Hand Over Heart, Heart Over Stomach

by Sharon Jacob, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group


People come here to see how the sausage is made, but some of them become vegetarians. – Quoted on Overheard Texas Lege (@overheardtxlege on Instagram)


Located in an office across the street from the Capitol, my placement at the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG) is often blessedly sheltered from the drama of the Capitol. I’ve often found myself grateful for the pure luxury of worrying almost solely about policy analysis. And socially conscious policy analysis at that! But even the staff of the LSG aren’t immune from unknowingly stepping into a riptide of controversy occasionally. Sometimes, it’s a riptide from within the pink dome. Other times, it’s one from within the cranial dome. Either way, it’s an easy misstep that, without warning, plunges you into self-doubt and cynicism, and it takes a great deal of effort to swim away.

I’ve done a decent amount of hard work here at the LSG. From working 45+ hours over the course of just three days during Budget Week with a raging fever and sinus infection to learning the basics of Texas Property Code overnight to help grapple with the 180 amendments of property tax bill House Bill (HB) 2 to analyzing 150+ page controversial sunset bills that deal with continuing, abolishing, or merging state agencies. Yet, my hardest task has been, and will continue to be, wrestling with my own personal code of ethics. That’s right, the stupid principles I’ve been struggling with since I got here still haven’t magically transformed to better conform with life at the #txlege.

[Warning: Figurative gore]

I struggle when I learn over time that a legislator I had respected actually has a pattern of laying out ineffective, but shiny policy. I struggle when I slowly realize that a political group that seemingly stood for what I thought was right turns out to be more about the talk than walk. I struggle when I hear of the acrid, toxic workplace fostered by a well-respected official who routinely stands on the same side of issues as I do. I struggle when I see that an office’s policy stance has less to do with principle and more to do with allegiances and re-election strategy.

[End Warning: Figurative gore paused]

Four months into the legislative session, I’m tired. But it’s not entirely because of the work hours, the fervent anxiety of having overlooked an important detail, or the lack of sufficient sunlight. I’m tired because it is emotionally draining to tread water while holding on to heavy principles and values. I’m tired because stubbornly holding to idealism in an inherently unjust and imperfect world is a fool’s errand. I’m tired because all the processing that I neglected over the past 106 days of session has finally come crashing down with an unprecedented urgency – Who am I? What do I believe in? Do I have a place under the pink dome? If I want to do this work, how do I thrive here? Can I even survive here?

Here’s to 34 more days of procrastinating on the processing. Not that I’m counting or anything.

[Warning: Literal gore. Don’t read 30 minutes before or after eating]

When I was in high school, I like so many poor, unsuspecting teenagers, was assigned Upton Sinclair‘s novel, The Jungle. The story follows a poor Lithuanian immigrant family who supports themselves by working in the meatpacking district of Chicago. Sinclair takes great pains to describe the harsh conditions of the meatpacking plant – how slick the floors were with inches of congealed blood, how diseased, rotten, and good meat were all processed alike, how an accidentally filleted finger was just as good for processing as any other meat. He talks about the tragedy after tragedy that befalls the unfortunate family – the inhumane living conditions, the loans taken with hope as collateral, the shame exchanged for the hope of a livelihood, the lack of compensation for preventable workplace injuries, the tragic death of children.

[Warning: Literal gore ends here. Figurative gore on the other hand… Keep reading at your own risk.]

Sinclair intended for his work to expose the exploitation of immigrant communities. He intended for the reader to ache for a family that does all the right things but is rewarded with suffering. He wanted the country to weep at the plight of so many such families on whose backs others’ American dreams were.

Yet, America didn’t see the lack of social support for the working-class poor or the corruption of those in power. It was too busy steadying nausea from the vivid descriptions from the underbelly of the meat industry. In fact, Sinclair famously lamented that he “aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident [he] hit it in the stomach.”

While the meat-processing in the belly of the Capitol may turn my stomach, if my take away from this experience is simply that the Capitol Sausage Industry™ needs some cleaning, I’ve missed the point. We knew that already. The real challenge is to quiet the nausea enough to remember that at the heart of turbulent issues, at the heart of the snarled moral and ethical tangles, lie individuals, families, and communities. Deep within the layers of pretense, the inches of congealed gossip, and once good, but now diseased intentions, you’ll find at stake the very real lives of very real Texans. The trick to staying sane in this environment is holding tight to your values and seeing beyond the sometimes-sickening mess. Hand over heart, heart over stomach.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the issues in the sausage-making process shouldn’t be addressed as well. This environment turns some into vegetarians and others into carnivores. Those of us who shirk from one extreme but struggle to maintain the other find sanctuary in being flexitarian – begrudgingly taking part out of necessity.

