by Rob Block
And all of a sudden, it ends. After 140 days the Texas Legislature concludes. While it is possible for the Governor to call for a special session, which would bring people back to address any urgent unaddressed issues, the consensus is that that will not happen. That means the Texas Legislature is not expected to reconvene until the 85th legislative session in 2017.
For the members of the Austin Legislative Internship Program, it has been a long adventure with an abrupt end. The session started with short hours and lots of receptions, briefings on issues and parties. The session started picking up steam in March and by April, if we got off of work before the sun set it seemed shockingly early. Cathryn described this very well in her post.
The day after the last day of session (dubbed Sine Die for the Latin “without day,” meaning there is not another day where the legislature is scheduled to meet) participants of the Austin Legislative Internship Program gathered in a coffee shop in south Austin to decompress and reflect on our adventure through the Texas Legislature.
I worked on three bills for State Representative Jessica Farrar, none of which passed. One on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Visas (a visa category for minors that have been abused abandoned or neglected) did not have a hearing. A second, which would have abolished the Death Penalty, did receive a hearing in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, and unsurprisingly, did not advance. This is a summary from Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Finally, a proposal to add language about social workers to the education code did get a hearing, and was passed out of the committee by a vote of 9-0. This took place too late in the session to advance to the floor of the House, but this still represents progress, as a similar bill was filed last year that did not even receive a hearing. This is an issue that NASW-TX and others are going to work on through the interim in order to tackle the issue in the 85th session. Please contact Will Francis if you want to help!
Representative Farrar was able to pass a total of four bills, three of which deal with the probate process, making it easier for low income Texans to transfer assets and real estate when someone passes away without a will. Texas Access to Justice Commission summarizes some of these bills that passed this session. The fourth, HB 706, simplifies the process for maintaining a tax credit for individuals who install solar panels at their residence. Issues in the solar sector are summarized by Public Citizen.
One big area that our office worked on was protecting access to women’s health services and access to abortion. Rep. Farrar was the chair of the Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan caucus that seeks to promote women’s health care and access for all women. There were more than a dozen bills proposed to restrict Texas women’s access to abortion, and due to the hard work of many, only one passed: HB 3994 places onerous restrictions on minors seeking an abortion through the judicial bypass process. The Texas Tribune summarizes a lot of the background behind the fight of the conservative legislature to restrict access to reproductive health services.
Additionally, the budget process made some additional investments in public school and social services, but kicked the can down the road on many other issues. The Legislature passed billions of dollars in tax cuts that will primarily benefit businesses impacted by the margins tax. Advocates for better social services, education, workers, the disabled, and others fear that these tax cuts will set the stage for cuts to services if the economic good fortune of the state were to slow down.
As the students who participated in the Austin Legislative Internship Program met to reflect on the end of the session, we talked about the highlights and our frustrations with the process. We expressed a long list of frustrations with the process and how to maintain our ethical obligations to our work for representatives as well as to the NASW Code of Ethics. We discussed what we had learned about effective advocacy and how to have an impact on the legislative process as individuals and as people concerned with social justice.
We also discussed the discussed the minutiae of bill analysis, points of order, strategy and messaging. At one point Dr. Pritzker pointed out how complicated the conversation we were having was and how little sense it would make to the average person who has not immersed themselves in the legislative process for months of very long hours. As we talked about our next steps it was interesting to hear how people plan to incorporate this experience into our future career and life plans. Some were sure that they plan to work in advocacy or legislative settings, some of us are looking at ways to best integrate this knowledge into a clinical setting. Me, I am happy to have learned so much from this experience and am delighted to move back to Houston and work on issues related to community development on a local level.
Thanks to Dr. Pritzker, Lillian Ortiz, Representatives Farrar and Coleman for making this experience possible, and thanks to all of the students who participated and supported each other through this unique field placement.