I got to the Texas State Capitol early yesterday morning. Surprisingly, the State parking lot on the East side of the Capitol was almost at capacity. It didn’t make sense. It was barely 8:30 a.m.. I’ve never been to a public hearing that began that early. Across the past forty-two years, I’ve gone to many public hearings. Several of the hearings didn’t adjourn until well after midnight.
I parked in a parking space on the top floor of the parking garage and felt fortunate to get it. It was a great way to discover that not only was the wind blowing, it was blowing cold. I hurriedly opened the back door of my car to retrieve the coat to my suit. Somehow, once I put on the suit coat, it didn’t seem like enough. Yet it clearly wasn’t cold enough for a topcoat. That would have looked stupid.
Why would I care how I looked? After all, Austin is a laid back town. You can get by wearing almost anything. In fact, during the warmer months of summer, I’m not always sure that part of what you see on Congress Avenue is even legal. Did I say, “Part of what you can see?” Truth be told, “You can see it all”. Yet it is commonplace and most folks don’t even bother to look twice. Our causal response is almost like confirmation that we are like-minded: “Keep Austin Weird” is the motto.
Despite the laid back causal “anything goes” look of the nation’s Capitol, that is not true when it comes to official visits to the State Capitol. A coat and tie is a prerequisite for any meeting in that venue. In fact from my perspective, a sports coat is out of place. I opted to wear the most expensive suit I own and my Sunday go-to-meeting shoes. Why not dress for success? My younger brother in Oklahoma will tell you that clothes don’t make a difference, but we opt to disagree on that one.
In short order, I figured out the reason the parking lot was full to overflowing. It also explained why there was a very long line of people waiting to go through screening to enter the building. The first order of business was a public hearing on the State’s proposed legislation requiring Texas cities and counties to enforce federal immigration laws or lose state money. Interestingly, Senate Bill 4 is known as the “sanctuary city” bill. The proposed legislation clears the path for police, jail personnel and other officials to inquire about the immigration of anyone whose been arrested or detained. I guess as “so goes the nation”, so goes the State. Reportedly, Governor Abbott has identified banning sanctuary cities and strengthening border security in the State as a top legislative priority for this legislative session.
I was not at the Capitol for that hearing. My interest was in Senate Bill 11 dealing with changes to the State’s role in protecting abused and neglected children and strengthening policies around foster care. While it didn’t carry the same broad interest of Senate Bill 4, from the world in which I live, it had more impact.
As it turned out, I had an hour and a half before I had to be somewhere. Consequently, I went back to my car and drove to a coffee shop. I could connect my computer and work an hour before I needed to be back to meet lobbyist before going back to the Capitol. The coffee shop was located directly across the street from the first State Office building where I worked when we moved to Austin in the mid-1970s. That was the first year I started regularly attending public hearings at the Capitol.
Just seeing the building brought back a host of memories. Take for example, the parking lot. I could clearly see the vehicles my colleagues drove in the resources of my mind. My immediate supervisor drove a new gold Cadillac Coupe de Ville. It was as big as a tank, but she was really proud of that car. Another colleague drove a new Ford Thunderbird. It was pretty flashy, but I liked it better than the Cadillac. Add a Dodge van to the mix and you get some idea that the folks in our building were as different as night is from day. The one thing everyone had in common was a desire to make a difference and offer a protection to the unprotected.
How many public hearings of the Health and Human Services Committee have I attended across the years? I don’t really remember, but the legislature comes to town every other year and I suspect I never missed many hearings. The thing that was true about the hearing yesterday is also true about every other public hearing I’ve attended.
The folks who serve in the Texas legislature genuinely have a desire to make a difference. Over the last six years, one of the agendas has been to routinely pour more money into the broken child welfare system and support legislation to at least put a Band-Aid over what’s not working. The State has relied heavily on the State agency responsible for protecting the unprotected to come up with a plan. At some level, that’s like pouring good money after bad. Though I have the highest of regard for many in public service, the Sunset Commission’s review of the Department and a Federal Judge who currently has Texas under court order to do it differently, would maintain that business as usual is not the answer.
Robert Townsend, the author of Up The Organization, maintained that it is fifteen times more difficult to change something once it is in place that to create the system initially. Certainly that seems to fall in line with a broad overview of the Department’s efforts and State legislation related to child welfare services. This year’s Senate Bill 11 makes a thoughtful attempt to correct what many see as flaws in the current system. Actually, I am impressed with the thoughtfulness and the logic associated to provisions of the proposed changes.
Like it our not, the public child welfare system in Texas hasn’t proven to be a model of professionalism and well being for children. Of course, exceptionally high caseloads and incredibly high turnover of staff are contributing factors. Finally, the thought associated to provisions included in Senate Bill 11 that provide private agencies caring for children and opportunity to not only care for the child, but to provide case management services to their families makes perfect sense to me. If history has taught us anything, it is that you really can’t serve the child if you don’t serve the family.
How will the debate end? It is really too early to tell. While there are those who advocate for change, there are others who maintain more of the same.
All My Best!