With just a handful of weeks left in the legislative session, we’ve been warned that this is around the time that the roller coaster goes into freefall. Clutch your tummies and take your Dramamine because we’re headed toward the wildest part of the ride. Seatbelts, everyone!

(Please let this be a normal field trip.)

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Budget Week: The struggle is real

by Brittany Sharp, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

As a social work intern with the Legislative Study Group (LSG), I am the staffer assigned to the Texas House of Representative’s Appropriations Committee. In this role, I have a front-row seat to the process by which Texas establishes its bi-annual budget.

The most surprising thing I have learned is that the legislature does NOT make most of the budget decisions. Most decisions are made before session even starts in communications that take place between agencies and the state’s Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and which result in development of a draft appropriations bill. The legislature’s decisions then happen during a 3-4 week period during the legislative session, in which subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee hear agency requests, ask questions, and get clarification on agency needs. Subcommittees then have “formal meetings” to decide whether to grant those requests. To do this the committee members use decision documents like the one below:

budget

During this phase of the budget process, each day I would have to understand and analyze the content of 3-4 meetings that happened at the same time. Some of these were recorded, allowing me to watch them later, but some were not. My fellow LSG staffers – fellow social work students – were an incredible help during these few weeks. They helped cover meetings for me, took notes, and helped me keep up with what was going on in each subcommittee. These were extremely long days, as after subcommittees finished meeting, sometimes in meetings each lasting 3 hours or more, I would need to update my own version of the decision document to reflect what changes to the budget had been preliminarily adopted that day.

Once subcommittees have made preliminary decisions on all budget requests, these decisions must be adopted by the full Appropriations committee. At that point, the LBB drafts a new version of the budget that reflects all the decisions made. That version of the budget then gets voted on by the Appropriations committee; once approved, it heads to the House floor.

There is about a week of time between when the budget bill is voted out of committee and when it is heard on the floor of the House of Representatives, for a vote by all members of the House. During that week, with the help of LSG Executive Director Raul Lopez, I wrote a 28-page analysis on the House version of the budget, to inform and guide all legislators who are members of the LSG. I am not over-estimating when I say that I spent 100s of hours working on that document.

Since the first day of stepping foot into the Capitol, one hears about the horrors of “Budget Week.” Hundreds of pre- filed amendments to the budget bill are filed from the members on the House floor, long debates are had and all-nighters being pulled are the contents of these horrors. I am here to tell you that all of these horrors are true; the silver lining being, your boss buys you food while it is happening.

The LSG had to endure our first all-nighter of Texas’ 86thlegislative session, due to House members filing 308 amendments to the budget bill. This all-nighter consisted of minimal amounts of sleep using a routine to switch off when to use the sleeping bag, many cups of coffee, and lots of teamwork. I led our team of policy analysts over the course of 3 days to analyze all 308 amendments and while many of these amendments were ultimately withdrawn, we worked a combined total of 500+ hours to make sure they were all analyzed. The Texas House debated the budget and the proposed amendments for nearly 12 hours, resulting in the passage of a $251 billion bill funding critical agencies and programs across our state for the 2020-2021 biennium.

Some amendments I was excited to see adopted were:

Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) amended the budget to add funding for the Department of Family Protective Services to begin investigating sexual abuse allegations at detention centers

Rep. Julie Johnson (D-Carrollton) amended the budget to protect Medicaid recipients from having their services cut as the result of agency cost-saving efforts

Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) amended the budget to measure the success of border security outcomes and provide accountability to how the state spends those dollars

However, the budget process is not over, as the Senate has adopted their version of the budget. Next week, these two versions of the budget bill will go to a conference committee. This is where members of the House and the Senate meet together to negotiate and come to agreement on finalizing budget details. I am both excited and nervous, as I know this process will involve money taken from some things and put into others.

If you are interested you can view the most recent version of the House budget here.

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Feelings Schmeelings, Hand Me My Majority

by Elizabeth Churaman, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Have you ever done something that was expected of you, but that may not have aligned with what you really felt like doing? Welcome to how you might feel all the time if you ever choose a path in politics. It was said many times to me I must know myself before I was to come into the tumultuous world of the Capitol as a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative intern. That I needed to know my values and not lose myself in the ocean of opinion and influence.

As I’ve come into the fold so to speak, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s not necessarily you as an individual that is making any “difference” or “change” in the Capitol. You work for your boss, and you express your boss’s interests. Period.

