Mike Villarreal

Photo Credit: Eric Park | Daily Texan Staff

The LBJ School of Public Affairs hosted a wrap-up panel discussion Wednesday about the Texas Legislature’s 83rd regular session and three special sessions.

Sherri Greenberg, director of the school’s Center for Politics and Governance and former state representative, moderated the panel, featuring state Reps. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Gene Wu, D-Houston, along with three other panelists.

Steven Polunsky, former director of the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, started the panel discussion with humor.

“The 83rd legislative session was the Lone Ranger of sessions,” Polunsky said. “It was way too long, too boring and forgettable — except for that Tonto part.”

Polunsky said there was a contest for the silliest bills of the session.

“The nominations: ‘on relating to the protection of stray bison’ or designating Feb. 16 as Texas Homemade Pie Day,” he said. “That one passed.”

Panelists also discussed more serious issues addressed during the legislative session, such as abortion, public education financing and the budget. Villarreal said the House achieved bipartisan success through collaboration on key legislation, including financing for water projects.

“We could write legislation, file it, debate it, push it through and get it passed. All within five months,” Villarreal said. “It’s amazing, especially compared to the time things take in D.C.”

Wu, a first-year representative, said he was surprised by how the session went. 

“We stopped pushing off huge items like the water bill that’s been pushed back for 20 years,” he said. “We focused on things both parties could agree on and pushed back ‘red meat’ topics.”

Villarreal said he regrets that certain topics were delayed and not fully addressed.

“Did [Republicans] purposefully spend the regular session on bills that needed cooperation so that they could then drive the ‘red meat’ bills right through a special session?” Villarreal asked.

Erica Grieder, senior editor at Texas Monthly, said too many big topics fell by the wayside.

“The entire first special session was embarrassing and bad for everyone involved,” Grieder said. “They wanted to pass certain bills before the primaries came up in 2014.”

Wu, an LBJ graduate, also spoke about the importance of the school as well as LBJ students who intern or work as Capitol staff during legislative sessions.

“We [the representatives] can’t know everything about all the topics,” he said. “Staff are critical to making decisions.” 

Greenberg said she hopes more students — both undergraduate and graduate — become part of the legislative process.

“Everyone can get involved,” she said.

Texas House Representative Mike Villarreal, in his 7th term as San Antonio’s District 123 representative this session, is also currently pursuing his PhD at the UT Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. His focus at the LBJ school is in education policy, and he hopes to apply that to a teaching career in his future. 

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Though Texas Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, is a UT doctoral student, his interest in supporting higher education in the legislature is rooted in years of research and a passion for supporting future generations.

Villarreal is in his seventh term as a state representative. A Texas A&M and Harvard alumnus, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he says he hopes to apply his concentration in education policy to a teaching career in the future.

“My focus at the LBJ School is on education policy,” Villarreal said. “Most of my courses are training me, honing my econometric skills, and I think from this experience I’m going to achieve my dream of teaching and writing in the areas that I legislate in.”

Aleksandra Malinowska, public policy graduate student at the LBJ School, is in the same cohort as Villarreal, and said he is a positive force both in and outside the classroom.

“He does have a perspective and so he brings it into a lot of our theory classes,” Malinowska said. “He’s able to inform us on current things that are happening. He’s always discussing about how the theory we’ve learned, he can put into practice. He’s hosted dinners at the Capitol before and he’s a truly nice person.”

After completing his master’s degree at Harvard, Villarreal said he launched a grassroots campaign in 1999 for state representative, opposing a candidate supported by previous legislators in the San Antonio area and several other members of the local political community. One major facet of his campaign involved going door-to-door passing out surveys for community members to fill out about their thoughts and needs.

“I went one door at a time for nine months,” Villarreal said. “I knocked on 4,000 doors. I lost a whole lot of weight. It was a grueling experience, but it was a wonderful community-building experience.”

On election night, Villarreal said, he won by a single vote.

During this legislative session, his agenda is focused primarily on education and tax policies as a way to invest in the future of Texas, Villarreal said.

“Number one on my agenda is to try to fight for greater investment in higher ed [sic], in public ed, but also to make some reforms,” Villarreal said. “I think that if I’m going to be an advocate saying that we need to invest more, I also need to be willing to get under the hood and figure out how to make our public institutions that deliver this service more [effective].”

Villarreal said he is proposing various education reforms, including altering the way TEXAS grants are awarded to university students and funding full days of pre-kindergarten, as opposed to the current practice of half days.

“We know that in the entire education pipeline, you get your biggest bang for your buck early on,” Villarreal said. “If you start delivering quality early education to three and four-year-olds, the costs of educating them decreases in later years.”

Villarreal said many of the policies he strives for come directly from heavily researched numbers. Jenna Cullinane, public policy graduate student, said the ability for Villarreal to take his research from the LBJ School and directly apply it to legislation is a positive connection.

“It’s really not research just for research’s sake,” Cullinane said. “It’s research with a purpose. I think the fact that he’s a legislator doing this degree is pretty great because he takes what he’s learning and can apply it directly.”

Villarreal said he is grateful for the experience of going back to school and draws personal inspiration from the students and faculty he sees when he is on campus.

“It just brings joy to be surrounded by scholars and students and walk across campus and see all the young students who are the future of Texas,” Villarreal said. “Whenever I come back from UT, I feel optimistic about the future — that we’re going to be alright. So when I come [to my office], I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we leave this state in a better way than we found it for the next generation.”

Printed on Friday, January 18, 2013 as: Legislative Learning 

82nd Legislature

House members gathered under the Capitol dome for more than 15 hours Friday and again Sunday to hash out details of the 2012-13 biennium budget, which passed in a 98-49 vote mostly along party lines.

Lawmakers piled on more than 200 amendments to House Bill 1 — several of which attempted to ease the hit to universities and financial aid.

The Senate will vote on their budget version in the coming weeks. Both budgets will then go into a joint committee where members from both chambers will work on one final version.

Outside the Capitol, public interest groups including Texas Impact protesters held a daylong vigil Friday to mourn the “death of state services.”

“Teachers across the state, who equipped themselves to serve the children of the state of Texas are being forced out of the position they love and put on the unemployment line,” said Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “So, today we mourn the death of Texas education.”

Legislators proposed about 73 amendments dealing with education, at least 11 of which attempt to increase financial aid funding.

Lawmakers did not pass any amendments to support TEXAS Grant funding. The original House budget proposes cutting TEXAS grants in half — or by nearly 35,900 from 2011 to 2012 — which would eliminate their availability for incoming students. Several lawmakers spoke passionately about restoring those funds.

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, proposed an amendment — which failed — that would have transferred $24 million from the Texas Workforce Commission’s Skills Development Fund into TEXAS Grants and Texas Equalization Grants.

“The TEXAS Grants program has been extremely, extremely slashed in this budget,” Isaac said. “The cuts to the grants are too much, and this is one small way we can help underprivileged families, hardened by economic burdens we are facing in today’s economy. We need kids going to these schools, so we can improve our economies.”

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, echoed Isaac’s sentiments by asking members to restore funding to financial aid to help students afford college. His amendments, which were shot down, proposed prioritizing TEXAS Grants if the Legislature taps into the Rainy Day Fund, a $9.4 billion emergency fund lawmakers can use during financial difficulties.

“TEXAS Grants is a program that pays dividends,” Villarreal said. “This is a program we created some time ago. We told our high school students that if you take rigorous courses and study hard, graduate high school and pursue college, we will be there for you to help afford college.”

According to one amendment that did pass, authored by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, if universities, such as UT and Texas A&M, can fund Gender and Sexuality Centers that teach about “alternative sexual practices,” they should equally fund “traditional values.”

Christian said his amendment would not infringe on a university’s right to provide alternative sexual practice education, it just expands on what they are required to offer.

“Currently, UT and other schools have a gender and sexuality center for alternative sexual practices. I’m not treading on their right to do that,” he said.

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A Bill is Born:

All bills filed during this legislative session will face seven stages before they become law. Each session, lawmakers must pass a budget for the upcoming biennium.

1. Bill filed in House
2. In Appropriations (Committee until March 23)
3. House floor voted (on the bill April 3)
4. Out of Senate Committee
5. Voted on by Senate
6. Sent to Governor
7. Bill Becomes Law


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<i>“I’m taking a position, and my position is: This is a false choice. I’m not going to pick one over the other when I know there is a third option.” </i>

— Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, responding to the difficult decisions facing lawmakers as they divvy up the state’s reduced budget, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Villarreal has stated that he wants the state to explore ways to increase revenue rather than follow through on the current budget cuts.

<i>“I will not be put in the position of pulling from one need to (give to) another.”</i>

 — Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, on her decision not to cast a vote on an amendment to H.B. 1, the state budget bill, according to the Statesman.

<i>“I’m disappointed that, in the face of many serious budget decisions and important issues, my Democratic colleagues have decided not to tell the people of Texas where they stand.”</i>

— Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, regarding the abstentions by many Democrat legislators, according to the Statesman.


<i>“This is a statement of our values, and that statement is: We don’t value education, we don’t value opportunity, and we don’t value the ill and the elderly”</i>

— Rep. Mark Strama, D-Round Rock, responding to one of the amendments proposed to the current version of the state budget before the House of Representatives, according to the Statesman. This particular amendment removed $3.5 million from the Commission for the Arts to be distributed to programs benefiting the elderly and disabled.

<i>“I cannot continue my work for the party in this capacity. The mistakes I have made have put my colleagues, my friends and school in harm’s way and they do not deserve to be part of such a bitter cycle.” </i>

— Excerpt from a statement of resignation by SMU junior and Texas College Republicans chairman Charlie McCaslin, who resigned from his post on Thursday. McCaslin came under fire for an endorsement speech he made on behalf of Alex Schriver, a candidate for national chairmen of the College Republicans. McCaslin described Schriver’s opponents as “nerds” and “fags.”

<i>“There are thousands and thousands of students who, five years down the road, wonder why they majored in what they did and have missed an opportunity. Education needs to think in entrepreneurial ways where students are thinking about what their brand is, what their value is, and universities should be doing the same thing.” </i>

— UT communication studies professor Richard Cherwitz stressing the need for Texas universities to teach entrepreneurialism.