As part of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging initiatives, Impact Austin provides learning opportunities to members, potential members, Community Partners, and the public. Our DEIB learning also supports our seasonal grant cycles. Past sessions have discussed data equity; a history of race, racism, and philanthropy in Central Texas; DEIB in action, equity in the disability world; generational biases, and LGBTQ+ equity in philanthropy.
On April 28, Impact Austin offered a hybrid event, both a livestream webinar and in-person gathering at the Austin Area Urban League. Our panel reviewed current legislation and how it impacts the nonprofits we support and the communities served by them. Our moderator, panelists, and biographies were introduced in an earlier blog. Our session recap now follows.
The event was introduced by Impact Austin member and DEIB Learning Co-Chair Carrie Maher. Carrie explained the work and learning that Impact Austin has undertaken to explore DEIB-related issues and community needs.
Moderator Ayan Mittra set a baseline regarding the Texas Legislature. It doesn't meet every year, only in odd-numbered years, and a Regular Session lasts 140 days from January through May. By this time in May, bills are "moving fast and furiously." Special Sessions can be called by the Governor only. See Texas Legislature Online. Find the home page for the Texas House and the Texas Senate. We are currently in the midst of the 88th Legislature.
Ayan: What is the difference between advocacy and lobbying? And why are advocacy and lobbying important for nonprofits' missions and stakeholders?
Denise: First of all, consider the internet clock (Texas Legislature Session Countdown) that identifies the days, hours, minutes left in the Legislative Session. A calendar on that site also shares important deadlines. At the nonprofit level, she views advocacy a very critical part of participating in the legislative process. It's an opportunity to educate legislative members, the public, other stakeholders on the things important to your nonprofit. She sees lobbying as trying to persuade.
Ayan: What are the top priorities being discussed at the Legislature? Which legislation is of particular note for Central Texans?
AJ: As of this day, there were about [ verified as 8,153] bills [and resolutions] filed since the fall. Many have died in the process [but 3,803 passed so far]. The Governor's priority items are mainline conservative items: border security, fentanyl crisis, and property taxes. HB 2127 is an omnibus state bill opposed by large city mayors; it removes local control by municipalities.
Ayan: LGBTQ+ and higher education issues are front and center. What legislation are you watching?
Estevan: "It's another doozy of a session." Many of us want to ensure advancement in belonging and access in Central Texas, so we need a global view of what is happening at the legislature. Where will gaps in government occur? This will impact where our dollars as philanthropists and nonprofits come in. He is keeping tabs on:
the stigmatization of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the community and the classroom
attacks on gender
efforts to dilute and dismantle DEIB in public universities; services for students in unrepresented backgrounds
autonomy for K-12 teachers to assemble invaluable primary source documents
voting rights vis a vis voter locations
"It's important to stay engaged, to stay in the facts, to keep an eye on how we can contribute to the conversation, to keep the state moving forward."
Ayan: How can we make our presence felt, to have our voices heard?
A.J.: The prep work starts in pre-session. Start to cultivate your "champions" during the summer prior to the session. Identify 1-3 champions. Organizationally, get groups to come in for "lobby days," perhaps wearing t-shirts. Divide up the House offices but use the same messaging. "It's a human business." Also identify the detractors! Make sure their constituents know their dissenting positions.
Denise: "The word I think about is 'relationships,' especially by this time in the session." Research some of the members. Do you have something in common: hometown, organizations, the same church, grandkids in the same school. What kind of connection might you have? The Legislature only MUST pass one thing: the budget. If the state budget will impact your organization's budget, find out who is making decisions on funding that will affect you/your nonprofit. Remember there are two chambers! Just because a bill passes one chamber, don't walk away.
Estevan: The Texas Tribune does a great job of tracking legislative progress. Several other resources he and the panel recommend are:
Move Texas for coverage of voting rights legislation
Texas Legislature Online (TLO) Ayan recommends this site, where you can search by bill number or topic; see legislation status, witness lists for committee hearings, watch hearings.
Estevan also urged individuals to "use your voice." What do you care about? What is your own personal narrative?
Learn how to write a one-pager.
Drop a card/register your opinion with the House or Senate.
Consider an oral testimony workshop. The Texas Freedom Network can help you determine how to provide oral testimony.
Formulate your personal and community "why." The Marshall Ganz Story of Self Framework may help you understand why a particular issue matters to you, why it should matter to your community, and why a legislative body should do something about it.
Are you a better letter writer than a speaker? Write an op-ed piece.
In the nonprofit space, Estevan urges funders to consider shifting funding priorities to nonprofits that provide access and belonging initiatives.
Ayan: The public school system is a current subject of debate in the current legislature, particularly as it pertains to vouchers.
A.J.: Reminded attendees of the Texas "Robin Hood system," wherein property-tax-rich school districts are required to share funds with ISDs that have lower property tax revenues.
Denise: "We need to find a better way to fund public education in Texas." Austin ISD, for example, has to send about $800 million back to the state, per Denise. The politics and demographics around school choice/vouchers are not clearly defined. It's not strictly along party line, and there is lack of agreement about "what choice is." Denise predicts that, if choice doesn't pass during the Regular Session, a Special Session will be called to address it. But she cautions that Special Sessions are unpredictable and "the devil is in the details."
Ayan mentions that we have a $32.7 billion surplus in Texas. How might this be applied? Refunds toward property taxes? For just one cycle? School funding? Employee/teacher pay raises? Infrastructure? Other issues?
Ayan: What is or isn't happening in the legislature with regard to disability rights?
HB 195 - Ensures that students with disabilities are part of any planning pertinent to mandatory school drills and disaster/emergency situations; this has passed the House and is in Senate committee
HB 1604 - Requires that Texas higher education coordinating board should report/document the challenges that students with disabilities face in higher education; this has passed the House and is in Senate committee
Senate bill - Addresses procedures vis a vis intellectual and developmental disabilities when it comes to guardianship proceedings
What is being done, what SHOULD be done, and what isn't being done, vis a vis the surplus.
Denise is not hearing about physical disability rights as a priority issue. But there has been focus on learning disabilities and mental health. Donna Howard has been a champion in the past.
Ayan: The Tribune wrote about Medicaid, and a desire to increase funding for mental health services. But Medicaid competes poorly against private insurance-funded services.
Denise: The concept of Medicaid expansion is more frequently discussed, even if the term "Medicaid expansion" is not used.
Ayan: A general question to the panel - What else does the audience need to know?
Estevan: "It's not over till it's over" regarding the Legislature. Constituencies may have different tactics to deploy at this point. He remains concerned with how much the nonprofit sector will have to grapple with fallout from legislation.
A.J.: "Think long-term" with a legislative session. Start thinking now for the 2025 session. Pay attention to national election trends and the upcoming presidential cycle. What are the issues?
Denise: "Don't underestimate the power of the staff [in the legislature]." If you're trying to make your voice heard, talk to the staff. They might have ways to get you in front of someone. There is still more education and advocacy to be done.
From the audience: How can we protect rural hospitals? What about maternal health? Early childhood health? And the fentanyl issue? Gender affirming care?
Denise: There is a lot of conversation around rural hospitals. "It's a sleeping giant. We don't talk about it enough." It's not popular enough or sexy enough yet. Regarding fentanyl, there does seem to be rare bi-partisan support here. Regarding gender affirming care (which went from Senate to House), keep an eye on the huge State Affairs Committee.
From the audience: Are Special Sessions typical in Texas? How do these impact power dynamics? What can happen in a special session?
Denise: Members are incentivized to get home during the summer and avoid Special Sessions. There is a human dynamic. There is often a "grand bargain" at the end of a Special Session. Special Sessions are sometimes used as a political tool. But, sometimes "you don't really get what you think you're going to get" in a Special Session. They're NOT meant to be common or popular. The State Constitution limits what can be done in a Special Session. The governor calls the session and sets the agenda, but the legislature interprets the agenda and what it means. Denise mentioned that, during the early 1990's there were six back-to-back Special Sessions, quite the political tool.
Estevan: How will the governor's and lieutenant governor's agendas be handled in the regular session? This will make a difference. Also, does the governor have ambitions to run nationally?
A.J.: Take a look at other states. Florida is in a special session; their Governor DeSantis is running for president. Does our governor need to remain relevant or occupy a bully pulpit?
From the audience: How effective are public demonstrations, such as the Women's March?
Estevan: Political action can be effective, can keep momentum moving.
A.J.: If legislation passes, and no one says ANYTHING, the legislators might perceive opportunity to move even more deeply into the political issue.
Denise: It helps your champions. They can draw energy from public demonstration. It's a way of letting your voice be heard.
Impact Austin thanks our hosts, the Austin Area Urban League, and our illustrious panel: Ayan Mittra, Denise Davis, A.J. Bingham, and Estevan Delgado. Thanks within Impact Austin goes to the leadership to put the event together: Carrie Maher and the DEIB Learning team,
Demetria Caston, and Nicole Genovese.
Learn more about Impact Austin!