “This is a nation that was built on legal immigration. We’re a nation of legal immigrants. The fact that we have municipalities in certain parts of the state, certain parts of the country, that are willing to thumb their nose at existing laws I think is offensive to people who are trying to legally immigrate to the United States. … It’s showing that if you cut in line, there’s not going to be any repercussions for that.”
Blanco said he hoped to build some consensus on immigration.
“We have a lot of immigrants in this community that are working,” Blanco said. “They’re living in the shadows.”
He added that the current presidential administration is unfriendly to immigrants. President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that created a travel ban and Texas and other states have seen deportations of people without documentation and others.
Blanco said he thinks comprehensive immigration reform is needed. He added that many businesses hire immigrants. Some work for farmers, ranchers, growers and sheep shearers and others are in construction, hotels, motels and restaurants.
“So these are folks that only add to our economy in Texas,” Blanco said.
The conversation included question-and-answer time with the audience. One questioner said he is here on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or the DREAM Act. He said he has been working hard on his degree and wanted to know if he would be deported.
Smith noted that there is talk of eliminating the DACA and DREAM acts.
Blanco said immigrants from all over the world have made this “the great country that it is.”
“I think you have a right to be here,” Blanco said.
Landgraf said if the questioner was here lawfully, he should not be deported and he was going about things the right way if he was on a student or work visa.
“Anybody who has been in the United States under lawful pretenses, I don’t think that’s something that should be disregarded …,” Landgraf said.
Landgraf said he would do away with in-state tuition for people without documentation.
Blanco said, the provision, implemented under former Gov. Rick Perry, should remain in place.
As far as higher education funding, Landgraf said the House budget offers some higher funding levels for higher education.
“It’s still very fiscally conservative,” Landgraf said. “We’re making sure that we’re not spending more than we’re taking in as a state, but we do have to prioritize the limited resources that we do have. The state has consistently gotten a good return on its investment in higher education and that’s why I’m proud to support our house budget which does that.”
Smith noted that there are two competing budgets in the House and Senate with a $5.3 billon difference between them. He said there is between $6 billion and $10 billion less to spend this year than last.
Landgraf said spending has to be prioritized with what is available. “There are difficult decisions to be made because we simply don’t have as much revenue to divvy up, so that does require some tough decisions,” he said.
For Blanco, the budget reflects the values of the state. That’s why he said he voted against the budget last year.
He said the state has increased population and decreased oil and gas revenue. Blanco added that some priorities have to be tackled such as a revamp of Child Protective Services.
Smith noted that the legislature also has to tackle growth of Medicaid use and putting more funds into mental health.
On the upcoming A-F accountability system for school districts, Blanco said he voted against it during the last session because of the stigma it gives to lower performing schools.
Landgraf said he voted for A-F, but it wasn’t rolled out the way he expected. He added that the system, which hasn’t gone into effect yet, doesn’t give an accurate picture of campuses or districts.
“I do believe accountability is important,” Landgraf said. He added that there are many factors that schools, teachers and districts have to deal with that are out of their control such as high mobility rates, poverty and students coming to school hungry.
On the school choice front, Landgraf said it is important to establish that school choice means different things to different people. Landgraf said he thinks every parent in Texas should have the right to send their children to the school they want, but he is trending no on the proposal.
He added that, in many areas, the only option is public education.
However, in Texas, there is a constitutional obligation to provide a system of free public schools, he said. “I don’t think that’s something we can or should disregard,” Landgraf said. “We have to do everything we can to make the public school system is the best it can be.”
Blanco said public schools would be negatively impacted by school choice.
Smith noted that charter schools wouldn’t be obligated to educate all children.