texasbaptists-PublicPolicy

Public Policy Updates – December 2012

December 20th, 2012 at 2:39 pm

See Public Policy Updates below on these important topics:

Predatory Lending
Nutrition and Poverty
Energy and Environment
Gambling
Human Trafficking
Public Education


Predatory Lending

Stephen Reeves

The Christian Life Commission has become a leading voice in Texas calling for reform of the small dollar lending market. There are now nearly 3,500 payday and auto title lending locations fleecing our fellow citizens with unlimited fees and never ending payments that often exceed 700% APR. They are taking advantage of people desperate for quick cash who see stores in their neighborhood offering quick cash and feel they have no place else to turn. Because of our lax laws, Texans are paying more for these products than any other state in the nation. For a more complete understanding of how these products work and how this practice is legal, view our Payday & Auto Title Lending Brochure (PDF).

Fortunately, through our work, and that of our coalition partners in Texas Faith for Fair Lending and the Texas Fair Lending Alliance some progress was made last session. For a full recap of what the two bills did, view the Texas Faith for Fair Lending Bill Tracker. One positive outcome of the legislation was the ability of the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner to collect data about what is really going on in Texas. The findings are alarming and in some ways worse than we expected. Data shows that in the first half of this year, 75% of borrowers had to refinance or “rollover” their loans and nearly 45% had to do so two or more times. Over 17,000 cars were repossessed — that’s nearly 95 every day. A new shift towards offering more “multiple installment” loans is also particularly troubling. Just look at what the data found about these loans: In the first quarter of 2012 the average installment loan of $606.50 resulted in a total average of $1,397.63 due at the end of a typical 98 day term. In the second quarter it was $1,691.51 due on a $558.99 loan. And most of us complain about our credit card rate.

In response to state reforms that were so limited in scope, cities have taken the matter into their own hands. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio have passed lending ordinances that attempt to put the brakes on the cycle of debt. In addition, these cities and several others have passed zoning ordinances aimed at stopping the proliferation of store front locations. The CLC applauds these efforts. These regulations show that elected officials closest to their constituents and clearly see the harms of of this industry in their community and are not swayed by industry talking points and lobbyists. Unfortunately, as this recent report shows, some industry members have already found the next loophole and are avoiding all state and local attempts at curbing their predatory practices.

That’s why a state-wide solution with real teeth is so critical. Last session, the response from our supporters including our Texas Baptist pastors was phenomenal. Without it, I doubt such progress would have been made. You are needed again. This session we must attack the “cycle of debt” and the high cost of these loans. While we hope to garner industry support for reasonable regulations, it is possible these companies and their multi-million dollar lobby will oppose further reform. If our lawmakers are to stand up and do what is right, there must be people behind them, supporting them and pushing them forward. The CLC is calling on you to reach out to your elected officials. Let them know how you feel and what these products are doing to your community. We must insist that there be moral boundaries in the marketplace. Some practices are just wrong and exploitative. We shouldn’t stand for our fellow Texans being treated this way.


Nutrition and Poverty

Anne Olson

Last session marked the first time the Texas Food Policy Roundtable, a coalition of nearly 20 groups from around the state, came together to advocate on food issues, including nutrition and obesity, access to SNAP (formerly food stamps), summer meals for children and sustainable food systems. We were able to help pass legislation pertaining to all four of our primary issue areas, and created a buzz at the capitol for food-related issues in Texas. The Christian Life Commission is a member of the steering committee for the group, and played an strong role in passing legislation that positively affects hungry Texans.

Because of the Roundtable’s efforts and growing interest in the legislature, multiple interim committees were tasked with studying food systems and nutrition issues (pdf) in our state over the last year. Areas of attention for legislators varied from understanding SNAP access and SNAP fraud to easing restrictions on small farms, including revisions of wastewater issues for urban farms and community gardens.

Based on the priorities of legislators and member groups, the Texas Food Policy Roundtable has created a legislative agenda targeting areas of interest in SNAP, high-risk populations such as children, veterans and the elderly, nutrition in schools, and access to farmers’ markets and farm-fresh food.

