We are now more than one month into the 2019 Texas Legislative session; Committees have been assigned in both chambers, and legislators are starting to hear bills on a broad array of issues impacting Texans' everyday lives.
 
As with most sessions, things start slowly in January trickling into February. But it won’t be long before bills begin moving quickly through the legislature, and ACLU of Texas supporters will need to act quickly to defend their rights and the rights of all Texans.
 
At a recent Facebook Live event just outside the Texas Capitol, ACLU of Texas communications coordinator Imelda Mejia interviewed ACLU of Texas deputy political director, Matt Simpson, about the basics of Texas’s biennial legislative system, what ACLU of Texas supporters can expect this session, and how to be prepared to take action.
 
IMELDA MEJIA, HOST (ACLU of Texas): Let’s start with the basics, can you give us a quick rundown of how the legislative session works?  
 
MATT SIMPSON (ACLU of Texas): Every legislative session cycle – [which] happens every two years – legislators file almost six-thousand bills, typically. We track quite a few of those. We track them through the process – [which] starts when a legislator files it, then the bill is moved to a committee where a small number of legislators consider it and there is testimony. We often testify at those committees, and then [the bill] goes to a floor vote. And once it passes the floor vote then it goes to the other side. Once it finishes in the House it moves through a similar process in the Senate.
 
At the end of all that, [the bill] is signed by the governor. It’s a pretty lengthy process [and] not many bills make it to the finish line but it’s partly because there are so many steps.
 
IMELDA: I know that bills have already started being filed, but can you give us an update on key dates that we need to look out for when most bills will be filed?
 
MATT: The real key date in terms of what we will see is March 8, every bill has to be filed by March 8. [Then] the legislative session continues until May 27 and in that time they’ll only be considering bills that are already filed. So we will have a pretty good sense of what we will see this session by March 8. 
 
IMELDA: Let’s dive into some of the issues, what do you think will be the big factors at play this year? What do you think [Texas] legislators will try to make into a law?
 
MATT: I think the budget is always a big issue, [and it] seems like this session the Senate is really interested in reducing property taxes, whereas the House is really focused on public education funding. Those are values that can sometimes be in tension, so we may see a debate on how much money should go into public education.
 
Along with that there will be a conversation about hurricane recovery; after Harvey there are still a lot of bills to be paid. Beyond that, and I think more of an interest to us in the criminal justice realm, the governor identified bail reform and marijuana reform as two possible priorities. Obviously for us that’s thrilling news, we feel like there’s a lot of space to grow as a state on both those issues.
 
IMELDA: Leading into that, what bills does the ACLU of Texas hope will move forward?
 
MATT: On the criminal justice side, we would like to see low level possession for people who have more of an addiction issue or a substance use issue and really aren’t criminals. Those folks we could probably handle better in rehabilitative services. So we would like to try push resources towards a rehabilitative approach to addressing drug use.
 
Along with that, we’ll be fighting it out on a few different fronts: We’re always trying to stop bad immigration and immigrants’ rights bills, always trying to keep an eye out on LGTBQ and bad abortion bills. On the bad side, unfortunately, one of the [bills] we’re probably going to see is the religious refusals, people using a pretext of their religion to deny rights [to other people]. As the ACLU of Texas, we’re an important voice in that and reminding people that the First Amendment really has two sides and shouldn’t be used as a sword to discriminate or to cause people to not have their rights. 
 
IMELDA: We did see our fair share of divisive, controversial bills that were trying to get pushed last year. Is there anything that Texans can do to fight back against a proposed bill that tries to limit our fundamental civil rights this session?
 
MATT: I think a lot of people don’t realize state legislators don’t often hear, not as much as you would think, from their constituents. There is a great deal of power is simply reaching out. You can come to the Capitol, do lobby days where you come visit your legislator. But making phone calls, sending emails, even visiting their offices in your district can be really effective as well. 
 
Joining the ACLU of Texas e-alerts is one way to stay up to date, but you can also do your own check-in with legislators. Often, talking about an issue or raising the profile of an issue – say for example if you’re a voter that thinks that abortion rights are very important, we’re kind of having to deal with Roe v. Wade maybe being reconsidered by the new Supreme Court – it’s a great time to reach out to your legislator and say, “Abortion is an important issue [to me], I vote based on your stance on abortion.”
 
IMELDA: Yes, thank you for mentioning our e-alerts page. Is there anything else you’d like to add or make sure our audience knows about?
 
MATT: I’m excited for people to get involved. Legislative session is only five months every two years, so you’ve got to jump at the chance.
 

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