Keep your eyes on the Capitol

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The 83rd Texas Legislature convened at noon last Tuesday under a cold, rainy sky. A delegation of secessionists gathered near the entrance to the North Lobby to protest for Texas’ independence, while lobbyists balanced umbrellas and cell phones as they rushed to make the rounds of congressional offices. Harried caterers and interns struggled with bags and boxed lunches, occasionally slipping on the slick granite of the Capitol Complex.

Inside the big pink dome, the scene was all pomp, circumstance and pantsuits as legislators took the oath of office in the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. Visitors were received in congressional offices with proper decorum throughout the afternoon.

To outsiders, the disconnect between the Capitol’s interior and exterior resembles the public’s relationship to Texas lawmakers. While well-dressed politicians endlessly debate issues and bills in their warm, dry offices, the rest of us remain out in the elements, trying to lead our everyday lives under the rules and regulations set down by the law-making aristocracy. 

I’ve only worked as a staffer in the House for a few weeks, but I can attest that the public’s feeling of alienation, though understandable, is misguided. When they’re not in session, state legislators live and work in the communities they represent, buying groceries and dropping their kids off at school alongside the constituents on whom they count for reelection. These lawmakers are infinitely more accessible and receptive than their counterparts in Washington. And that’s a very good thing, because the bills they pass have a direct impact on the lives of everyday Texans, including UT students. Here are just five of the many reasons why college students, a notoriously apathetic and disengaged demographic, should pay attention to the Texas Legislature and stay apprised of the issues it considers.

You vote. Say what you will about the impotency of the individual in national elections — when you cast a ballot for state representative or senator, your vote counts. An impassioned voter with Internet access can significantly affect the outcome of a race by starting a chain email or tweeting something clever. But with power comes responsibility. Before you vote, develop informed stances on key issues and familiarize yourself with the candidates’ records. And once your ballot is cast, take advantage of your state legislators’ accessibility by calling or writing with your concerns. You won’t be ignored.

You have relationships. Well, maybe you’re going through a dry spell, but let’s assume it won’t last forever. Whether you like it or not, the state has a high degree of discretion in regulating your private life. From abortion to marriage equality to contraceptive coverage in insurance plans, battles over social issues are sure to reappear this session. The status quo is unlikely to change with a large Republican majority in both houses, but when lawmakers are fighting over issues as personal as whom you can marry and why, it’s worth paying attention to.

You attend a public university. Over the past few decades, state funding for UT and other public universities has decreased dramatically, shifting the financial burden onto students and their families. Last session saw dramatic cuts in education funding, and, even with an unexpected budget surplus, state leaders haven’t committed to re-funding public schools and universities. You can take action not only at the polls but also by joining UT’s student lobbying group, Invest In Texas, or other advocacy organizations that work to make students’ voices heard. Of additional interest to UT this session is the Supreme Court’s decision in the affirmative action case Fisher v. UT, expected to come down this spring. If the Court rules unfavorably for UT, the Legislature will be responsible for formulating a race-neutral admissions system that could dramatically alter the way the University admits prospective students.

You won’t attend a public university forever. After graduation, you’ll likely start your career in the Lone Star State. With its low cost of living and business-friendly tax environment, Texas is a great place for young professionals to get their careers off the ground, but regulations considered in the Legislature can have a serious effect on our economic future. Your personal political philosophy may determine what side you’re on in taxation and spending debates, but once you graduate you won’t be able to afford to ignore them.

You enjoy free entertainment. The Texas Legislature — especially the House of Representatives — has a well-earned reputation for being colorful and quirky. Keep up with the news coverage and you won’t be disappointed. On the opening day of session, for example, I learned from The Dallas Morning News that Gov. Perry’s son presented his father’s former presidential rival Rick Santorum (whose sudden appearance at the Capitol remains unexplained) with an A&M sweater vest. This only a year after the young Griffin Perry mocked Santorum’s ubiquitous sweater vests on Twitter. Whether his peace offering is an omen for a greater sense of reconciliation and goodwill in the 83rd Legislature remains to be seen.   

Oliver is press secretary for Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) and an English and sociology sophomore from New Braunfels.