When showing up at the Texas Capitol made a difference
Readers sometimes ask us if the outcomes in governing are predetermined and whether civic engagement makes a difference. There are plenty of examples of Texans influencing lawmakers’ decisions.
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Cody Stephens, a Crosby High School senior, had planned to attend Tarleton State University on a football scholarship when he died of sudden cardiac arrest while asleep on his father’s recliner on May 6, 2012.
Months later, when Scott Stephens realized an electrocardiogram — a noninvasive test of electrical activity in the heart — could have saved his son, he made it his mission to get more student-athletes screened.
It would take six years and four regular legislative sessions, but in 2019, the Texas Legislature passed a law that allows parents to opt for their children to get electrocardiograms as part of the physical exams required for student-athletes.
The Legislature moves slowly, and it’s much easier for a bill to fail than to pass. But civic engagement and advocacy from members of the public can make all the difference in whether a bill passes.
“You can’t just take a bill over there and expect it to pass the first time,” said Scott Stephens, a real estate appraiser. “You got to kind of build your case. And you can’t quit. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
Here are five times public input or attention changed the course of politics in the Texas Legislature.
A father works to detect heart problems among student-athletes
With the help of testifying doctors, coaches and parents, Scott Stephens began advocating for legislation to make heart screenings part of the physical exams required for student-athletes unless parents opted out.
In 2017, after two previous attempts, the legislation died after prolonged debate among state representatives. Former state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who had filed the legislation, took to the House floor to make a plea to fellow lawmakers.
“And so tonight as we go home and think about what we’ve done, I would ask that you pray for the Stephens family and that we adjourn tonight in the memory of Cody Stephens,” Huberty said.
After that impassioned speech, Huberty said he gained the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott in making the legislation a priority for the next regular legislative session.
“That’s really what it came down to, being able to explain why it’s important,” Huberty said. “And legislation like that is meaningful because it impacts lives and impacts kids’ lives and impacts your constituents.”
In 2019, it was the first bill filed by Huberty. That was also a turning point for Scott Stephens, who agreed that year to tweak the legislation to make heart screenings an opt-in for student-athletes.
Cody’s Law passed, helping the Cody Stephens Foundation work with more Texas school districts to provide free or more affordable heart screenings.
“I wasn’t gonna quit, and the state Legislature finally figured that out and helped me get it passed,” Scott Stephens said.
Conservationists secure stable funding for state parks
In 2019, Texans voted overwhelmingly to enshrine in the Texas Constitution that all revenue from the sporting goods sales tax should fund state parks and historic sites.
It was the culmination of years of advocacy for Texas parks by conservationists like George Bristol.
The idea to fund parks with revenue from sales and use taxes on sporting goods wasn’t new. In 1993, the Texas Legislature allowed all of that revenue to go to state parks and historic sites. But the Legislature often used some of those collections to balance the state budget or fund other programs, and state parks had trouble keeping up with maintenance and plans for projects under fluctuating budgets, Bristol said.
Advocates got the Legislature to provide all of the available sporting goods tax revenue to parks in 2015 and most of it in 2017, but they wanted a permanent solution.
So, in 2019, they pushed for a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds of votes from each chamber of the Legislature to be put on the ballot for final approval from voters.
By then, more environmental and recreational groups, sporting goods companies, local leaders and Texans had joined the cause.
“There were almost 100 groups that stood by the sporting goods tax legislation in 2019,” Bristol recalled.
The advocates wrote letters, showed up to the Texas Capitol and got attention from the news media — all with one message.
“We had very strict orders that everybody would be for the entire bill,” Bristol said. “It worked. They all got behind it, stayed behind it.”
Former state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, who authored the House version of the legislation, began advocating for the bill even before lawmakers gaveled in for the legislative session.
He got some of the most powerful Democrats and Republicans, including the chairs of the House appropriations and calendars committees, to champion the legislation through a compromise allowing the sporting goods revenue to be redirected toward other uses during an emergency if two-thirds of each chamber approved it.
He also convinced all other state representatives to sign on to the legislation. When he couldn’t reach a fellow lawmaker, he got advocates and constituents in that person’s district to call and draw attention to the legislation, he said.
“It’s definitely a success story on how to push big legislation through,” he said.
Parents reduce state tests for high school students
In the fall of 2012, Theresa Treviño got a notice about changes to the state’s testing program from the principal of the Austin high school her son went to and her daughter was slated to attend.
High school students would soon be required to pass 15 state standardized tests, known as end-of-course exams, to graduate.
