The Advocate spent some time with Texas District 20 Rep. Terry Wilson—who insisted we call him Terry—to ask some tough questions from our readers. Rep. Wilson adds, “I’m happy to do it; every chance I have to talk to the people of District 20 is an honor.”
Advocate: First, we’d like to ask about the movement to “Defund the Police”. You served on the Criminal Jurisprudence committee in your first session and worked across party lines on several criminal justice reform bills. What is your position on the Defund movement, and how has your experience in the legislature shaped that position?
Rep Wilson: I support our police officers. There’s a phrase you will hear in every legislative session, regardless of topic or party affiliation of the member saying it; “Let’s go after the bad actors.” When we punish an entire group for the actions of a few, we do a disservice to the people we serve.
Liberal leaders, even in Texas, have openly declared their support for cutting police department budgets, in a time when crime statistics are ticking upward. Doing so, or even cutting police departments entirely, is a nuclear option that leaves our communities vulnerable to the evils that law enforcement works so hard to protect us from; property crime all the way to human trafficking.
A: Human trafficking has been a major issue in the legislature the last few sessions. What impact would the Defund movement have on that effort, and what has the legislature done to combat human trafficking?
TW: Texas has, regrettably, become the second-largest state for sex trafficking. Numbers from the Office of the Attorney General say Texas has approximately 234,000 victims of labor trafficking and 79,000 victims of youth and minor sex trafficking at any given time.
In 2019 the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 72, authored by Senator Jane Nelson, which established a Human Trafficking Coordinating Council; setting up a 5-year plan with the Office of the Attorney General to combat human trafficking. That plan involves massive coordination efforts with local law enforcement, school districts, and state agencies to establish consistency across the state. Human trafficking, like any disease, can still take hold and thrive if given a single place to fester, so statewide consistency is the key.
Look at the City of Dallas; since 2005, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) provided cities in the DFW area with $1,450,000 in hopes to put an end to human trafficking. Why? Dallas ranks 9th among US cities for cases of human trafficking, and the BJA’s mission is to strengthen law enforcement agencies with more resources. They ensure tools and training needed to end modern-day slavery are in the hands of those on the front line—but they are only a part of the whole picture. Fully-funded police departments are still needed to truly combat human trafficking as well as other crimes, and the city of Dallas has been entertaining the idea of defunding the police.
If we allow liberal democratic leadership, as is the case in Dallas, to pull a political stunt—defund these efforts because of a few bad actors—our children, the innocent, and the vulnerable will pay the price.
A: So, if you do not support defunding the police, what measures do you support to combat the issue of the bad actors within police departments?
TW: Support means providing people with what they need, letting them focus on what’s important, and holding them accountable when things go wrong.
I do think we put too much on the backs of our law enforcement officers. In many of our larger cities, whole departments; e.g., Animal Control have been eliminated, placing those duties on law enforcement without funding to cover it. Meanwhile, our police officers are on the front lines of societal battles with violent crime, drug trafficking, and more, being paid a minimal amount to operate at full steam from day one. We must ensure the division of duty exists to allow law enforcement to focus on the stated tasks of those departments. Finally, we must hold accountable those who would abuse their positions and ensure that the bad actors are rooted out.
A: You mentioned child safety in response to the human trafficking issue. While schools are an important part of combating human trafficking, most parents these days are worried about the literal diseases that could impact their children when they go to school, rather than metaphorical ones. What are the priorities for the state as far as opening schools just a few weeks from now?
TW: The core focus is on safely and equitably providing the best education we can for the children. From the state level, the best thing we can do is to ensure we allow local districts the flexibility to do what is best for their community, rather than issuing one-size-fits-all edicts from Austin. With 5.5 million students, Texas has more kids in public education than population of South Carolina and 26 other states. We are too diverse a state for any one policy to be right for every district.
I’ve been in close contact with all our superintendents in HD20 and their only goal is to ensure a safe environment for all, so students may continue to receive the best education possible. I am committed to making sure they will have the ability to provide equitable instruction and support for in-person and virtual classes, without having to worry about funding to keep lights on and maintain the raises we provided to teachers with House Bill 3 in the 86th legislature.
A: Should that decision fall completely on school districts? What role should local health authorities play in deciding which schools should reopen, and whether to shut them down should a student or teacher contract COVID?
TW: ISD boards of trustees are elected, and therefore are held accountable by voters. Taking away the ability of a district to make these kinds of decisions would mean losing faith in our entire system of local government. Our government system has weathered extreme situations before, and can do so now, if we rely on the system of checks and balances supported by the separation of powers. I believe elected school board trustees are best placed to make decisions, even in these uncertain times, that will directly affect their constituencies.
The Texas Attorney General issued guidance on that question this week. To clarify guidance given by state agencies, the opinion stated that, while local health authorities will be able to order an individual school to close for a short time in direct response to a local outbreak, they must coordinate with the school district first. Furthermore, only school districts will have the authority to order blanket closures of all schools in a district or to close them as a preventative measure. Governor Abbott issued a statement Friday that reinforces this point.
This opinion reinforces that state law entrusts school districts with the “primary responsibility for implementing the State’s system of public education and ensuring student performance,” including the decisions about how to operate in a pandemic, and rightfully so.
A: The COVID issue is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind right now. While there is a lot of talk about measures to prevent people from getting infected, what has the legislature done to help people cover the costs of treatment if they do contract COVID-19?
TW: Issues like medical billing were on our minds long before this pandemic started. Even though the Legislature hasn’t been in session since this began, the action we took in the 86th Session in response to past issues will make a big difference today.
The most significant action we took was Senate Bill 1264, authored by Republican State Senator Kelly Hancock, which tackled surprise medical billing.
In an emergency, you don’t have the chance to shop around or make sure that the ambulance takes you to an emergency room that is in your insurance company’s network. If a patient was taken to an ER that wasn’t “in network,” and the doctor didn’t agree to the insurance company’s terms, they could send the balance of the bill to the patient, who would be on the hook for covering the difference, which could reach into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These “balance bills” often took patients by surprise, even coming from in-network procedures they were told would be covered if an out-of-network specialist, like an anesthesiologist, was called in to help.
Now, after we took action to stop this practice, insurers and health care providers must leave the patient out of billing disputes and negotiate prices for out-of-network care using an arbitration process. The patient is only responsible for their co-pay, co-insurance, and deductible amounts.
We also made sure that those who were victims of this practice in the past were not punished with bad credit from inability to pay a bill that should never have been theirs to begin with, thanks to Republican State Senator Larry Taylor’s Senate Bill 1037.
A: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today. Any parting words for our readers?
TW: Even though the Legislature is not in session, my staff and I are committed to serving the people of the district in whatever way we can. A lot of the decisions being made now will impact what the Legislature deals with upon returning in January, and we are in contact with agencies and local governments to ensure we have all the information necessary to deal with this ongoing crisis. It’s important to remember, too, that the business of the state continues unabated. Our office may be operating remotely due to the closing of the capitol, but we will do everything we can to make sure government works for the people.