Breaking New Ground

by Fabeain Barkwell, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Being at the Texas Capitol has been an eye-opening experience for me in more ways than one. I didn’t fully anticipate how instrumental the impact of participating in this internship program would be in teaching me about myself as a social worker. At the beginning of the program I was asked, “What are you most excited about gaining from this experience?” Many of the thoughts that came to my mind had to deal with learning how to interpret and create policy and being able to take my knowledge from the capitol and utilize it with clients in the future. The one thing I felt I was looking forward to the most from this internship was the personal growth and development I was going to experience, and how it would affect my future career.

Once I was accepted into the legislative internship I was dead set on learning everything I could about mental health policy in Texas. Since my practice background is in behavioral health, I thought it was appropriate that my experience here in Austin reflect that as well, and I sought out every opportunity I could to do so. During this legislative session, I have had the opportunity to work on major mental health bills such as HB 10, relating to behavioral health parity and access to care, and HB 13, dealing with local mental health challenges and establishing community grants.

While I have had the ability to work on some mental health related issues, I have been most surprised to find that most of my attention has been spent on other topics that are new to me. My primary committees are Higher Education, Energy Resources, and Culture Recreation and Tourism. A few weeks ago, HB 1818, a major bill regarding the Railroad Commission of Texas, was sent out of the Energy Resources committee and set on the general calendar. Not having any personal background in oil and gas, or with the Railroad Commission, required me to dive head first into multiple resources, so that I could be as well versed on these issues as possible.

Along with writing the bill analysis for HB 1818, I was asked to give a presentation on the bill during a briefing before chiefs of staff, stakeholders, and my colleagues. At times, it can be difficult veering away from what is comfortable, immersing yourself in something new and challenging, but despite that, I was proud to see that all of the hard work I put into this bill was noticed, appreciated, and respected not only by my supervisor, but also by staff and supervisors from multiple offices in the capitol.

What I learned from this experience is the importance of swimming in new waters. Evolving requires taking on a challenge, and it is ok to broaden your skill set into other areas and remain open to any opportunities that present themselves to you.

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A Social Worker’s Survival Guide to Budget Week at the Texas Legislature

Editor’s Note: This post and the post below both focus on interns’ experiences during “Budget Week,” the intense period of time during which the Texas House of Representatives debated and voted on their version of the state’s biennial (two-year) budget and the various amendments proposed by members. Debate lasted for over 15 hours on Thursday, April 6 and the early hours of Friday, April 7, before the House approved its version of the budget around 2 a.m., by a vote of 131-16. The House and Senate must now reconcile the differences between the funding priorities of each body, in order to adopt a final state budget.

by Elizabeth Hann, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

As Social Workers, we don’t like to talk numbers – unless it’s about caseloads. We don’t get into the social work profession for the money, although, we are happy when it comes our way. From my own experiences, it seems that a lot of the time we lose sight of the role that money plays in our ability to serve our clients. A couple weeks ago in the Texas Legislature, I experienced what is known in the Texas House of Representatives as “Budget Week”. This is the week in which the proposed budget and all of the amendments are filed, scrutinized, analyzed, and eventually voted on by the members of the House.

While the bulk of the attention to the budget process focuses on just one day and night on the House Floor, for the Legislative Study Group (LSG) – it was a full week. We spent hours poring over the 402 filed amendments, reading and analyzing each one to ultimately be published as a Floor Report and distributed to the representatives. Our main budget point person, Joel Kissell, did an amazing job analyzing the main 1,000+ page budget bill while the rest of the staff of social work interns attempted to figure out all the amendments. Without Joel, we definitely would have been lost.

We left the office past 2:00 a.m. every night that week. Now – just imagine – 10 sleep deprived social workers huddled in a room trying to make sense of fiscal notes, cost deficits, and general revenue funds. It was certainly a sight to see. With printers racing and phones ringing as we’re all frantically typing – we couldn’t even be bothered to check the clock.

Our budget week bender just about had us praying for a dark hole to crawl into, but at the end of the week – we had survived. For those coming after us – at the LSG or even in other legislative placements experiencing a similar stressful process – I have decided to write down some of the self-care tools we utilized to survive the long hours, lack of sleep, and extreme pressure we were under that week.

