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Feature

The Legislature and You

Making laws is the people’s business; it’s important we all have a voice in Austin

With elections over, roadways and yards cleared of campaign signs, and the ubiquitous political ads in the media replaced by pitches for floor wax and toothpaste, it’s now time to get to work.

The 83rd session of the Texas Legislature—150 representatives and 31 senators—is under way. What transpires over the 140-day session that began January 8 may seem incomprehensibly complex to the average citizen. So, in the interest of keeping our co-op members informed and involved, we offer this compact guide to how a bill moves through the legislative process and reasons why communication with your legislators matters.

The lawmaking process is purposely restricted. Patrick Cox, a Texas historian and Pedernales Electric Cooperative director, says, “Our current constitution is the sixth state constitution since Texas Independence in 1836. The 1876 constitution, which we operate under today, reflected the interests of a rural Southern state of the post-Reconstruction era and was not written for a modern commercial society. Making laws was deliberately difficult, and citizen-legislators were very restricted, owing to the framers’ inherent distrust of government.”

Cox explains that the term “citizen-legislators” is stipulated in the constitution to distinguish elected officials in Texas from professional politicians. To make sure legislators couldn’t make a living at legislating, they originally received a per diem of only $5 during session and no salary. Later amendments provided a paltry compensation. Today, legislators earn $7,200 a year, plus a per diem when the Legislature is in session.

To discourage conditions for creating too many laws, sessions were limited to 140 days every two years with a biennial budget. In essence, the Texas Constitution intentionally set forth the framework for a lawmaking body structured to stay close to the people and their concerns.

Retired State Rep. Rick Hardcastle of Vernon, who served seven terms in the House, 1999-2013, consented to share his thoughts on public service and citizen involvement from an insider’s point of view. The longtime friend to electric cooperatives, and member of Southwest Rural Electric Association, agreed to meet with me in the Capitol Grill one afternoon in October to talk about legislating in Texas and, in Hardcastle’s language, “the cowboy way” of knowing the issues by living them.

If this had been during a session, the place would be swarming with legislators, aides, lobbyists, special-interest groups, state agency heads, the media and constituents—all playing a part in the business of running the state. During session, the entire Capitol is a hothouse of energy. But today in the nearly empty cafeteria, Hardcastle relaxes. His West Texas accent, starched blue jeans, comfortably worn black cowboy boots and tanned face, creased by the wind and sun, speak to his life as a rancher, Panhandle businessman and resident of the place he represented all those years.

Contrary to a prevailing attitude among citizens that their voice in the Legislature doesn’t matter, Hardcastle says voter communication with their representatives is as important as ever, especially where redistricting resulted in electing legislators from a largely urban district that also encompasses rural areas.

“They need their co-op constituents to tell them short and sweet the difference between a co-op and the big electric companies,” he says. “If folks are paying a visit during session, everything is so condensed and moves so fast, the representative doesn’t have time for a two-hour explanation.” That personal, more detailed message is best delivered between sessions, at fundraisers or other public gatherings, during a time when the legislator isn’t swamped with demands, he advises. “Get to know them and tell them your concerns.”

Aside from a representative’s tight schedule of meetings, hearings and appointments, there are typically more than 3,000 bills waiting at the starting gate, looking for attention. And that’s one more reason, Hardcastle points out, that legislators rely on hearing from their constituents. It’s not possible to know every detail of every bill, but if a bill holds particular interest to a constituent or group of constituents, they can provide valuable background for future decision-making.

Another forum for citizen input is the committee hearing, where committee members might want to hear from the public on a specific bill. “If you go to a hearing and sign a witness affirmation and are willing to stand in line, they will listen to you on any issue,” Hardcastle says. “The Texas Constitution dictates how we do committee hearings and how we pass laws.”

For co-op members with new representatives who have never served a co-op area, Hardcastle says, “The most important point for co-ops to get across to urban legislators is that we’re different. There are a lot of misconceptions. People forget that each co-op is a business like any other, but it’s different because it returns capital credits to its members.

“Most urban members look at electricity as a fact of life,” he says. “But I still own the place at the end of the power line with no other house for five miles. There’s nothing between those poles to make anybody any money.”

Ultimately, the interests of rural and urban Texans go back to what’s good for the state as a whole, Hardcastle maintains. For example, all Texas seaports do a lot of agriculture and oil business. “All of a sudden, if we miss a cotton crop, they don’t get to ship it out.” he says. “Maybe they even have to lay off employees because agriculture and oil represent so much of their business.

“And to take it back to co-ops: If we don’t have electricity on the farm, we don’t irrigate or have a brooder house or any of those things we consider everyday life. We have to relate that to our urban neighbors.”

There you have it, short and sweet. We’re all in this together. No matter how distant or complicated or frustrating lawmaking may seem, it comes down to a question of what’s best for the entire state. The Texas Constitution recognizes its citizens as fundamental to the process. It’s up to us to keep it that way.

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Carol Moczygemba, executive editor