The End Looms Near

This is my second of two blogs and I figured this one would prove easier to write than the first. There have been a whole lot of meetings, even more bills, almost as much coffee, and several all-nighters…in a row. There has also been just enough support, encouragement, jokes, pranks and memes to make my experience as an social work intern with the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG) practicable.  I figured more time and experience here would automatically translate into valuable writing material. This is true with one important caveat: it is impossible to fully verbalize the experience that is the Texas legislative session.

This was also true of my approach to the beginning of session. Leading up to the start of the program, we sat through several orientation sessions and were put in contact with many alumni to gain a better understanding of what to expect. Having always prided myself on being prepared, I made every attempt to soak it all in, but without real-life context for the craziness that would become our daily lives, I was forced to accept the other piece of advice I heard over and over again…just wait. I now realize no amount of studying can prepare someone for the stress, the speed, the emotional rollercoaster or the disappointments that come with making policy in our great state. It all made sense when the first major bills hit the floor.

Within the course of a couple of weeks, major pieces of legislation dealing with the budget, school finance, and property tax reform made it clear. Analyzing the budget in late March was like our boot camp. By the time House Bill 3 (HB 3), the major school finance reform bill, rolled out a week later, I felt like I could actually call myself a policy analyst for the first time, and believe it. When House Bill 2 (HB 2) hit a week after that, the entire social work staff of the LSG had matured into a well-oiled policy machine. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a time in my life I was this proud of not only my personal capacity, but even more so of what a group of 10 almost strangers mere months ago could accomplish. Analyzing 180 amendments on property tax reform (some 120 pages long) in less than 24 hours was impressive enough, but it was the quality of our work and the strength of collaboration that made it unforgettable.

Well, that, and the ending of the story with property tax reform…

There have been disappointments, but these have been hardly limited to those policy matters of personal value. Yes, there have been both great and horrible bills that I have felt very strongly about which have suffered a different outcome than I would have desired. Yet, my biggest let down of the session has been the smaller, sometimes seemingly impenetrable, politics around the policy.

Long story short, the specific property tax reform bill we analyzed was never heard on the House floor. While it suffered a slightly different fate than the vast majority of the other few thousand bills that died an inglorious death somewhere along the convoluted legislative process, it felt like a ton of effort for naught. What happened instead is that the already-passed Senate version of the bill (similar, yet different) was substituted in place of the bill we had analyzed, as part of an agreement between the leadership of the House and Senate. Those 180 amendments, at least 240 hours of blood, sweat and yes, tears, went down the drain…and that’s just counting the work done by our team of analysts, not to mention that of others in and around the Capitol. Those often most disappointed are those with the most effort invested, namely the legislative staff and other proponents that urge bills along, over years if not decades, and often with little-to-no gratification or measurable progress.

Policy is not easy. Like I was told but couldn’t understand, our legislative process is designed to kill bills, not pass them. This is what many legislators, their staff, advocates, lobbyists, organizations and agencies are used to…a hard-fought, slow-moving war with quick outcomes and potential major implications.  In this case, the long-awaited property reform legislation prioritized by the Governor essentially got passed, but this is the exception, not the rule. What made this exception become reality was a perfectly-timed culmination of party power dynamics, a united strategy from leadership across the legislative body, and the opportunity presented by a large number of constituents activated, vocal and generally aligned on a highly-relevant issue.

This past Thursday was the last night for bills originating in the House to be heard, and just before the House “gaveled out” around midnight, we witnessed a major joint resolution (HJR 38), potentially hindering the state’s future revenue authority, pass with exactly the one hundred votes necessary for passage. We also witnessed a critical discrimination bill killed on a technical point-of-order. The moral of the story being, legislation often comes down to a single individual or single opportunity, and passage truly is a test of endurance. Most of those involved in this legislative process at any level, especially for any stretch of time, understand it’s a marathon, combined with a staring contest.

Strategy, pace, and opportunity are all crucial to success but perhaps the greatest determinate in passing legislation is perseverance…and whatever you do, don’t blink.

by Eli Davis, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Article was originally posted on University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Austin Legislative Internship Program and has been re-published with permission by all parties

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