April 12, 2007
The lofty days of a Senator are mostly spent in committee hearings. Lots of committees. Lots of testimony. Lots of hearing. Public hearings are nothing new to me. I saw them when I was the Chair of the Texas Air Control Board. But those gatherings were child’s play compared to what we had when I was Mayor of Austin. For those of you who haven’t heard, the Austin City Council has things it calls “hearings” where no one hears a thing. They will sing, yell, and stomp their feet, though.We once had someone debate a development with an interpretive dance.Then there was the guy who accused me of maliciously holding a public hearing in a church. He theorized that I scheduled the meeting in a holy place so members of his neighborhood group wouldn’t be mean. I pointed out that God probably could see them be mean even if they weren’t in church. But, by sheer volume of hearings, the Capitol is more intense. There’s good reason for so many hearings. The Senate rules require a bill to be heard and voted out of a committee before it gets to the Senate floor. There were more than 2000 Senate bills this session, so there’s a lot of hearing needing to be done. Of course, lots of bills will croak in committee because they don’t get heard at all. But even some dogs that deserve to be shot will still get hearings. They bark, they whine, and they try to bite. Then, they’re gently put to sleep by being “left pending.”Adding to the craziness is a sort of weird daily roller derby, with Senators rushing from one hearing to another. Every Senator is on multiple committees. It’s likely that each of us has more than one committee meeting going on at the same time. So Senators run from committee meeting to committee meeting, listening to other Senators’ bills or laying out their own.Just yesterday, upon adjournment of the Senate session, I had to attend hearings of the Emerging Technologies Subcommittee (where I’m a member), as well as the Health and Human Services and State Affairs Committees (where I had bills to present) – all at exactly the same time. Because of this constant motion, there are times when a hearing is going on with only one senator on the dais. Many times, there’s no quorum. It’s common that the committee Chair may have to leave to go to another committee hearing, so the gavel gets passed from member to member as bills get “laid out.” Members may lay out bills for other Senators who aren’t or can’t be there, just so the bill can get a hearing. Frequently, a call is put out to get a quorum of the committee to show up at a certain time so the committee can vote on bills. At other times, the rules of the Senate are suspended, allowing the committee members to meet on the floor at the committee chair’s desk to vote.I actually enjoy hearings most of the time. I’ve learned a lot that I otherwise would have no earthly reason to know. In fact, one of my favorite things about the Senate so far is how many new things I’ve come into contact with. Every hearing seems different. You learn about everything from nuanced probate issues to consumer credit problems to tough utility challenges. (I just re-read that last sentence and realized how shockingly boring all of that sounds. Maybe I’m just shockingly boring.)
This week was, by any measure, a good one for the Watson house. It wasn’t just the Austin High varsity lacrosse team coming back from 6-1 to win on Wednesday – although that was certainly a big part of it.No, in addition to that, the full Senate approved my Clean School Buses bill, which I’ve written about a lot, and my Tolls Accountability and Transparency Act, which I’ve written about even more. Briefly, Senate Bill 529 would dedicate money for clean air programs – money the state hasn’t been spending – to help school districts buy new buses and clean up the ones they have. This will make a big difference for kids, who are exposed to dozens of potentially poisonous chemicals and particulates that move from buses’ diesel engines into school bus cabins.And Senate Bill 668 would infuse some of the agencies that build toll roads in Texas – specifically the Texas Department of Transportation and various Regional Mobility Authorities around the state – with accountability and transparency by requiring more oversight from elected officials who do transportation planning. I believe these kinds of checks and balances will ensure better policy and avoid some of the so-called “debates” we’ve endured in recent years.The Senate Health and Human Services Committee also unanimously approved Senate Bill 1766, which extends a program helping the elderly and people with disabilities to pay for home-based health care services. Such services allow these patients to bathe, be fed, take their medicine, and do other things that most of us take for granted. During the hearing on this bill, I listened to a number of people explain the program’s value in their lives. It was emotional – one of those moments where I sat there thinking, “This feels good. This is the reason to serve.”I also had a couple of bills move out of the Senate with unanimous consent – Senate Bill 669, which will limit billboards on scenic Highway 71 between Austin and Llano, and S.B. 1107, which will ensure the Travis County Healthcare District can meet its financial obligations and enjoy the same advantages as its counterparts across Texas. S.B. 1766 is headed to the Senate floor. The others are now on their way to the Texas House of Representatives. I’m looking forward to those hearings.