Legislative Special Session Opinion

The following was recently published by State Representative Helen Giddings

AUSTIN — Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott called a special legislative session, declaring, "If I'm going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count." He proceeded to lay out 19 items for our consideration, including a new "bathroom bill" to regulate local school district policies, a "revenue cap" to regulate local municipalities, and new abortion reporting burdens to regulate local hospitals.

The governor can call us back to work for any time or any reason. He is fully empowered to set the agenda for debate. However, special sessions should be called when there is a pressing need facing Texas families. Because we are operating on the taxpayer's dime, we should be focused on the urgent problems of our state.

This is why I was disappointed and, frankly, bewildered that Texas higher education did not merit inclusion in the governor's proclamation. I am requesting that the governor reconsider.

There is no greater vehicle for economic opportunity than a college degree. There is no more fertile soil for innovation and self-discovery than a university classroom. However, access to that dream has become more and more costly in time and in money. Over the past 10 years, outstanding student debt has surpassed the amount households owe on auto loans, home equity loans and credit cards. Since 2004, there has been a 92 percent increase of student loan borrowers. During that time, the number of borrowers defaulting on their loans has increased 125 percent.

None of this is surprising when you realize that in Texas, the 50 percent of students who leave college with debt leave owing over $31,000. At several institutions, that average is north of $40,000.

This is a travesty, and it's one lawmakers helped cause. Since 2003, tuition and fees has increased by 91 percent. Meanwhile, state appropriations have declined by 27 percent. Simply put, we shifted the burden to students and families.

This is a state and national emergency. When the governor chose to call us back, it is inconceivable that neither the student debt crisis nor any issues in higher education merited consideration. We could be spending the next 30 days debating loan forgiveness and repayment programs, expanded refinancing options, and additional tax credits. We could be working on a bipartisan basis, in collaboration with university leadership, to find creative new ways to help students graduate on time with manageable debt.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has set a goal for 60 percent of Texans between the ages of 25 and 34 to earn a degree or certification by 2030. We are never going to meet that goal without the resolute support of our state leaders.

We have often been able to work across party lines to support Texas higher education. Last session, with the help of Rep. James White, I was able to pass an important overhaul of remedial education classes with House Bill 2223. With the support of lawmakers from both parties and the governor, this bill will help students needing remediation graduate faster with less debt. This was a game changer, and I thank the governor for his support. But we have a responsibility to expand that goal for all Texas students.

The future of Texas depends on how we respond to this crisis. For us to reach our full potential, we must allow these students and families to meet theirs. We have been called for another session, and we must not waste our time on trivial disputes. Let's work together, shoot for the stars, and give our students the future they deserve.

Helen Giddings is a Democratic member of the Texas House representing Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Lancaster, Wilmer, Hutchins and portions of Dallas. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News. Email: District109giddings@house.texas.gov