Ask a freshman legislator in the Texas Capitol how the first several weeks of the session are going, and their 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. "I've got my work cut out for me."
By that, she said, she means learning the issues, 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.
It is not lost on this unusually large crop of new state legislators that voters replaced more incumbents with fresh blood 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," said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.
There are 40 freshman in the 150-member House, and one in the Senate, not including a few House members who won Senate seats last year for the first time.
Expected to listen, learn and not file more than about a dozen bills during their first session, freshmen 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 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 3,000 pieces of legislation that have already been filed by lawmakers this session.
State Rep. Steve Toth, R–The Woodlands, has a bill that would strengthen gun rights in Texas. Republican Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. of neighboring Waller County filed a bill allowing volunteers to help firefighters—a direct response to devastating wildfires in his district in 2011.
"Our forestry service and fire departments are unable to utilize citizen volunteers because of the inherent liability that they assume from under the current law," he said. "This bill would allow citizens to volunteer time and resources, directly under an authority, without needing to have special training themselves. It will help in those times when the first responders' resources are taxed."
Bell also has a school finance idea that he says would offer more paths to higher education by developing a program that allows students to earn trade certifications in dual credit high school classes using resources from community colleges.
Gun rights focus
Much of the freshmen delegation campaigned during a season in which gun rights were a big part of the discussion.
Several legislators have jumped into the discussion with legislation that seeks to protect or expand residents' rights to carry weapons. Many are involved in bills or constitutional amendments that offer a preemptive strike against plans the White House might have to limit access to guns.
"I believe this administration has now realized they have woken up a giant," said Toth, who filed the "Firearm Protection Act" that would, among other things, withhold funding from local governments if they enforce any federal gun bans. "The American people understand this is not just about gun rights, but about all constitutional rights."