by Tiffany Teate-Williams, intern in the House Committee on County Affairs
As our nation’s administration was in a state of transition, I was revving up for a boxing match and the state legislature was my ring. “Let me at ‘em!” my social work heart exclaimed, as I watched women and immigrants be casually slandered by the new president. I thought before this legislative session started, that there was no better time in our country to be a fighter for social justice and a voice of hope for marginalized groups. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about the political process, and that there are generations of people before me that have been fighting this fight for decades – without boxing gloves. Since the start of the 85th Texas Legislative Session, I have noticed how worked up I become when a bill that I think is an obvious solution or step forward for Texas dies in a committee hearing. It could be that the members who could tip the scales in favor of the bill simply weren’t there to vote – maybe they had another meeting, or perhaps they went out on a smoke break. A staff member in my office will casually say, “Oh don’t worry, they carry that bill every session – they will try again next time.” I am amazed at the perseverance of some of these members and the staff who choose to show up session after session and advocate for an issue even after they have been knocked down. I am realizing that if you come in swinging – you will get very tired very quickly.
I am learning that in order to move along policy that protects vulnerable populations or provides support systems for the forgotten, slow persistence often wins over moderate members. An example of this is a bill (this year, in the form of HB 1848) that has been filed seven times by Chairman Garnet Coleman. Since 2005, he has been attempting to change statutory language for sexual education (the Texas Health and Safety Code), as well as in the Penal Code, that is discriminatory and that criminalizes homosexuality. The following is the primary language that Chairman Coleman would like to strikethrough: [state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code]. It should be obvious to most that this language is offensive and should not be in our state Code (laws of the state); however, 12 years later, it is still there. This may be another session that the bill does not move through the process, but I have no doubt that Chairman Coleman is willing to file it seven more times.
When I hear the debates on the floor and discussions in committees regarding highly controversial issues such as sanctuary cities, healthcare, CPS reform, and others, I watch as if it is the World Series. I am on the edge of my seat, sometimes even shaking; I have cried through heartbreaking testimonies, cursed, thrown food, and clapped. I am realizing that to the members and policy makers, this is not even the playoffs. For some, they know full well they won’t pass their legislation this session. Their strategy, however, is to start the conversation. A debate on the floor of the legislature means there are 150+ witnesses to a bill’s proposed ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. Legislators are willing to return to the game each season until they get a win. I see this strategy play out on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle, and I am in awe each time I hear about a member continuously carrying bills, session after session, even when the bills do not receive support from other members.
I think this is a characteristic of the legislature that I try to hold onto, because there are ugly strategies too. Sometimes members will simply vote against another member’s bill because they are seeking revenge, or posturing, even when they think the bill is a good idea. I try not to focus on this part of the game. I do not think the state legislature can afford another person who has lost heart. The holistic perspective and critical thinking skills that social workers are taught act as valuable tools when seeking solutions to complex issues. After observing the game from the sidelines, I am ever more convinced that there is no better time in our country for social workers to be knee-deep in the political process.