If you would like to follow more of what the Food Policy Roundtable is working on this session, please email txfoodpolicy@gmail.com and you will be added to our email list.


Energy and Environment

McCall Johnson

Since the 82nd Legislative Session, the Christian Life Commission has been very busy working on energy and environmental issues. Including working with state agencies such as the State Energy Conservation Office and the Public Utility Commission to implement bills that passed last session and specifically have implications for churches.

We have been working on rates, specifically through educational Energy Management Forums in various cities, such as Beaumont and Abilene we have made it a goal to make sure that churches understand their rate structure and how to save money. In Austin, we were on the ground advocating before the city council to make sure that houses of worship did not see unfair increases in their rates as a new rate plan was enacted. We called a hearing at the Public Utility Commission to look at the implementation of demand ratchet changes in the Oncor service territory, and worked with retail electric providers to ensure options for congregations in West Texas that were experiencing pass through congestion charges.

One of the most exciting new developments was the launch of the Texas Baptists Energy Ministry a partnership between the BGCT and Smart Solutions Energy. If your church or home is located in the competitive, deregulated electricity market we can find you a low price on electricity and a donation is made to the BGCT to support ministry and missions.

The Christian Life Commission has joined the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) as an opportunity to represent our constituents and compliment our through work at the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission. Texas’ electricity debate the session will be framed by the resource adequacy conversation and the issues surrounding market design and our reserve margin. The CLC sees our participation in ERCOT as crucial to being part of this conversation at the legislature.

An area that always been close our hearts at the CLC is the recycling and proper disposal of electronic waste, as we continue to advocate for strong environmental policies on this front, we are paying close attention to another pertinent issue – water. We plan to take a stronger role in supporting conscious water planning, stewardship and conservation this session. This is sure to be a very hot topic: Lt. Governor Dewhurst has already announced plans to use $1 billion in funding from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects.

The CLC energy and environment priorities for the 83rd Session are to:

  • Advocate fair electricity rates for churches and nonprofits that recognize their unique usage patterns
  • Support policies to meet the increasing energy demand in Texas, including clean and efficient energy options
  • Encourage programs that facilitate the recycling and responsible disposal of electronic waste
  • Create and promote incentive programs for churches and other nonprofit organizations that make investments in on-site energy upgrades more affordable
  • Support water planning, conservation, and efficiency measures to ensure sufficient resources for the growing population of Texas

Gambling

Stephen Reeves

Across this country the partnership between our government and the gambling industry is proving to be a failed public policy. Failed promises of tax revenue, families ruined by addiction and the creation of a newly entrenched, well financed special interest lobby always asking for more. Yet here in Texas, once again, the proponents of expanded legalized gambling are out in force in the weeks and months ahead of a legislative session. They’re pitching trumped up promises of revenue and bemoaning the fact Texans are losing their shirts in other states rather than here at home. They’re hiring big named lobbyists, publishing op-ed pieces in newspapers across Texas and promising that this time is different. The various conflicting interests, from racetrack owners, “destination resort casino” backers, bingo parlors, Native-American tribes, poker players and others are trying to convince folks that they’ve set greed aside, they’re on the same page, willing to work together to bring slot machines to this state. If you buy any of that you probably still think the lottery solved our public education funding crisis. For all their hot-air, industry backed public opinion polling, paid for economic impact studies, and million dollar lobbyists, Texans aren’t buying it. In fact, the Dallas chapter of the NAACP and the Republican Party of Texas Platform agree that rather than expand gambling, the existing lottery ought to be repealed. That’s bipartisan consensus rarely seen in this day and age.

The Christian Life Commission will continue to be a leading voice opposing gambling expansion in this state. Opposing gambling has been a hallmark of the CLC’s efforts in Austin for years. We are proud of that history, and still believe that the state partnering with a predatory business that plays our fellow citizens for suckers in exchange for a little bit of tax revenue is bad public policy. State after state has turned to slot machines in times of need only to see budget shortfalls continue. Gambling losses that generate state revenues have devastating effects not only on those who choose to gamble and their families, but also on the local economies where that money is no longer being spent.