Survival Tip #1: Make a group plan beforehand

The Monday of budget week we all sat down with our supervisor and discussed the ground rules for how we would interact during the week. We wrote them down, agreed upon them, and came to a mutual understanding. This set the stage to allow us to understand our peer’s expectations and limitations.

Survival Tip #2: Don’t take things personally

Everyone is tired, hungry, and stressed. When someone lashes out, just remember that we are all here for the same purpose and are trying the best we can. Fighting does not contribute good to the situation. We really did a good job of discussing this beforehand and getting on the same page (see: Survival Tip #1) and it certainly paid off.

Survival Tip #3: Take scheduled breaks

It is easy to get caught up in the seriousness of what we do – social work is emotionally and physically tolling. Taking a scheduled break for very brief dance parties made the office environment less tense and gave us the time to stop and smile a bit. Without scheduled group dance breaks – coordinated by the amazing Kate Kirages – it felt like we would have died from the stress and pressure. Letting off steam, even just for a few minutes, was crucial.

Survival Tip #4: Take time to laugh

Inside jokes were KEY to our survival. Whether it was casually joking about our sanity, whisper screaming, or bonding over our conversations with other offices – we always found a way to work in some laughter into our environment.

Survival Tip #5: Be thoughtful of others

Having another coworker ask how you’re doing can make all the difference. Checking in on how each other was doing helped us keep our heads on straight.

Survival Tip #6: Know your limits

Everyone has a breaking point and self-care is CRUCIAL to surviving a high-stress, deadline-driven work week. Whether it’s stepping outside to take a brief walk, calling loved ones to check in, or taking some time to scan social media – we all needed to take some time for ourselves.

Survival Tip #7: Make sure to meet your basic needs

Don’t forget your basic needs like taking the time to grab a bite to eat, making some coffee, or sleeping (when you have time to!). Everyone is different – some need that caffeine fix, some get “hangry” without a snack, and others get delirious on sleep deprivation. We all get along better when these needs are met.

Survival Tip #8: Be a productive and trustworthy member of the team

We would not have survived Budget Week without each other. Working to the best of your ability and contributing quality work to the team makes everyone’s life easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you can’t figure it out yourself.

After surviving Budget Week – I feel I can handle anything. I am so honored to be surrounded by my fellow LSG members and could not have made it through without them.

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Learning to Speak Another Language

Editor’s Note: This post and the post above both focus on interns’ experiences during “Budget Week,” the intense period of time during which the Texas House of Representatives debated and voted on their version of the state’s biennial (two-year) budget and the various amendments proposed by members. Debate lasted for over 15 hours on Thursday, April 6 and the early hours of Friday, April 7, before the House approved its version of the budget around 2 a.m., by a vote of 131-16. The House and Senate must now reconcile the differences between the funding priorities of each body, in order to adopt a final state budget.

by Joel Kissell, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Before we moved to Austin for the 85th legislative session, everyone warned us about Budget Week. While members, leaders, and constituents hope that other pieces of legislation pass, the budget determines how the state will spend its funds over the next biennium and is the only piece of legislation that must be passed each session. Therefore, pressures build during the days leading up to its hearing on the floor of the House.

The version of the bill originating in the Senate provides the technical basis for the budget bill that will become law this session; the Senate passed its initial version on March 28. When the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 1 (CSSB 1) passed out of the House Appropriations Committee and was set for a hearing on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives on April 6, 2017, the mood around the Legislative Study Group (LSG) office changed.

Within the LSG, I cover the Appropriations process and have followed each of its subcommittees as they worked through their respective articles of the state’s budget for the better part of two months. The other LSG analysts helped provide coverage when I was unable to be in four meetings at the same time, so that we could all have a sense of what was coming. We worked together to finish our analyses for other bills being heard during Budget Week to clear our schedules for the many amendments to CSSB 1 that were filed on Monday, April 3. It’s a good thing we did, because none of us were prepared for the 465-page packet of amendments that was released that afternoon.

Our team knocked it out of the park over the next three days and change. Drawing on the knowledge we have gained from our committee work over the course of the session and the leadership of our executive director Ana Ramon, we prepared analyses on the more than 400 amendments for members of our caucus. The first few hours were rough as everyone adjusted to budget terminology; my familiarity with the terminology, earned by witnessing the entire process, helped to explain concepts and get everyone up to speed. None of us got much sleep, relying on coffee and willpower to push forward, but we got through it.

