"These are your talking points, those italicized sentences. Those are the things that you can say."
I sat in the crowded student government assembly room in the brand new multi-million dollar Student Activity Center, and listened carefully as Jimmy Talrico, a member of the SG executive board and the brains behind the "Invest in Texas" campaign, explained to us our role for the day.
"Tell them how these policies affect you and your friends," he instructed us.
We, about 150 students, were about to take part in a roughly 15 minute march from our campus to Texas State Capitol to engage in the art of civic panhandling better known as lobbying.
Prior to the march we attended a briefing meeting, where participants were given matching t-shirts as well as folders with documents explaining the "Invest in Texas" platform.
The points were clear:
• Keep us affordable
• Keep us competitive
• Keep us safe
The methods by which lawmakers could achieve these goals were predictable. Cheaper textbooks, competitive benefits to all employees (currently the state of Texas does not provide domestic partner benefits to same sex couples), and allowing the University to determine campus gun policy -- because what would a lobby day in Texas be without discussing guns?
Adequate funding, less discrimination, no guns. The concepts seemed simple enough, to the extent that it was depressing that we had to lobby for them.
Once the briefing meeting concluded we were off. "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Budget cuts have got to go!" chanted the group in unison, garnering stares of confusion from students plugged into their iPods on their way to class. While the amount of students participating in the march was meager compared to the 11,000 citizens who descended on the capital roughly a week prior to lobby for education funding, sadly, the gathering was likely the best a campus of 50,000 mostly apathetic students could do, as the cuts weren't affecting the athletic department.
We made it to the capital and listened to speeches by legislators from opposite sides of the aisle -- Sen. Judy Zaffirini and Rep. Joaquín Castro, both democrats, and Rep. Dan Branch, a republican -- all of whom expressed their desire for higher education to be properly funded.
Castro, who serves as the vice-chair of the higher education committee, fairly simply and eloquently expressed the importance of higher education funding, and funding for scholarships in particular, when he said "There is an infrastructure of opportunity that helps us get to where we want to go in life, and this is not the time to make cuts to that infrastructure of opportunity."
After the speeches concluded, we were split into groups and assigned legislators to visit. The massive building and confusing layout made one wonder how anyone could ever hope to find their elected representative, much less speak with them. When we did find our assigned legislator's office, we were greeted by legislative aides, who spoke with us but did not invite us to sit down, a move that Billy Calve, our group leader and the President of University Democrats at UT, told us indicated that they didn't want us to stay long.
Calve, no stranger to group or national politics by virtue of his title, would eloquently state the talking points presented to us in the briefing meeting that morning. Meanwhile, the other group members would express their personal stories in relation to the bills. One of the group members adoptive mother feared for her safety if the guns on campus bill were to be passed, another explained that students she mentored from her high school would not be able to attend the University of Texas, or any university for that matter, if the legislature were to make cuts to the TEXAS grant program, which provides funding for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and is slated to be cut by 41 percent this session.
The aides themselves, regardless of the political affiliation of the legislator they represented, provided the group with a barrage "I agrees" and "I don't knows" until we left the office, and promised to share our thoughts, which they did not take note of, with the representative. Democracy prevailed.
I wandered away from the group to sit in on a testimony for a bill that would allow students and professors with concealed handgun licenses (CHL) to take their guns to class. It was here that I listened to one CHL instructor happily tell the committee that his grandfather used to say a prayer every Thanksgiving that ended in, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."
At this point I was ready to go home, concluding that change may happen in this state one day, but not today.
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