DALLAS — As vice chairman of the House Calendars Committee, which helps decide the legislation that will make it to the House floor, Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said Democrats' best chance in years of expanding Medicaid likely will not pass this legislative session.
“I think we’re losing an opportunity there, and I think it would certainly help. It would be good for Texas. It would be good for business to expand healthcare in Texas," he said on Sunday’s Inside Texas Politics. "Failing to do that for another session is certainly something we will walk away shaking our heads about."
Expanding Medicaid would provide health insurance coverage to almost a million Texans. Democrats have been pushing for Texas to expand the coverage like a dozen other Republican-led states have done. But conservative leaders in the state remain opposed to it.
But, the Texas House of Representatives is moving forward in a bipartisan way to reform criminal justice laws in the state, Moody added.
Among the bills that recently passed the Texas House is the decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis. This legislation would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, meaning no jail time. Six years ago, Moody explained, Texas Democrats could not even get a hearing on that bill, which he sponsored at the time. But this session, it passed a second reading in the House on a voice vote.
He believes it's because the conversation around marijuana has become “normalized” – but how did that happen in a Republican-led chamber?
“I think the people back home are talking to their representatives and telling them 'we don't want to waste money on this type of prosecution. We don't think that's a good use of government resources.' These are right-sizing penalties,” Moody said.
The House also passed legislation to lower penalties for THC concentrates, also moving those into the misdemeanor world on first offenses. The penalties would increase from there. THC is the ingredient in cannabis that produces the feeling of being high.
“People today have a gummy bear, or a pen or a brownie or whatever. The way the law was written, all of those are automatically felony offenses,” the Speaker Pro Tem said. “So, a 17-year-old kid with a vape pen is now looking at, and 17-year-olds are adults in our system by the way, he's on a campus, he's looking at a second-degree felony.”
Moody also discussed a huge boon in federal funding available to Texas.
Last month, state leaders announced that they’ve released $11 billion in federal stimulus money to public schools in Texas to help with pandemic-related losses, from student learning to revenue. But that’s only part of the federal stimulus sitting in Texas’ bank account. Lawmakers still have to decide what to do with the remaining $7 billion in federal funds.
Moody explained the delay in releasing those funds is because lawmakers wanted to make sure they fully understood the federal government’s expectations for the funding so Texas would not have to pay it back.
“There's certainly a lot of strings that come attached with those dollars,” he said. “The problem is the regulations that fold on top of them always lag behind. And so you don’t want to disperse the money in a way that gets clawed back at a certain time. These are experiences that we’ve had in the past with federal money before.”
The conversation with Moody also touched on the power crisis Texans experienced earlier this year.
This week, more natural gas producers will announce their first quarter earnings and are expected to post huge profits because of the exorbitant price of gas during the freezing weather in February.
Those huge profits are coming as electric generation companies post massive losses.
With such wild financial swings during that deadly week, Moody was asked whether the system is broken.
“Where are the fixes for folks that had their pipes burst or their food in their refrigerator rot? What are we doing for them?" he said. "I do think we need to work in the industry side of things. There's certainly problems that have to be addressed there and we started to address some of them. But I haven't yet seen what we're doing for consumers that really paid the price for what happened in the freeze this year.”
But with a month left in the legislative session, the clock is ticking on Texas lawmakers to pass substantial reform.
If they don’t, Moody said, then “shame on us.”
Watch this week's episode of Inside Texas Politics below: