Everything’s Bigger In Texas

by Santiago Cirnigliaro, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Since accepting the offer to participate in the Austin Legislative Internship Program, we have been told over and over again that we will be working with some very important people within the state of Texas. It’s been recommended that we memorize the legislative members’ names and faces, as well as learn to differentiate the senators from the representatives. We have been warned to not call a senator a representative and vice versa, since it can be considered extremely disrespectful. Since accepting this position, we have been told about the big egos within the building. I figured the egos would be big, but not as big as I have seen. But, like they say, everything is bigger in Texas; apparently so are the personalities.

We have encountered varying personalities within the capitol, from the representatives who openly carry their pistols around the capitol to the members who cross the line with their inappropriate touching. When we were doing our orientation right before session started, I thought everyone was exaggerating the number of egos that are in the capitol. However, I have found that it’s not just the members who have the big personalities. I have come across several staff members who act just as privileged as their bosses. It seems as if coming into the capitol requires a big ego regardless of your position.

As it was explained to us, everyone who works in the building is dreaming of being the president of the United States one day. The very similar personalities have included fake laughs, lingering handshakes, or the rumors that behind closed doors they are bossy and like to yell at their staff to get things done. This is one of the aspects that scares me about working in politics. I do not believe in the fake personalities, boosted egos, and being rude because of someone’s position. As a social worker, I believe that the dignity and worth of a person are extremely important. Therefore, seeing all of these personalities has actually taught me something.

This experience so far has taught me that the “politics” within politics needs to change. Elected officials were elected to represent the people and make Texans lives better. During the past month of going in and out of the capitol, I have realized that if I ever am able to work as an elected official such as a representative, senator, or any other position of leadership, I want to be seen as an example. But not as the “examples” we have seen so far.

I want to be able to be approached by any staff member and not be intimidating. I would want people to understand that I too am just another person, just with a different title. Working for the people of Texas should be the most humbling job at the capitol. We have continuously been told that, as staff members, we are the ones that make the capitol work and that we are the ones behind the scenes pushing for the bills to get passed. As an elected official, I would want my staff to know that, to know that they are appreciated, and that I understand that they are people as well.

This is my first session and I definitely have a lot more to learn. I hope that I am wrong about most legislators. I hope that I can definitely change my mind about my position. Regardless I know that I have already learned so much about myself in this short month that we have been in session. I look forward to the opportunity to learn more and I hope to one day be the change that we so desperately want to see.

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I Found My People

by Eli Davis, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

This is my first legislative session and first blog post ever. I am much more daunted by the former than the latter, which screams volumes, given my avowed phobia of writing. Despite heeding all the advice and wisdom I could muster from both our professors and our predecessors who survived prior sessions as part of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work Austin Legislative Internship Program, nothing can fully prepare someone for this experience.

I was told to expect three things as an intern at the Texas Legislature: crazy-long hours; high levels of sustained stress; and, in so many words, a fraternity-like atmosphere. A veteran of nearly a decade at a Fortune 500 corporation, I have been battle-tested by grueling work hours and stratospheric stress levels that taxed the endurance of my body/mind/spirit.  However, having never pledged a fraternity myself, it was the third warning that stirred my fear of the unknown and most concerned me.

What I have found thus far, though, is that my fears were unfounded. Granted, our group of social work interns staffing the Texas Legislative Study Group, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman, came into this ten-strong, but after our paradoxically long and quick first month, I feel closer to my peers than some friends I’ve had for years. Even though the real craziness that will come when the session really gets going hasn’t even begun yet, there is something fundamentally different about this opportunity, i.e. the pressures and, I suspect, even the culture of this historic body, that facilitates a familial dynamic, not simply a fraternal one.

The things that excited me about the program – the educational and professional possibilities – are as awesome as I imagined, but my favorite part so far is being amongst brilliant, social justice-oriented people who are willing to nerd-out over policy (and drop everything they’re doing to help you after, say, a car wreck or a trip to the ER).

Of course, I would like to think there is something special about our group, and there certainly is, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the external factors. Better than a frat, I liken the Capitol more to one of those snazzy new pressure cookers. We are surrounded by external pressures/stressors as we face the daunting task of processing massive amounts of information in this prestigious, but stressful environment, where our legacy precedes us. This is heightened by knowing the implications of our work on the ultimate decision process. These pressures  have already and will continue to test everyone that has their hands in this process, but also drive the final outcome. I have yet to meet anyone on the Capitol grounds who didn’t seem to understand that we are dealing in the currency of human lives. I say that to describe everyone involved in the work of the legislature, from the Governor to my new friend who works in the cafeteria.

Ours is an experience I wish every Texan could have. Personally, I would never be able to grasp the entirety of this process, complete with its many nuances and traditions, in any other way. And the biggest secret, is it isn’t a secret…from the dealings on the floor down to the design of the grounds, this sacred place of policy was meant for the people. I encourage each and every one of you to stop by and claim your place in the process, in whatever capacity moves you.

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Effective Good: An Illusive, Elusive White Whale in the Political Waters

by Sharon Jacob, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Author’s note: Melville is not my favorite author in the traditional literary canon. Probably because he used far too many wandering metaphors with unnecessarily florid language.

The Principle of the Thing

I’ve long stayed away from politics, not only because of what I felt were absurdly petty and unnecessarily public feuds, but also because of the conflict of integrity that seemed to come even with a ‘win.’ For me, my principles are everything. They’ve driven nearly every one of my life choices.

I don’t believe the end can justify the means. Isn’t an illicitly gotten ‘good’ end a house built on sand?

The Questioning

This past summer, an episode of the podcast Pod Save America by Crooked Media took aim at progressives who, according to them, sacrificed progress for civility. ‘How can you ever win against those who forsake rules,’ they argued, ‘if you don’t do the same?’ For me, a win means a channel being created or widened to give voices to the voiceless; a win means an under-resourced population receiving resources to meet their needs; a win means the underserved being not only represented, but actually served by their elected representatives.

The discourse on Pod Save America was certainly interesting and worth the listen, but I had trouble wrapping my mind around a true win gained through questionable means. To me it’s the difference between Superman and Dexter (the vigilante serial killer, not the cartoon mad scientist). If the ‘civility doesn’t win’ argument were true, shouldn’t we hold the superhero and the anti-hero in the same level of high regard? Yet, we use one as an early model of ethics for our kids and uncomfortably ignore the other, branding it an immoral, misguided, and chaotic attempt at justice.

The Confusion

Is a ‘good’ piece of legislation that benefits a vulnerable population truly good if it sells out another vulnerable population? My gut and moral compass say no. Conversations with individuals who have long been immersed in the Texas political system, though, suggest otherwise. “Select one cause to champion,” one civil servant advised us, “and consider everything else as sacrificable for that one cause.” Another stressed the importance of relationships and symbolic gestures in this environment. One snub could become the lost vote that kills a bill, or worse, suffocates it in technicalities.

If the political arena were a game of four-dimensional chess, these strategies would make logical sense. However, when the casualties of a strategic move are the ways of life of very real people, the game no longer makes ethical sense.

The Recognition of Futility

We were warned during orientation that those of us with strong boundaries would struggle in this environment. At the time, I assumed the statement was referring to work-life boundaries. I’m starting to realize that it may be more relevant to my stubborn moral compass.

The Begrudging Acknowledgement

One of the LSGers (a fellow intern with the Legislative Study Group, who is also my roommate) has often reminded me that flexible principles are more effective than rigid ones. I suppose it’s much more difficult to finesse a large, stumpy block of pure, stubborn principle through the narrow halls of the Legislature than it is to reach out with lithe tendrils of softened, accommodating, hopeful principle.

The Unwieldy Compromise

The truth is, there are no true Supermen or Superwomen in the political realm. Contrary to what sensationalist tweets, comments, and media say, there really no Dexters either (on either side, believe it or not).

This may also be news to some, but most politicians are, in fact, human. And humans are notoriously, infuriatingly, bewilderingly complicated. I may be showing my naivety here just one month into the legislative session, but I still believe that most people work towards what they think is right. Perhaps that perception is skewed by life events or an individual’s particular vantage point, but I believe (or maybe I need to believe) that everyone aims for what presents as ‘good’ in their reality. We’ll see if my thinking changes closer to the end of session.

