State lawmakers are more than a third of the way through their session and key legislation is beginning to take shape.
As a member of three powerful committees Rep. Helen Giddings of Dallas is among a few House Democrats positioned to influence some of the biggest bills. She talked with KERA about some of the latest developments and her priorities.
Nearly all state lawmakers say education is their top priority, but Rep. Helen Giddings knows there’s often more talk than action.
Take education funding, for example.
Last week Senate budget writers voted to restore about $1.5 billion in public education money cut last session.
But that was the Senate, and Giddings says the House Appropriations Committee isn’t prepared to go along with that.
She should know. She has a front row seat as a member of the powerful committee.
Here’s what Rep. Giddings told KERA on Friday:
“In terms of the bill that is coming out of the House, initially that restoration will not be there. That’s not going to make me happy but the votes are just not there at the moment to restore that $300-$400 per student.
“We will spend more money for public ed than we spent the last time, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion. But we are going to basically be funding growth for this next biennium. We are not going to go back and fund the growth we did not fund last session.”
Eventually House and Senate budget writers will meet to iron out differences in spending. When that happens Giddings hopes to be at the table arguing for at least some of the education money to be restored.
She calls the cuts to pre-kindergarten programs especially “dangerous” because the programs serve low-income children who need a better foundation for beginning school.
“That’s where we have the greatest opportunity to bring students up to grade level so when they start first grade they can start with their peers,” said Giddings.
In Texas’ solidly Republican legislature, only a few House Democrats are as well positioned as Helen Giddings to have an impact.
After ten years in office she finds herself appointed to what are arguably the three most influential committees: appropriations, which leads the debate on what will be spent; calendars, where she helps decide which bills will be considered; and state affairs which usually deals with some of the biggest issues.
They’re appointments that may give her leverage as she presses forward with a host of priorities including a bill that would reduce the number of students inappropriately placed in alternative education classes.
She says she’s working with Education Commissioner Michael Williams to draft a bill that would require school districts to publicize the number of students in alternative programs and hold public hearings when they've reassigned a large number of students.
Giddings is also carrying House Bill 318, legislation that would make it illegal for employers to demand access to the private social media accounts of employees or job applicants.
“I don’t believe an employer should have the right to say to an employee, give me the password to your Facebook or Internet account," said Giddings who believes her bill would protect privacy and speech.
Observers who know Giddings say she can be quietly effective in pursuing legislation. And though she’s a Democrat in a Republican-controlled House her committee positions may give her a bigger than average voice.