The actual budget debate on the floor of the House of Representatives went faster than most people expected (see pictures of the representatives in action), without as many points of contention as in prior sessions. Some of this is probably because the budget is leaner than usual due to economic factors, as well as to decisions during previous sessions to reduce important revenue-generating taxes. A little more than 15 hours in, though, the members seemed to reach their limit and the budget passed with no fanfare at all. I had stepped out of the conference room for a minute and actually missed the vote, that’s how anticlimactic it was at the end. Outstanding amendments were tabled for consideration this week, and that was the end of debate.

The work is not done. The differences between each chamber’s budgets must be reconciled during the conference process, and there are plenty of topics beyond the budget to address for the good of the state. All I know for right now, though, is that I loved every stressful minute of it, and am so grateful for the support of my fellow analysts in the Legislative Study Group.

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Intentionally Discriminatory, Again.

by Erin Eriksen, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Therefore, this Court holds, again, that SB 14 was passed with a discriminatory purpose in violation of Section 2, of the Voting Rights Act”(Ramos, 2017).

I was sitting in on the House Elections Committee hearing today (April 10) prepared to hear HB 2481, the House’s version of the Voter ID Bill SB 5, when it started to flutter around the room that a U.S. District Court (again) made a ruling that the Voter ID Law (SB 14) passed in 2011 by the Texas Legislature was found to have intentionally discriminated against minority voters. My first thought after, thank you Judge Ramos, was oh my gosh we’re in Inception. But instead of a world that included that cool, fold-in-on-itself, bendy thing in the movie, the court reminded Texas yet again that our voter ID law, from its inception, is intentionally discriminatory and that SB 5/HB 2481 as it stands would not sufficiently rectify the issues created in 2011.

I trained as a poll watcher before the 2016 Election and became familiar with the court-ordered remedies put in place to alleviate this harsh Voter ID law. There were seven acceptable forms of ID voters could present, but if one could not present any form of ID at the time of voting, a voter could bring a supporting form of ID (such as a utility bill or a bank statement) and declare a Reasonable Impediment. Stemming from an earlier court order, multiple options were allowed under the Reasonable Impediment Declaration, ranging from lack of transportation or a loss of ID, to an option to add “other.”

To comply with the prior court’s decision, Texas lawmakers unveiled this year’s SB 5 seeking to codify such procedures put in place before the 2016 General Election, with some notable changes. One of the most glaring changes that SB5 would enshrine is that filing a false Reasonable Impediment Declaration under SB 5 would be considered a 3rd Degree Felony, punishable by anywhere between 2 and 10 years in prison. Several people testified in the House Elections Committee this evening that the severity of this punishment itself would be a form of voter intimidation. Election laws are complicated and we saw during this past election, that not only were the voters confused by the initial court-ordered remedies, but so were poll workers and Precinct Judges.

Voting Rights advocates during both hearings in the House and Senate offered up amendments to SB 5/HB 2481 that would seek to better enfranchise voters, while still allowing for ID regulations. HB 2481 was not passed out of committee tonight and it will be interesting to see what form it finally takes when it does hit the House Floor. I would encourage all of those reading to check out the video of the from the April 10 House Elections Committee meeting because it showcases some pretty amazing members of the House of Representatives advocating for voting rights, using some spot-on analogies to boot.

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The Duality of Navigating Political Arenas as a Social Worker

by Katherine Kirages, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Now, over halfway through the legislative session, I have had some time to reflect on the stark difference in conversations that I now have about this internship with family and friends, compared to my earlier conversations with them. Recently, interested parties inquire about my experiences as a social worker in the political arena, the actual impact this experience has on the communities and clients we serve as social workers, and any future plans I might have following this internship. Last night, I had a conversation with one of these people. The question that stood out the most to me regarded the clients we serve: Have I met someone directly impacted by the work I do at the Legislative Study Group?