A Return to Futility: An Ode to Ineffectiveness

Perhaps one does manage to pin down the exact nature of that elusive ‘good.’ And perhaps one finds their definition to be the same as mine: aiming to meet the unmet needs of underserved vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, that definition, and any definition, fails to fully capture what ‘good’ is.

It’s relatively simple to be ineffectively ‘good.’ In fact, many well-intentioned political actions have every intention of fitting within this definition of ‘good’ in their protests, social media revolutions, awareness campaigns, and challenging of norms. Yet, when it comes down to the real details – the strategy, the statistics, the reality checks, the fiscal feasibility – the energy putters out, and consequently, so does the movement.

A Renewed Hope?

An effectively ‘good,’ political action though, whether a movement or legislation, seems to be more subtle, a little quieter – not nearly as sexy.

An individual who has watched the Texas Legislature for most of his life spoke to our group earlier last month and encouraged us to think in terms of the inch. What he meant was that sometimes the smallest gears of government are easier to change than the enticing, but clunky cogs that time has fused in place.

Breaking down the minute steps of a bureaucratic procedure to analyze and eventually streamline the process is probably not your idea of powerful and dynamic social justice. But what if that resulted in increased enrollment for children’s insurance and ballooned the number of Texas children who have access to medical care?

After all, even the largest whale is propelled by the tiny biological rowing mechanism of the actin and myosin molecules.

Recognizing an Impending Evolution of Self

My principles are still everything to me, but I’m slowly coming to the realization that my options are to hold tight to my principles as they exist now and risk gaining nothing, or to allow them to be yielding enough to accept the nuances and complexities of life, potentially gaining small, but important ground.

But what does that mean for my position as a policy analyst for the Legislative Study Group?

Stay tuned to find out.

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Drinking Out of a Fire Hydrant: Week One of Appropriations

by Brittany Sharp, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I know that you probably have 15 things on your to-do list, and you will probably only get 5 of those done today if you are lucky. Or maybe I am just projecting my own experience here at the legislature.

As of last week, I have been assigned to be the Legislative Study Group’s Appropriations Committee analyst. The House of Representative’s Appropriations Committee works to pass a state budget, along with the Senate Finance Committee. And as of last week, I feel like I am trying to drink out of a fire hydrant. I have no background in economics, and I can barely stick to the budget I create for myself. My undergraduate degree is in Medical Humanities and Religion. My Masters degree will be in Social Work. I have never read through a budget for a small family, much less the State of Texas. However, I am the type of person who is excited by a challenge, and when people say “Oh. You’re on Appropriations? Good Luck!” I say “Thank you.”

Something that I have noticed in my first few days in Appropriations Committee meetings is the familial feel. At the very first meeting for staffers working the Appropriations Committee this session, Chairman John Zerwas expressed how important it is to lean on the other staffers working with this committee and to get to know one another because “sleep deprivation will happen and no one person can understand the entire budget.” There is an overall understanding that we are all in the same boat. Trying to understand a 989-page document that has things called ‘articles,’ and within those articles ‘sections,’ and within those sections ‘goals,’ and within those goals ‘strategies.’ Navigating all this is why most hours of the day now I feel like I am trying to drink from a fire hydrant.

Luckily, the Executive Director of the Legislative Study Group, Raul Lopez, has covered the budget previously while working in Rep. Armando Walle’s office. He has been extremely helpful to me in making sense of the flood of information that is the state budget.

Currently I am working on comparisons of the introduced version of the House budget, the introduced version of the Senate budget, and the budget for the 2018-19 biennium that passed in the 85th legislature. One thing that is exciting to me about both the House and Senate Budget is that they both propose an increase of funds to the Texas Education Agency. Of course, this could change by the time we get to the final version but it is encouraging that the intent is there.

The Appropriations Committee has the power to control a lot of what can happen in the legislature and outside the Capitol walls. There are very real impacts to what happens in that committee room. Underfunding agencies can have drastic effects on individuals, families and communities. There could be a wonderful bill that passes, but if there is no money to implement that bill no one will benefit from it. If you are interested in looking into the budget the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) has a lot of resources. I look forward to updating you later in the semester about the Appropriations Committee.

