Do Our Voices Matter?

In the beginning of the 87th Texas Legislative Session, I felt hopeful. Hopeful for what I would learn, the ways I would grow, the people I would meet, the friends I would make, things I would learn about myself, and much more. Nearing the end of session, all of these things have come to fruition. What I have been able to learn and accomplish has shown me so much about myself.

Myself and the other 12 University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative interns are often asked the impossible, with impossible time limits. However, every time, we have risen to the occasion through the support that we are able to offer one another. I have often struggled with feeling confident in my intelligence, but through this experience and the people that are surrounding me, I have truly been able to see what I am capable of. I see all the ways that I have been able to succeed, the way the work myself and the other 12 interns do is necessary, needed, appreciated, valued and matters.

However, I do experience struggles still. I still feel as if I have something to prove, and I still often question almost every day if I am failing or if I am succeeding in my role. There are often times when I am proud of the things that I have accomplished and times when I feel I could have done better. I find that I am my biggest critic and often don’t let myself celebrate the wins because I feel as if there is always more to be accomplished. However, being surrounded by 12 social workers every day and having their support, acknowledgement, and understanding, it’s hard not to feel recognized for the things you have accomplished and the growth that you have experienced. We have all supported each other in one way or another, and that has been what’s held many of us together thus far.

Thing being my first legislative session, I have had a lot of questions. The ones that sit with me the most are if our voices really matter, are constituents and stakeholders’ concerns heard, taken seriously, and addressed? I have witnessed many times where concerns are addressed, and then changes are made to a bill. However, sometimes even small changes are not made, or changes only address one of the many concerns that were brought to a representative’s attention. From my perspective, stakeholders’ concerns often can be easily reflected in a minor change to the bill due to how small the concern is, all while keeping the intent of the bill the same. I will admit sometimes the representatives do a great job addressing all of the concerns that are brought to them and end up with a bill that has bipartisan support and creates good policy changes for the state.

On the other hand, there are oftentimes bill that are just so bad, that there is no fixing. Such as anti-trans bills or anti-abortion bills. When it comes to the testimony that takes places for bills such as these, they are long and they are painful to sit through. Hundreds of people come to testify on these bills, many for and many against. The brave people who come to testify against these bills, my heart often aches for them because I question if their words will truly change the minds of those who support these terrible bills. One witness who testified against an anti-trans bill that would classify providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth as child abuse was a 4th grader, a trans youth, and in her testimony she said, “I don’t like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.” Her testimony was among many others that made a mark on my heart, however, it seemed to have had no impact on the 18 Republicans that voted the bill out of the Texas Senate.

Votes like this, on partisan lines, make me question even further if our voices matter. Another anti-trans bill, that passed the Senate with again 18 Republican votes, would ban transgender students from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity, including collegiate sports. After this, the bill moved to the House of RepresentativesPublic Education Committee  chaired by Representative Harold Dutton (D). There was a vote on this bill on May 4 and the bill died 6-5-1. However, since I initially drafted this post, Rep. Dutton re-opened the bill for a vote a few days later, apparently as a consequence for one of his bills being killed by fellow legislators on a point of order, the day prior. During this re-vote, Representative Dutton shared some choice words and voted yes, whereas he had previously voted no on the same bill. The final committee vote on this bill was 8-5, meaning that it passed the committee and is now eligible to go to the House floor for consideration.

One piece of slightly good news is that the NCAA has spoken out against the bill, stating that it will not hold events in states that discriminate against trans students. Having an organization with as much power that NCAA has come out against bad legislation has proven effective in the past. In 2017, North Carolina passed anti-trans legislation that the NCAA spoke out against and the NCAA placed a ban on holding championship events in North Carolina until the legislation was repealed. After 6 months, North Carolina did just that, and the NCAA returned to having championship events held in the state.

Another reason that leads me to question if our voices matter is the fact that Texans overwhelmingly support universal background checks, but lawmakers won’t pass legislation requiring that. Additionally, most Texans do not support permitless carry of firearms, however a bill that would allow this recently passed out of the Texas House 82-58. Things like this make you question the process that is in place.

While oftentimes I have felt discouraged through the process, at the end of the day I also see the times where our voices do matter. If you aren’t deep in the process and knowing things that are happening being the scenes, if may be hard to believe that on some days. But behind closed doors, your voices and your words are brought up in conversation, people’s minds are changed, maybe not right away, but eventually. Sometimes you just have to know where to look. For example, expansion of Medicaid has been supported by most Texans for years, however it is just now beginning to receive bipartisan support in the Texas House.

Another example is one that I was able to be a part of this session. There was a bill that at first glance was a seemingly good bill. It was voted out of committee 8-1 and while writing my analysis of the bill, I had planned on rating it favorably. However, before I did so, I wanted to figure out why there was one person who voted against this bill that I thought was good legislation. As I researched this, I was told that this representative had spoken with disability rights groups who were against the bill, and that the bill had the ability to do harm to individuals with disabilities. I was thrown off at first, but then I reached out and spoke to two different organizations and they told me all the different ways that this bill could negatively impact individuals with disabilities. After these conversations I rewrote my analysis and rated the bill unfavorably. I listed all of the ways it would impact those with disabilities and why disability rights groups were against it. The morning the bill was set to be heard on the floor, I received a call from the office of the author of the bill wanting to know more about why disability rights groups were opposed to it. I gave them all of the information that I had, and when the bill was being heard on the House floor, an amendment was added to the bill that improved the bill substantially.

Without getting into contact with these groups, I would have never known that this bill, that was put forth with good intention, actually had bad consequences. I also would have put a favorable recommendation on the bill, and it very well could have passed as originally written, creating bad outcomes for individuals with disabilities. However, as advocates reached out to people who knew the knowledge behind the bill, they made their voices known, spoke to legislators, and warned them of their concerns and the outcomes that this would have on their vulnerable community. By these groups having their voices heard, bad legislation was amended, to a bill that can now help individuals with disabilities.

I hope that this shows people just how important our voices are, that they do matter, that they are heard, and that they can make change. We should not be discouraged by the many that try to silence us, it should make us louder.

By Victoria McDonough, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.

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