Every other November, Lewisville Texans and Americans around the nation gather to elect state and national elected officials. Given how often we vote on them and how often we hear about them, it’s easy to assume that these lawmakers are largely responsible for, you know, making laws.
But as Lewisville ISD board member Kristi Hassett explains, the writing and passing of laws is still largely up to you, the citizen.
“Sometimes, the legislator themselves has an issue that they’re really passionate about,” she said. “But usually it’s because someone has come to their office, talked to a staffer and said, ‘I would like you to make a law on this topic.’”
Before she was elected to the board of trustees, Hassett first got interested in the legal side of education when she learned her children would be required to take 15 make-or-break year end exams over the course of high school — this was back when the STAAR tests were first beginning to be used.
Outraged, she helped push a bill that would allow students to appeal end-of-year STAAR tests. A similar bill was eventually passed. She ran for the board of trustees soon after, and she and board member Kronda Thimesch make regular trips to Austin to lobby state lawmakers.
Hassett has continued to push individual pieces of legislation, and last week, she walked The Lewisville Texan Journal how you, too, can write your own bills and try to turn them into laws.
Hassett currently has two bills written that she’s working to push through the state legislature, one with the official backing of LISD and one as an independent citizen.
One, which LISD is explicitly supporting as a district, is a financial transparency bill that would require that the legislative budget board communicate with the Texas Education Agency about how much a bill in discussion would cost school districts, as well as perform similar communication with cities and counties about bills that will affect their budgets. The Legislative Budget Board is charged with attaching budgetary estimates to bills, but is not strictly required to do this for bills that would pass expenses onto lower rungs of government, such as school districts.
Hassett’s bill would require the LBB to do this, which she says would lead to more informed policy decisions for state representatives when voting on items that would pass costs on to cities, counties and school districts. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R- Keller) last session, but the LBB pushed back against it because it would require more work.
Hassett said Capriglione is currently working on wording to make it less intensive for that board.
The second bill, which Hassett is attempting to get filed personally without the explicit support of LISD, would require the state board of education to make sure that everything it requires to be taught in a school year can physically be taught in the span of a year. She hasn’t found a sponsor for it yet, but has noted that similar bills have encountered resistance in the recent past.
Subcommittees, calendars and their chairs
Writing a law and pressuring your elected representatives to pass it through is something anybody can do. Hassett walked me through the process from the beginning.
A bill must get approval at several different points before it becomes a law. It must first find a sponsor in both the house and the senate. Then, it has to survive in both house and senate subcommittees, which see it before it gets to a vote from the larger body. Subcommittees have the power to edit the bill, the have the power to vote it down or sit on it indefinitely, or the bill can be killed unilaterally by the committee’s chair, who can simply opt not put the bill on the schedule for discussion.
Senators and representatives are divided into several subcommittees, and any given bill must be approved by the appropriate subcommittee before going to the larger voting body — the environmental regulations subcommittee must approve environmental bills, health bills must be approved by the public health committee, and so on. At the state level, House subcommittees are assigned by the speaker of the house, and Senate committees are assigned by the lieutenant governor.
Texas is an oddball in this — the federal government and most state governments have the senate majority leader or another designated official assign senate subcommittees, but in Texas, the lieutenant governor is given explicit authority over the body. That’s part of the reason the lieutenant governorship is seen as a particularly powerful role in Texas.
If the bill survives the subcommittee, it then gets scheduled for a floor debate with the rest of the House and Senate — this is another point at which a bill can be unilaterally killed. The bill has to be put on the schedule by a calendar chair, which is also a politically charged position. In the Texas Senate, the lieutenant governor fills this role as well.
Once the bill gets to the floor, it goes to another round of revision and votes, and then another round of public hearings, and then another round of revision and another round of votes. If it survives all of these stops, the governor can still veto the bill. Hassett said her favorite informational graphic on the whole process is here.
Because there are so many people with the power to completely halt a bill, from the committee chair to the calendar chair to the governor to some unrelated senator who just doesn’t like it, a big key to getting bills pushed through legislature is knowing who’s on what committee and what they think. The winds can change on this very quickly from election to election — committees can be stacked with overwhelming party majorities, or assigned a chair who is unfriendly to particular ideas. The importance of committees leads to the seasonal nature of lawmaking, in which long-gestating ideas become more likely to pass into law when a more friendly committee is installed.
The writing process
In Hassett’s experience, you can write a bill in perfect legalese without having any degree of legal education as long as you know the existing laws surrounding the topic you’re interested in.
The process can be this simple — copy and paste the section of law into a document, type in new language, print it out, then highlight your new language and cross out existing legislation that you want to replace, and that’s the bill.
Another easy shortcut is to look for similar laws that already exist in other states, and copy the language in those laws.
More important than having accurate legal language on the bill, and likely a major step in developing that language, is having a relationship with the person you hand it to. Hassett said to never take staffers for granted. Many activists make the mistake of insisting on speaking with a representative directly. Not only is this impractical, but it might be counterproductive — in Hassett’s experience, front-desk staff members have the best chance of getting an elected official to take a proposal seriously, and selling them on the idea is a good first step.
“You don’t have to have the specific bill language, you just have to have an idea,” she said. “The staffers are essential … You need to have those staffers behind you so they understand what you’re asking, so when you go approach the senator or the representative, they have a better chance of succeeding.”
Another key element of this early process is knowing which senator or representative to go to in the first place. Hassett said the ideal official for sponsoring a bill is both your local representative and on the appropriate subcommittee — assuming the elected official in question is amenable to the idea in the first place.
Lewisville is represented in the state two House representatives and a senator. Tan Parker, a Republican, represents Western Lewisville, along with Flower Mound and most of rural southwest Denton County. Parker is a fairly powerful representative — last session, he was chair of the investments and financial services subcommittee while also serving on the international trade and redistricting subcommittees. Until recently, he was running to fill the vacating speaker of the house position, which would have allowed him to assign committee members for the House of Representatives.
Michelle Beckley, a Democrat, represents Eastern Lewisville, Castle Hills and North Carrollton. She was just elected to her first term and has not been assigned to a committee yet.
State Sen. Jane Nelson (R- Flower Mound), who has held her seat since 1993, is extremely powerful as the chair of the senate finance committee. She also co-chairs the Transition Legislative Oversight Committee and serves on the State Affairs Committee, the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Audit Committee.
Advocacy over a period of years
Once a bill is written down and has a sponsor, Hassett said even with a favorable government, it can take as long as three years to work its way through the legislature just because of the volume of bills they’re dealing with.
Hassett said this is where persistence comes in — in order to see the bill through, you’ll have to keep track of which part of the process it’s in and continue to press for its passage, potentially across a period of years. You’ll need to know who to call, and you’ll need to know when to get yourself to Austin and advocate for your legislation.
This is potentially the most time-consuming part of the process. When a bill is scheduled for discussion, that discussion is often scheduled to take place at some point within a day or two’s window, and if you want to speak for it, you need to be in the capitol for that entire window.
Hassett described at one point getting up at 4:30 a.m. to get down to Austin in time for the start of business, and then waiting their until 1 a.m. the next day just so she could deliver two minutes of testimony.
Hassett has been a stay-at-home mother for her children for the past 20 years. She said she is looking for work now that they are in college, but that the time commitment for participating this directly with the legislature would make it difficult to co-exist with even part-time work.
“If we don’t have people who are working in the best interests of school districts creating laws, who is?” she said.
Hassett said most bills have been around for two or three sessions before becoming law. She said both of the legal ideas she discussed have existed in some form in prior sessions, and hopes to make progress on them in the upcoming session. The 86th regular legislative session will begin Jan. 8.