Beyoncé said in her poem Denial, “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be soft, prettier. Less… awake.”The first time I heard these lines, they resonated through me. As a woman, especially being a child of immigrants, there were certain things that were “expected” of a female child that were not explicitly expressed to boys. I find these expectations to be in the Capitol as well.

The air of an old boys’ club is alive and well, from chewing tobacco on the House floor to the not-so-hushed chatter as a young, female intern walks by a group of men. There is an expectation of subdued-ness by women, and a “yes man” complex that permeates the staff of the Capitol. I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive for female staffers, but most male staff seem to get away with much more.

Historically, women have been perceived as emotionally-driven creatures. You can see this in hearings, in particular – when there is some type of testimony which could warrant emotional reaction, there is a distinct hesitation on the part of the women representatives to comment or engage the witness. Even today, there is still some consensus that “emotions don’t belong in politics,” when in reality, most policy is made based on emotion. A good example of this in the Texas Legislature is the Born Alive bill being voted on in the House at this very moment. Advocates, religious proponents, even young children came from across the state to state their opinions and perspectives in the bill’s hearing before the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. Testimony was meant to be emotional, raw, and absolutely dripping in persuasion. Who would be able to ignore a small child younger than ten pleading into a microphone that abortions are sad, and we need to save all the babies? Emotions are always at play in the legislature, no matter what may be said about unbiased or unmoved voting being a pillar of our state’s democracy. Not being taken seriously and being seen as overly emotional are things I can see people struggling with in the Capitol even today.

In the 2018 elections, it was pointed out by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, that not only the country, but the state saw a “Pink Wave” in the ballot box; a slew of women coming to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. There has been a reborn sense of what it means to be a woman in policy, especially apparent in the Texas House. Twelve seats flipped from Republican to Democratic, eight of which were flipped by women, including three flipped by women of color. There are many new faces in the House, with many women in their thirties, a prime position for creating long and fruitful careers in Texas Lege. Women are no longer feeling alienated in the realm of policy but are coming to embrace the chaotic good that politics can be.

In the realm of everyday life, it’s an apparent subconscious belief that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, a softer, more delicate person in nature. It’s apparent in pink razors, lavender breeze body wash, and soft rose scented candles. The gendering of products reinforces the notion that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, something to be protected or preserved, something that needs to be shielded from the audacities of the world. The view that women can be influenced or must be “softer” in the sense of legislation is something that is rapidly changing in public view. On one hand, as more women create and pass legislation that is impactful and meaningful to the people of Texas, there will be momentum for more women to come into the world of policy in the Texas House. On the other hand, it seems like the House is unable currently to keep up with these changing times, with its air of the old boys’ club, big boots, and big egos in the capitol. With the changes on the forefront of ballot boxes, however, soon enough we may see some more heavy hitting changes here under the pink dome.

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But I’m “just a social work(er)” student

by Kayla Lail, intern in the office of Rep. Sarah Davis

In my two and a half months as a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative internat the Texas Capitol, I have learned a lot.  Some of what I’ve learned has changed how I view things, some of what I have learned has brought to light things I never ever knew should be considered.  But there’s one belief that has only been confirmed in my time at the Capitol: social workers belong in policy.  There are many reasons why this statement is true, but for the purposes of this post, I will focus on one important reason – social workers belong in policy because we’re good at it.

To any student or non-social worker reading this with a puzzled look on their face, let me run you through the work that goes into moving a bill forward during the Texas legislative session.  And as to not over-promise, I will discuss only what I have experienced so far at this stage in the session – getting a bill past the first hurdle of the legislative process, receiving a committee hearing.

When “staffing” a bill (becoming the legislative staffer tasked with shepherding a bill through the legislative process), you can be handed this bill in a variety of circumstances. The bill may address an issue that your office is well-versed in, meaning that you likely already have resources available to you through established relationships between your office and relevant stakeholders.  Or, you may be handed a bill that was brought to your Representative by a constituent, and your office has little prior knowledge or relationships surrounding this issue.  This is where you as a social worker shine.

First you need to figure out who this bill will affect; these are your stakeholders. Our social work academic training relies heavily on studying how systems affect populations and individuals, both in direct andindirect ways.  This focus on the indirect influences of our environment is the key to successfully identifying stakeholders.  Say you have a bill that on paper only involves a specific type of therapy – we’ll call it ABC therapy.  At first glance, you would want to speak with ABC therapists and their clients. However, a social worker brings to the legislature training in thinking outside of the immediately visible players – who else might this bill affect?  What about other types of therapies – will your bill affect the professionals that provide XYZ therapies?  What about the facilities in which ABC and XYZ therapies are provided? What populations are served by ABC therapies – how will they be affected?