This session is sure to see expansion efforts on several fronts. There is just too much money to be made and to many lobbyists willing to be paid to let the issue drop. There will certainly be the head-on approach of seeking a constitutional amendment that would authorize casinos or slot machines of some kind to be built here. The two-thirds majority needed for that option will be a hard road for proponents. In addition, the CLC will be watchful for more sneaky, back-door attempts to expand gambling by expanding games offered by the Texas Lottery. This might include machine-based games like video lottery terminals or electronic bingo, or it could include games offered on the internet as other states have begun to explore. It is important to note that the Lottery Commission is going through the periodic Sunset review process. This affords us the ability to take a close look at lottery operations and even ask if it is time for our state’s partnership with predatory gambling to end.

The CLC is fortunate to have Rob Kohler as an expert consultant on this issue. Rob is an invaluable resource. He not only has extensive knowledge and research on the issue but also trusted relationships with key members of the legislature. Rob often represents the CLC in the media on this issue so you are likely to see him quoted in your local paper. In addition, the CLC will be working with state and national partners with Stop Predatory Gambling (SPG) and SPG Texas.

As long as Texas refuses to allow casino gambling, there will be a push at the legislature. There is just too much money to be made off of the gambling loses of millions of Texans and too many lobbyists willing to take industry contracts. It is our hope and prayer that Texas beat back these forces until the current gambling expansion trend in America reverses itself. In fact, we believe Texas will be a model for the country of how the families and economy of a state are better off by not following the crowd over the cliff.


Human Trafficking

Anne Olson

Texas has made incredible progress in creating policy that combats human trafficking in our state. In fact, after the 82nd legislative session, Texas was ranked as the top state in the country for policies relating to this horrific crime (pdf). The Attorney General’s task force, set forth during the 81st legislative session, continued to meet this interim, and has set forth recommendations to the legislature on what next steps the state can take to continue to lead the country in its laws.

This interim, the Joint Committee to Study Human Trafficking also met four times around the state and heard from experts and the public on the issue. One of the primary focuses for the coming session based on the testimony from these hearings is victims’ services. Because human trafficking is so new as a crime, victims do not yet have adequate wrap-around services they need to ensure proper healing and re-entry into their community. However, as the movement to combat human trafficking grows, so do the number and size of organizations seeking to provide the proper types of services for victims. Texas’ next step is to create laws under which these organizations can provide the services needed, understanding that these are very unique victims with unique needs.


Public Education

Charles Foster Johnson

The Christian Life Commission is launching a new initiative called Pastors for Public Education. The objective is simple: to mobilize local congregations, ministers and church leaders for support of our public school system.

Many dedicated teachers, principals, coaches, and staff who are faithful members of our local congregations are employed by our schools. These individuals are leaders in our communities and mentors for our children. They are at the center of the moral and character formation of our young people.

The Christian Life Commission wants to help orchestrate a chorus of support for these committed educators! We are asking pastors to enlist to do five things:

  1. Meet with your local school superintendent and principal affirm your support, offer assistance listen to any challenges they face.
  2. Hold a celebration event for public education in your local church, such as a Teacher Appreciation/Recognition or Bible presentation for 1st graders.
  3. Communicate with your state senator and state representative about the critical need for funding for our public school system.
  4. Attend a legislative day in Austin sponsored by the CLC in which you visit your legislator in person to advocate for public education support.
  5. Recruit one other pastor to join this cause.

Public education is at the center of our democracy. Our public school educators need our encouragement and solidarity like never before. Let’s bring the faith community to stand with our schools in the education of our children.

For more information, contact Charles Johnson, Pastor of Bread Fellowship, Fort Worth at charlie@charlesfosterjohnson.com or Suzii Paynter, Executive Director of the CLC at suzii.paynter@texasbaptists.org.

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