The Texas Legislature is officially in session. You’ve probably already heard reports on the news about priorities and early actions coming out of the Capitol building, but one question still remains… How do you get involved?
Since the Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, when the lawmakers are in session, they often work at a furious pace, which can make it hard to keep up with what’s going on. That’s why several of Austin’s state representatives joined forces to host “What’s Next ATX?”, a community engagement forum held at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex earlier this week.
State representatives Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard, Celia Israel, and Gina Hinojosa spoke in front a crowd of hundreds, providing advice on how to get involved in this year’s legislative session. While all four of the participating elected officials are Democrats, the event was meant to serve as a nonpartisan educational event for the community. A podcast of their panel discussion is above.
And if you don’t have the time to listen to the full recording, we’ve summarized it with the following list of tips.
How to Get More Involved In This Year’s Legislative Session (As Told by State Reps):
1. Know the important dates and rules.
Before getting involved with the state legislature, it’s important to know a few things about how it operates. First things first – A regular session of the Texas Legislature lasts for 140 days. During the first 60 days, state lawmakers are allowed to introduce bills, but they can’t vote on them (or hold floor debates). The only bills that are allowed to be voted on during these first two months are ones that address an “emergency item,” which are determined the governor.
For this legislative session, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has announced four emergency items:
- Fix the state’s Child Protective Services agency
- Reform ethics laws
- Ban sanctuary cities
- Support a convention of states to amend the US Constitution
2. Track the progress of important bills and get email alerts on the Texas Legislature’s website. The website also allows you to track committee hearings and know where certain pieces of legislation are as they travel through the process of becoming a law.
3. Know the issues. All four of the elected officials at the “What’s Next ATX?” forum shared a list of priorities they will be focusing on this legislative session, including:
- Protecting local control.”The extent to which our statewide elected officials are calling out local officials and asking them to resign is appalling…” Israel said. “The whole issue of local control is getting turned on its head.”
- Fighting back against bathroom bills, constitutional carry, a ban on sanctuary cities, school vouchers, and the removal of in-state tuition for undocumented students.
- Protecting and strengthening the state’s public school system.
- Creating an economy that benefits all Texans.
- Ensuring that Texas is a state that protects against discrimination in all forms.
4. Follow your elected officials on social media. After an overwhelming amount of requests from constituents to get more involved, all of the state reps at the “What’s Next ATX?” forum promised to do a better job sharing information about important bills and upcoming hearings with the public via social media.
5. Show up… even if at first it seems like an inconvenience or a waste of time.
All of the elected officials at the community forum stressed the importance of showing up at hearings to speak about proposed laws and policies.
“…I might be testifying at 3am, but I want the chairman of that committee, and I want the Republican members of that committee and the Democratic members of that committee… to stay there until 7 or 8 in the morning… and have to show up on the House floor at 9, not having gone to bed, because that’s how serious of an issue it is.” – State Representative Eddie Rodriguez at the “What’s Next ATX?” community engagement forum
But despite the fact that hearings can run long and testifying might seem like a pain, Howard stressed that it is our privilege in Austin that we even have the option to show up in the first place. Texans in places like El Paso do not have the same luxury, she said, and Austinites have to show up and represent those who cannot make it all the way to the Capitol.
6. Talk to your friends and family members outside of Austin and encourage them to get involved as well. Tell them to go visit their representatives in their district offices to tell them how they feel.
It’s really important that people tell their legislators how policies are affecting them, Howard explained.
7. If you’re going to a hearing at the Texas Legislature…
- Show up early.
- Sign up to speak at an electronic kiosk.
- You’ll often be given a 1 or 2 minute time limit to speak.
- Watch an old committee hearing online so you know what to expect.
- You don’t have to know how to do everything, just show up and someone will help you.
- Don’t be intimidated. You have every right to be there. Don’t think that you don’t belong.
- Dress appropriately.
- Be courteous while making your point.
8. Remember that as a Texan, you have the power.
“It’s your Capitol,” stressed Howard.
“You have every right to be there,” Israel added. “You have every right to speak up.”
And if possible, they stressed, organize and speak out with your friends, family, or local advocacy organization. “The power is in people organized together,” Hinojosa said.
One more thing… After the event, Donna Howard’s office published the following infographic with tips on how to contact your local legislator. Give it a read!