First time legislative experiences, from Lauren Johnson

Lauren Johnson has remained ardent in her pursuit to make real changes for those with prior convictions. Most recently, she’s been keeping tabs on a rumbling rumor that could change the way employers view new-hire candidates. Rooting for their cause and taking notes in their conferences, she’s hoping this group will succeed in making it easier to get a job after release. Think you want to get involved too – but not sure where to start? Neither did Lauren! Here, she shares her entrance into the wild world that is our Texas legislature:

I’ve been waiting a year and a half for this year’s legislative session.

I decided I wanted to be a part of the solution, but I really had no idea how the Texas legislature works – or any clue where to begin. But I asked questions and was pointed in the right direction. That’s how I got plugged in with different groups here in town. Like The Travis County Reentry Roundtable http://www.reentryroundtable.net/, and The Center for Public Policy and Priority http://forabettertexas.org/ -to name a couple.

When I first started sleuthing, my timing was a little off. A session had just ended so no one was really working on anything. So I left my contact information and would occasionally send out an email to see if I could find anyone with information about MY bill. Finally, early one morning in March, I got an email from an Ex-offenders Council that I’m a part of. Cindy Eigler, from Texas Interfaith, had sent the Council an email asking for someone to testify when the bill was read, about their personal experience with the current law. I was so excited!  I called her and she told me the date they expected to hear the bill and testimony. I arranged to have that morning off of work and child care for my son. This was the moment I’d been waiting for! It was scheduled for the day after my birthday, which I took to be an auspicious sign. The night before, I got a call telling me not to show up as early as planned, since they wouldn’t be getting around to that set of bills until later in the day. Rather than wasting the time off (and the sitter), I scheduled some appointments for that morning and planned to go to the Capitol around two o’clock.

Just as I got into my car to head to the Capitol, I got another call. Before they would hear my bill, they had to vote on standardized testing. They were on amendment nine of a couple hundred! I went home and waited for the text saying they were finishing up with the amendments. At 8pm, I got the text and rushed to the Capitol – still fearing they’d hear the bill before I got there. (I now know how silly that was.) It was half an hour before midnight before they finally got to HB587 and HB1141. I testified for myself – but mostly I testified for those who come behind me, who don’t know how to use their voice, and even more for those too busy struggling to survive day to day life to even consider it.

I had the opportunity to put faces to the names of people whom I’d emailed and spoken with over the phone. I felt good about the chances of the bill passing this session. No one there was in opposition of the bills. And because of the way they were written, the bills actually had a great shot of going through. One of the bills pertained solely to drug offenders’ (or “certain persons’”) eligibility for the supplemental nutrition assistance program. The other bill was in broken into parts regarding eligibility, and work requirements. The legislative budget board, a non partisan committee who only looks at the fiscal implications of a bill, supported it – which it had not done in the past. I was told that when the budget board supported a bill, the house committee usually listened.

After giving my testimony, I spoke with the Capital Area Food bank director and my contact at Texas Interfaith. They asked if I’d be interested in meeting with some of the representatives and senators, one on one.  I agreed! I returned a week later, but the senator was unable to make our appointment. Instead, I was introduced to Laura Hernandez, the legislative director for Lon Burnam, one of the authors of my bill. Laura knew me from my testimony and welcomed me into her office. She became a mentor of sorts. She helped me sort through the process, and gave me ideas for things I could do to try and ensure the bill had enough votes to make it out of the human services committee.

The first time I went to one of the representatives’ offices, I talked in a way similar to how I’d heard Cindy introduce our reason for being there. They didn’t seem too keen on what I was trying to do, but they also weren’t sure of their boss’s stance on this particular bill. The next time that I went, instead of acting like a lobbyist, I told him my personal story and how I want to help make a difference. I saw an immediate difference in the way he looked at this bill, and me. Suddenly he was listening and interested in what I had to say. Once again I saw how the testimony of where I have come from (minus any stigma I may have felt in the past) held power and made a positive impact.

Unfortunately, I can’t end this experience on a victorious note. We had to compromise, and set a time limit on the ban – rather than fully lift it. I didn’t like it, but it was a step in the right direction. Even with that compromise, we were still a couple votes shy of what we needed to pass the bill to the next phase. The head of the committee knew it didn’t have the votes to make it. But rather than having it voted out, he left it pending in committee. Laura Hernandez did a wonderful job of keeping in touch with me and answering all of my questions. Rep. Burnham will file it again next session. Now they’re keeping me as a contact, so I can pitch in my efforts and experience next time.

And while the bill was not victorious, I learned a lot about the systems, processes and politics. I also reaffirmed to myself that my past doesn’t have to be something I cower from. It’s part of what makes my present life have more meaning; something I can speak about proudly. The more I realize that – and act on that realization – the truer it becomes.

To read these and other bills, and learn more about our Texas legislature, click on either of the links below. Or, find a bill that will effect YOU:

http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB587

http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB1141

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