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A Conversation With 6-Months Ago Me

by Sophia Creede, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

It is difficult to decide what route to take with this blog post. It seems as though a quality approach is to type and think at the same speed: My name is Sophia Creede, and I have been living in Austin for a legislative internship at the Texas State Capitol with the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work for 18 days now…. If I had told myself six months ago that I was going to be in Austin for a legislative internship in January of 2019, I would have been shocked. This experience was not a foreseeable project in my life, but now that I am here, I am eager and enthused to learn.

I am sure that in that conversation with 6 Months Ago Me – she is a curious person… – she would have asked a few questions. First, she would ask, “Well how is it going so far, what’s it like?” I would tell her that I am working for State Representative Garnet Coleman and that coincidentally and happily, he represents Montrose, which is the Houston neighborhood that I grew up in.

I would tell her that just two days ago I sat next to Rep. Coleman in Kim Son restaurant (a place I passed all the time, but never had the chance to visit), and he talked about his ancestors and his life in politics. 6 Months Ago Me would say something like “That sounds pretty cool, lucky that you got to sit with him and talk to him.”  I would then explain how cool it is to be interacting with someone who so directly influences our neighborhood and our state.

Then, 6 Months Ago Me would say, “You know how property taxes have skyrocketed, and healthcare is so expensive?” I would huff and say, “Yes of course I know, you won’t even have health insurance for another two months when you begin school.”   I would tell 6 Months Ago Me that soon she is going to start understanding the relationships between legislative actions/decisions and daily life.

6 Months Ago Me would ask me what I am enjoying. I would tell her that right now we go to many briefings and eat a lot of free food because committees haven’t been assigned (Ed note: Legislators were assigned to committees as this entry was posted), so things are on the slow side. She would say, “Ooh, free food?” and I would respond and say, “Let me tell you…” and I would talk about the barbeque, the queso, the pizza, and enchiladas from Representative Coleman’s opening day party. I would tell her there have been several instances of barbeque, breakfast tacos, and that at the Music Therapy Advocacy Day Luncheon, the food was delicious, and to top it off there were these chocolate lava cakes with homemade whipped cream, and I think about them all the time. I would tell her that at the Texas Association of Health Plans’ health care briefing there were lobster rolls but unfortunately, I was already pretty full…

6 Months Ago Me would interrupt me and say, “Isn’t it strange that issues with healthcare are hurting Texans, causing people to go bankrupt, putting unbearable financial weight on families and individuals… and you are at the briefing trying to make room for lobster rolls?” I would respond, “Yea, Soph, I know. I am pro food… as are you. But, yes, I know your point.”

Then, she would ask “Alright, well, is there anything I can do to make life easier for you since I live in the past?” I would tell her that it’s bad juju to mess with the order of things, but honestly at the Music Therapy event we held back, and it would have been okay to eat more lava cakes.

“Noted. And how are you here right now?” July-Sophia asks. “For my blog post,” I reply, and then I dissolve into thin air.

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The Invisible Woman

by Donisha Cotlone, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Becoming a woman who never took politics seriously, to becoming a Texas Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar, deputized to register voters in each of 5 counties. Then being accepted to the Austin Legislative Internship Program, and now being a Policy Analyst for the Legislative Study Group under Rep. Garnet Coleman. When I was young I thought I had it all figured out, I was totally off balance.

During my time here at the Capitol I have been nervous, excited, inspired, and disappointed. While the first three emotions are normal at the beginning, I was not expecting disappointment so soon. I was able to watch the House members in session on the floor discussing the Texas House Rules that will guide the procedures of the 86thlegislature, including newly added internal sexual harassment rules. I read these sexual harassment rules before attending and automatically wanted to amend the entire thing. At first, I was shocked that it took 86 sessions before this was put in policy. Then, I was even more stunned when I saw that no women (or men) made substantive amendments to these rules, nor did they point out how this protects the abuser rather than the victim. There was just one amendment, but it focused on ensuring that a third party could only investigate, but not prosecute the suspect, and nearly everyone approved the amendment.

To think that was enough, as part of these rules, we had to take a sexual harassment training, first instituted for legislators and their staff in the House one year ago (and criticized at the time by some for being insufficient). This training further proved the protection of the harasser and built fine lines on what sexual harassment is. It included a list of consequences for violence, but none were listed for sexual harassment. I then asked my colleagues: At what point is it OK to stand up for the rights of victims? Even if representatives have never been victims of assault, I am sure that staffers may have.