Once you’ve exhausted these questions, you must reach out to your stakeholders. Sometimes, you reach out to stakeholders knowing that they will likely have concerns about your bill. Luckily, social workers are trained to objectively understand alternative perspectives and to effectively work with individuals with different values. Some stakeholders are harder to identify and contact than others.  The great news is that finding these stakeholders is just like the case work that is a staple in social work.  The same skills social workers use to connect clients to resources are the skills necessary to connect your office to stakeholders who will help you understand the scope of the issue your bill addresses and whether the current version of your bill would effectively address that problem.

Now that you’ve worked out your bill with stakeholders on all sides of an issue and have created an effective bill that all (or most) stakeholders can agree to, you must get other representatives and senators on board with your bill. This involves talking with offices that represent the many diverse areas of Texas.  Legislative members are responsible for working on behalf of the interests of their constituents.  This means you must have a firm grasp of the diversity of values, issues, and concerns of a member’s district.  When discussing your bill with other offices, you have to speak to their perspective – what social workers refer to as “meeting someone where they’re at.”

As many of my fellow interns’ previous blog posts have mentioned, there is far more collaboration in the Texas legislature than most would expect – something social workers are well-versed in.  Just because a member has different political positions than your representative doesn’t mean that you can’t speak to the concerns of that member’s district and help them become an advocate for your bill.

Congratulations! After weeks (or possibly months) of work, your bill is now being heard in committee. Once it passes that hurdle, you’ve only got about 8 more hurdles to go. But don’t worry, you’ve got about 8 more weeks to get your bill through and about 6,000 bills to compete against!

In conclusion, social workers need policy and policy needs social workers.

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The Three-Triangle Tango

by Sophie Creede, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Researching plastic waste for a class presentation last semester at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and watching “The Devil We Know” caused my existing passion for environmental change to hit rapid growth. Waste management, waste reduction, plastic production, water pollution, and air pollution began to have the spotlight in my world before I got to the Texas Capitol for my social work legislative internship. Adopting these causes has been both enthralling and distracting. I’m conveniently analyzing policy at The Texas State Capitol amidst my growing engagement with ‘green.’ Meanwhile, the evidence of environmental problems is everywhere I look. The animated tango between the lens of my growing passion for environmentalism, the reality of pollution, and my surrounding political environment is picking up speed.

All the toxins in our food, litter in the sea, and chemicals in the air are worth being concerned about. The plastic bag I threw into landfill garbage 5 years ago could be grazing the side of a whale’s back right now. Imagine the plastic straw I slurped Brown Bag Deli’s delicious lemonade out of 5 years ago being the same one wedged deep in this sea turtle’s nostril… Or, just think, it could have been yours. Depending on where our plastic garbage ends up, it can take anywhere from five years to thousands of years for the material to break down. Even when plastic does break down, it doesn’t fully engage with the environment like other materials but rather breaks down into smaller toxic pieces that have harmful health and environmental effects.

Ubiquitous, the evidence is. It’s everywhere. Delving into this information has consequences. I used to be able to grab barbeque at the restaurant down my street, but now all I can think about is the Styrofoam to-go plate and how it will never biodegrade. I went for a gyro the other day and the restaurant owner’s adorable toddler was playing with a stack of plastic cups in the corner. I was deprived of child cuteness because I was busy brooding over the 10 wads of plastic in her hands getting their single use with no blue rectangular receptacle in sight.

Luckily for me, I’m growing spirited about an arena that needs political attention while interning at the Texas State Capitol. I am learning what it looks like to pass state laws, but yet I feel powerless when it comes to my new passion. I can barely convince my friends and family to stop microwaving their food in Styrofoam, but more needs to be done. Real solutions are bigger picture – for example, cessation of Styrofoam production. Environmental change doesn’t seem high on the priority list at the Texas Capitol, but why does that surprise me? Today my coworker (bless him) gave me a plastic water bottle to recycle for him across the street. The Texas State Capitol does not have effective recycling, so I had to leave the building to put the plastic bottle into a reliable bin. The Capitol is a place where people tour to learn about our state, a place to provide examples and set norms. Yet, the lack of environmental effort in this political hub reflects ignorance of current global problems.

People are concerned with leaving empires for their children and going to the doctor on a regular basis for their wellbeing… but oftentimes don’t listen to information about the health effects coming our way due to environmental problems. I mean, people don’t even try to figure out the right trash can to put their waste in at a restaurant. With all that I am learning at the Capitol, I still don’t know how to make people listen to such an important issue. I am trying to learn, trying to grow, but as I look around, things still look the same. It feels like I can’t grow fast enough. I want a lifetime of knowledge, but can I have it 10 years ago?

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