Treviño, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, teamed up with a few other moms who had legal experience and began researching how other states carried out state assessments. They found Texas’ to be an outlier in the high number of tests it required.
So Treviño and the moms created the nonpartisan group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and began traveling across the state to inform parents of the changes and possible repercussions for students who failed tests.
They got a “groundswell” of parents to write to their legislators, Trevino said, and held stakeholder meetings that included educators and businesspeople.
“It just kind of got everyone within their own circles to meet and to talk about what it is that we were doing in our state and how this was affecting our students,” Treviño said.
In the 2013 legislative session, the group met with elected officials and worked to find common ground with the chairs of the House and Senate education committees, who then introduced legislation to reduce the number of high-stakes tests and adjust curriculum requirements for graduation.
During hearings, students from across the state spoke before lawmakers. And as lawmakers hashed out differences to finalize the legislation, the group persisted.
“We were calling everybody we could think of,” Treviño said. “We were slamming their phones.”
In the end, lawmakers and the governor signed off on legislation that required only five end-of-course exams.
“We were amazed that we were able to succeed,” Treviño said.
Laredoans create an international university
When Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffirini first ran for office, one of her main motivations was to create a four-year university for Laredo. After regularly traveling about 240 miles to earn her doctoral degree from the University of Texas at Austin while working in Laredo, she joined many others in advocating for a local university.
“I didn’t want Laredoans to have to work that hard to get a Ph.D.,” she said. “And I wanted a regional university that would serve the region, but also attract people from other parts of the state and even other countries."
At the time, Laredo State University was deemed an upper-level “center” of education in Texas law. It was allowed to serve only juniors, seniors and master’s students and faced budget cuts and rumors that lawmakers were considering closing it, Zaffirini said.
This galvanized hundreds of Laredoans who defended the university in 1986. And when Zaffirini was elected that year, she gave herself 10 years to pass legislation to make it a four-year university.
In 1987, she and other Laredo lawmakers succeeded in removing the term “center” in reference to the university and established it as a more permanent institution under the governance of the Texas Legislature.
But it would take six more years for Zaffirini to pass legislation allowing the university to serve freshmen and sophomores, beginning in 1995. That legislation renamed the campus to Texas A&M International University, opened up more funding opportunities and allowed it to eventually serve doctoral students.
“The people of Laredo and nearby area were very, very organized and very effective in advocating for that bill,” Zaffirini said. “Groups went to Austin repeatedly to testify to meet with members. They were informed, they were prepared and they were persuasive.”
LGBTQ advocates protest anti-trans “bathroom bill”
In 2017, conservative Texas Republicans, including Patrick, pushed for a “bathroom bill” to regulate which public restrooms transgender people could use.
It wasn’t surprising to Lou Weaver and other transgender Texans who had seen voters in Houston in 2015 reject a local anti-discrimination ordinance after its conservative opponents claimed it would have allowed men to enter women’s restrooms.
By 2017, Weaver had worked to create a more politically active and visible trans community in Houston and the state with organizations like Equality Texas.
In February of that year, Weaver — then the transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas — held an event to help trans people and parents of trans people learn how to share their stories with news media and lobby lawmakers.
And as lawmakers began to discuss a bathroom bill, over a hundred people showed up to the Capitol to oppose it during a lobby day. At the next lobby day, hundreds of people joined.
“It just became like a snowball,” Weaver said. “And people just kept coming back.”
People at the Capitol visited with lawmakers who were willing to talk while Texans elsewhere contacted their local elected officials. Public officials, police chiefs, major corporations and tourism officials also opposed the bill, cautioning that it could distract police from combating violent crime and hurt the Texas economy.
During hearings for the legislation, transgender Texans, families and allies gave hours of emotional testimony, warning that such a bill would endanger already vulnerable Texans.
Rachel Gonzales, one of the parents who had trained with Weaver, waited up to 14 hours with her 6-year-old trans daughter and baby to testify in a hearing and went back several times.
“It was brutal,” she said. “It was also one of the most incredible days because it brought so many community members together and really got them invested in the fight.”
That determination gave Weaver hope, as did seeing a lawmaker who had been on the fence express support for transgender Texans.
“Knowing that our narratives had been able to change and influence a senator’s mind so she had the knowledge to know why it was so important that this bathroom bill didn’t pass, it was one of the most amazing moments,” he said.
In the House, then-Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, held steadfast, blocking the legislation from moving forward. And despite a last-ditch attempt to pass the bathroom bill during a special session, the legislation died.
Disclosure: Equality Texas, Texas A&M International University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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