I often hear that sexual harassment is just part of the legislative culture, but at what point is it ok to stand up for women? Is the silence necessary? Do we have to settle for something is better than nothing? At that moment, I felt as though what I once was inspired by (seeing women in the Capitol), made me feel as though women were still invisible. This was not because of us not having a seat at the table, but how the culture and reputation outweighs the value and protection of victims in the Capitol.

To get my mind off of this, I decided to go to a Texas Public Policy Foundation dinner. As soon as I left the office for the day, I went straight to the venue and was the first person to arrive. As I sat and waited for people to arrive, I decided to be in the front so I could start networking. My plans were changed when eight people walked through the room, and only two of them acknowledged my presence. I felt so invisible and disappointed at the fact that in 2019 an African-American woman is still invisible.

I could have left, which is what my mind first told me to do, but instead I pulled from the strength within me and began to network as I had planned. I refused to be invisible. I went to the event for a purpose, and I am a person just as they are and I will not be treated as invisible. I will stand up, I will be heard, I will be noticed. This woman will not be invisible and subject herself to the culture that has become the norm.

I am here for an experience and to learn the process, but when I return I will stand for the rights of all people including women.

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Learning How to Swim

by Marissa Gorena, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Yesterday was the start of the 86thTexas Legislative Session and I couldn’t be more excited to start training as a Policy Analyst with the Texas Legislative Study Group. Prior to the start of session, our cohort had class lectures with Dr. Pritzker, and through those course lectures we learned steps to create effective change in policy and how to become an effective advocate. In our role at the Texas Legislature we will not be at the forefront of policy change or making decisions, but instead we will learn the dynamics of Texas politics and how to navigate our way through bill analyses with a value neutral lens.

We are a cohort of 13 students, and 10 of us, including myself, are in the Legislative Study Group (LSG) under Rep. Garnet Coleman. The LSG is a caucus within the Texas House of Representatives, and we work on analyzing bills to help guide members’ decision-making. I have heard from so many people around the Capitol, in our brief time here, how important our role in the LSG will be and how vital we are to the political process. Even though this is just the 3rdday for us, not including the 2 days of orientation we had in the Capitol, I am finally understanding a little bit more about what our role in the political process is; and that is to be a strong policy resource in the Texas Capitol.

My experience in the LSG so far has me only slightly overwhelmed. I was previously an intern in Spring 2017 with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, so I have been trained well for this type of environment before. I am grateful that we had several people with a ton of knowledge and experience in the Texas Capitol come speak to us in our 2 days of orientation prior to the start of session.

A phrase I have constantly heard from those that have walked in our shoes before is it’s gonna click. I understand that this phrase means we will be expected to swim with the sharks, and suddenly all the information we have obtained over the last few weeks will all make sense when we learn how to swim. Learning how to swim looks like enduring those long nights as a group in a room with no windows, while the bills are piling up and those analyses need to be finished by the crack of dawn the next day, but still being able to come out of it all in one piece to prepare for the next long night. I am excited and nervous for the work I will be contributing, and I know it will click soon, and when it does our group and myself will be ready.

Something I enjoyed on Opening Day of session on January 8th2019, was visiting Members’ offices. I visited Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, who is my hometown representative from Weslaco, TX, and whose office is adjacent to Rep. Coleman’s. I met his extremely friendly staff and introduced myself. I also visited my friends who now have positions at the Capitol in various offices, such as those of Rep. Jon Rosenthal, Rep. Gina Callani, and Rep. Armando Walle.

We then headed to the office of the County Affairs Committee to watch the floor vote on the new Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen. On our way, I ran into Dr. Letitia Plummer, who I had worked with previously on a voter registration drive and when coordinating transportationto the polls for students at my field placement at Houston CAN Academy SW last November. She asked me to be on her podcast titled Shades of Blue, and we had a great discussion about what it truly means to reach across the aisle to get things done in Texas.

All in all, it has been a great first few days, and I cannot wait to get trained on how to analyze bills and get assigned to committees!

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