January 12, 2015

Dear Freshman Lawmaker,

Congratulations on taking the oath of office Tuesday for the 84th Texas Legislature. Soon it will be one day down, 139 to go.

Your task is straightforward: getting your mind around a $100 billion-plus two-year budget and helping to sort through more than 5,000 bills. Well over 1,000 of them will get an up-or-down vote, so get ready to bone up.

Oh, yes, you’ll want to write your own pieces of legislation. And that’s the purpose of this message — a pep talk on how to be most useful to your constituents and your state.

Please, we ask, develop a specialty. Develop an expertise in some area of policy or state government. Build on your professional background or an area of interest. Own something.

There’s a void to fill in Austin, especially from a Dallas-Fort Worth perspective. This region lost a bushel of legislative seniority, know-how and policy smarts in the last round of elections. The void is yours to fill.

Where to start? Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas knew higher ed funding, chapter and verse. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving owned transportation. Sen. John Carona of Dallas knew the intricacies of transportation and business regulation. Rep. Bennett Ratliff of Coppell was a quick study on public education finance and accountability. Sen. Bob Deuell of Greenville was a family physician who had an insider’s take on health care.

Now they’re all gone from the Capitol. Today’s 24 freshmen in the House and eight in the Senate need to take up the slack. It takes effort and focus.

Here’s one example of how it’s done: Last session, Rep. Ron Simmons, a freshman from Carrollton with a finance background, decided to attend every session of the House Appropriations Committee. He wasn’t a member of the panel, but he went to its sessions anyway to study how the committee cobbles together the state budget. Today, Simmons is several steps beyond the average House sophomore in understanding the esoteric world of the state budget. He’s made himself an asset to the Legislature in a broad category of policy.

Freshmen, by now you’ve figured out that you’ll have no shortage of advice coming your way in Austin. Some of it will be from interest groups eager for you to parrot their talking points. Some of them may even tell you how to vote before key legislation comes up. And they may grade you based on your level of obedience.

The alternative to becoming someone’s trained puppy is to develop your own mind and your own set of goals. That independence starts with your ability to find a policy area where you’re willing to become the smartest person in the room. It starts with your resolve to own something.

New from N. Texas

Of 24 members new to the House, these are from North Texas:

Linda Koop, R-Dallas

Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas

Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving

Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth

Matt Shaheen, R-Plano

Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman

Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington

John Wray, R-Waxahachie

Of eight members new to the Senate, these are from North Texas:

Konni Burton, R-Colleyville

Bob Hall, R-Edgewood

Don Huffines, R-Dallas

Van Taylor, R-Plano (previously in the House)

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