It caught me off guard – it felt as though I hadn’t shifted my focus from daily life at the Capitol to the real outcomes following Sine Die. Day in and out under the “pink dome,” it is extremely easy to get caught up in a nearsighted routine as you move from one committee hearing to the next, interspersed with legislative briefings, networking, and lobbyist meetings. While we center our clients’ needs and interests at the forefront of every bill analysis we write, our opportunities to interact with vulnerable populations are limited when we are surrounded by elected officials and staffers.

However, my conversation last night illustrates the importance and impact of civic engagement. I quickly realized that I see people affected by these policies every day. From people traveling from the far-reaching corners of Texas to testify on a bill that can have devastating consequences to them, their families, and communities to those who testify on behalf of an agency that also serves clients for or against legislation that has the potential to impact their effectiveness and delivery of services.

As a policy analyst working for an official House caucus, the duality of our perspective as semi-integrated in the Texas Legislature, while connected to our clients, is not lost. In fact, we happen to be at an advantage. Social workers are among the most qualified and capable to engage with clients directly affected by these policies; likewise, we have the skills and experience of navigating the political system. Sharing these political strategies with communities is an integral piece of stimulating civic engagement and empowerment, in order to be an effective change agent who gives clients a role in advocacy.

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Finding empathy in politics

by Kylie McNaught, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Before we came to the Capitol, we were told, more than once, that we might feel lonely as social work students in a world of political scientists and law students. I thought that this meant that every now and then my opinion would be questioned and my ego hurt. I planned to maintain the tough exterior that I’d grown over the years to prove to myself that I can hang with the bulldogs. I’d worked in corporate America, I could handle budget pushers and “good old boys”. I thought that I was tough enough to endure the criticism and the ideas some people have about social workers being bleeding hearts. Sometimes that may be true, but it still requires courage. Caring is brave. When facing issues like school finance, foster care redesign, campus sexual assault, immigration, and criminal justice reform, it would be easy to cower away and pretend that there are bigger things to worry about. With everything going on in our state, there’s a passion project for each of us who came here. Though sometimes it doesn’t seem that we get the credit for being the courageous, intelligence, caring people we are.

What turned out to be the loneliest feeling of all, however, is the notion that while there are those like us in the building who are there for policy, there are those who are there for the politics. It’s easy to get swept up in politicking. The gossip and the shock value alone can begin to build a smoke-screen between you and what the real problems are. Then the moment hit me, as I was reading an article from the Texas Tribune about how legislators are still not addressing the population of young people who are sex trafficked after having been through the Texas foster care system. I realized that I was becoming increasingly upset about the politics of lawmaking.

We discuss incremental change, and the concept is not lost on me. I can’t truly be irrational enough to believe that social justice can be met overnight, especially in a time with such scarce resources. It is my belief that to have a passion for social work, I also have to have tinge of idealism. But when I entered into this world with so few people I’m told I can trust, it shook me.

I was assigned to track and analyze legislation before the top three committees I wanted, committees that focus on fields I’ve already worked in for years. In the Human Services Committee, we hear many stories; with my years of case management experience, I can take stories. My inner empath began to feel that surely these lawmakers will want to make radical change. Some of them do I’m sure.

As soon as I walked in to a committee meeting this Monday morning, with the cynicism that has slowly started to grow in me, I found myself looking up. A bill presented to the Human Services Committee, HB 2335, by Representative Rick Miller would advance the Trauma-Informed Care and Trust-Based Relational Intervention training for CPS case workers. It seems such an obvious idea, but it was during all 16 supportive testimonies by advocates and social workers that I remembered what I had come here for. While sometimes our Code of Ethics, empathetic tendencies, and voracity for justice can feel isolating, it’s also brave. It takes courage to step in front of people who may not always take your profession seriously and say, I care, and my goal is to make you care too.

The point of this is not to be negative, but the truth is that this job comes with a thick layer of negativity. Texas feels like Humpty Dumpty, and everyone is trying their best to piece it together, with half of the pieces missing. Everyone is working with what they have. At this point, legislation and the budget are one big risk analysis – deciding who is more important: the children or the elderly, students or veterans. As a social worker, those decisions can hurt to the core, but where there aren’t many of us, idealism has to be set aside. There can be value in having so many people who think they know best; however, we as social work students can incorporate our unique perspectives and affect change one legislator at a time.

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The Perseverance of Policymakers

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.

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