By all accounts, a light-and-breezy atmosphere prevailed in Austin Tuesday, as Texas lawmakers convened for the 85th Legislative Session. Those breezes most likely will turn to hurricane-force winds, with maybe a tornado or two thrown in for good measure, before the session concludes Memorial Day.
Under the Capitol dome, goodwill turns on money and policy. Since the money will be tight—Comptroller Glenn Hegar has allocated a 2.7 percent decrease in statewide funding—tempers will flare, and legislative elbows will fly soon and very soon. Although the Legislature is dominated by one party, Texans don’t see eye-to-eye on key issues, and that will create a wind tunnel to increase the velocity of the breezes.
What to do?
So, what’s a faithful Texan to do? To quote an old political adage: Follow the money.
Throughout this session, pay close attention to how legislators propose to spend the state’s $104.87 billion budget across the next two years. In particular, watch out for how spending bills would impact the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
Of course, when it comes to money, we might as well acknowledge the elephant in the room: Texas Baptists don’t all agree on how government should operate. Some believe in small government, and some wish government would expand to take on large social problems. But can we agree to disagree and follow a unified purpose? By the end of the session, the Legislature will draft a $104.87 billion budget. Nobody will be entirely satisfied with the final version. But since we’re going to spend the whole amount anyway, let’s try to make sure the money goes where it can do the most good. And in general, that doesn’t mean making the rich richer and the strong more powerful.
A couple of areas where spending decisions will create lasting repercussions are education and the child welfare system. Faithful Texans must remain vigilant to ensure the Legislature does what is right for all Texans.
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For example, a federal judge has claimed Texas children who depend upon the state’s welfare system often leave state custody “more damaged than when they entered.” The Legislature must improve the state’s foster-care program. That will require lots of money. Many interests more powerful than at-risk children—and aren’t they all more powerful than these kids?—want some of that money. So, we must keep an eye on the money and make more of it is channeled to help those children. Shame on us if we don’t.
Similarly, some of the state’s most powerful people want to pull money from public schools and free it up for spending at private schools. They claim it’s a civil rights issue, insisting vouchers would enable poor families to choose where their children go to school. But, of course, that won’t work, because even with the vouchers, they can’t afford those schools. So, the ruse ultimately would aid well-off families and private schools, while further harming the public schools—which take all comers—and especially the state’s poor children.
Of course, other issues will arise, and we should make our voices heard. For example, Texas Baptists have been strong advocates of payday lending reform and restrictions on human trafficking. Further advances to restrict payday lending and human trafficking deserve our support.
Some issues will generate noise out of proportion to their importance. Take the “Bathroom Bill,” for example. It would restrict use of public restrooms to the gender on each person’s birth certificate. Advocates and detractors alike see it as a key moral issue, and it’s a pet topic of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But since House Speaker Joe Straus values other priorities and Gov. Greg Abbott isn’t likely to get involved, this bill probably will be a tempest in a toilet.
Keep up & speak up
Throughout the legislative session, the Baptist Standard will collaborate with the Christian Life Commission to cover issues of particular interest to Texas Baptists, and particularly topics that may not be covered elsewhere.
Pastors for Texas Children will stay on top of school-funding.
Your local news outlets should cover bills and legislative issues of concern to your community and region.
And the Texas Tribune will provide some of the state’s most comprehensive coverage of the entire Legislature.
You already made your wishes known when you voted for state officeholders. Now is the time to urge those leaders to do the right thing. So, keep up with the legislative session and make your voice heard. To find out who represents you, click here—and then speak up.
Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknoxbs