Freshman lawmakers learning of life at Capitol

Ask a freshman legislator in the Texas Capitol how the first several weeks of the session are going, and his or her answer is usually a variation of this:

"I just feel like I'm drinking from a fire hydrant," said newly elected Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, whose district includes parts of southern Travis County. "I've got my work cut out for me."

By that, she said she means learning the issues, navigating the marble halls of the "Pink Dome," meeting hundreds of new people every day and doing it all under the watchful eye of the media inside a frenetic 140-day legislative session that can make or break even the most seasoned lawmaker.

These are the trials of the newly elected, and it is not lost on the new crop of state legislators that voters replaced more incumbents during the past election cycle in Texas than at any other time in memory.

"If there was a mandate from the voters, it is that the status quo is no longer acceptable," Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said.

New faces

There are 40 freshmen in the 150-member House of Representatives, and one in the Senate, not including a few House members who won Senate seats last year for the first time.

Together, they are a diverse bunch—urban minority Democrats, rural moderates, suburban conservative Republicans—whose first round of legislation reflects not only local priorities, but also a willingness to weigh in on more controversial or complex issues that affect the entire state.

Expected to listen, learn and not file more than about a dozen bills during their first session, freshman lawmakers tend to have a legislative agenda that reflects their campaign priorities and goes for big projects—but rarely will they pass any major legislation their first time out of the gate.

Instead, their constituents can expect them to be able to pass some local bills that are uncontested and affect only their districts, a good way for freshmen to make their mark within the more than 7,000 pieces of legislation that have already been filed by lawmakers this session.

Filed bills

Republican Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. of Waller County filed a bill allowing volunteers to help firefighters statewide—a direct response to devastating wildfires in his district in 2011. Bell also has a school finance idea that he says would offer more paths to higher education.

Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, filed legislation that would force Austin to reopen Springwood Pool, a constituent issue that could bring some pushback from the city, which has argued that it cannot afford the annual $300,000 maintenance costs. A lawsuit on the issue is pending.

Campbell is teaming up with two other medical professionals in the Senate—Republicans Bob Deuell and Charles Schwertner, the latter a former House member from Georgetown serving his first Senate term—to require that all abortions be performed at an ambulatory surgery center, of which there are only a handful in the state.

That measure has already drawn the ire of abortion-rights advocates who say it is an unnecessary regulation that will limit access to the legal procedure.

In North Texas, Capriglione said he is prepared to take on immigrant-rights advocates who could object to legislation he has filed, a bill proposing a voluntary Made in Texas certification for businesses that use the E-Verify system to ensure their workers are in the U.S. legally.

Meanwhile, neighboring Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, has filed a bill giving counties and cities more power in regulating the signage for sexually oriented businesses, as well as legislation requiring state contractors to use E-Verify.


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