AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Newly-elected members of Congress are already gearing up for action on Capitol Hill. On the week after the election, members-elect from across the country traveled to Washington for the orientation for freshman members.
As a newly elected congressman (TX-35), Democrat Greg Casar traveled to the Capitol to begin the process of learning the ropes.
“Orientation started out like so many other jobs, you get your parking pass and are given your laptop,” Casar said. He and other new members posed for a group photo on the Capitol steps.
There was one moment in particular that Casar described as “incredibly powerful”: “I was on the House floor as Speaker Pelosi who has led the Democratic Party now for decades, gave her speech passing the torch along to new leadership.”
Following Speaker Pelosi’s announcement, Rep. Hakeem Jefferies (NY-8), announced his bid to be the new leader of the House Democrats. Casar said he supports Jefferies as a successor and spoke to him about addressing Texas’ issues in Congress.
“We talked about Texas, we talked about the fact that abortion rights have been stripped away here, we talked about the fact that we have less people insured with health insurance in Texas,” Casar said. “I had that conversation with him and really urged that we look at what’s happening in Texas as a crisis and that we need his support and the Congress to be focusing on those issues.”
Republicans will gain power, with the party’s narrow win of the House. That power shift will likely make it difficult for progressive Democrats like Casar to advance legislation. Compromise could be key to getting things done.
“I’m willing to negotiate and compromise to make progress. What I’m not willing to do is go backward,” Casar said. “I’m willing to negotiate on the budget…where I’m not willing to negotiate is on taking people’s civil rights away, on taking people’s voting rights away, on cutting Social Security.”
For Casar, the economy is one common ground where he believes democrats, republicans and independents can come together and make progress.
“What we need to do is talk about those economic issues,” Casar said. “We need to get to where we’re protecting social security, but also working to expand your wages, and aren’t just there to protect these big corporations.”
But Casar maintains that he will fight for progressive policies. Throughout his campaign, Casar focused on reproductive rights. Casar said it may take until after the 2024 elections before Democrats have hopes of codifying Roe v. Wade. Until then, the Congressman-elect says it’s necessary to explore other options to ensure abortion care.
“Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to continue to work alongside other members of Congress to work with the Biden administration to allow more abortion medication to be sent into the state of Texas,” Casar said. “If we can make it that that was easily mailed to you, then I think that’d be a good first step.”
The FDA approved access to abortion pills via mail in 2021. Texas passed SB 4 which made it illegal to get abortion pills in the mail.
As a way to jump over this hurdle, Casar suggests federal contributions.
“Looking at federal land and federal doctors would be a key way of achieving this,” Casar said. “We should absolutely be looking at ideas like using federal lands, or our VA hospitals or other places.”
Casar said it’s very important for members of Congress to stay in touch with the people they represent. That’s a challenge for him since his district stretches from eastern Travis County south along I-35 to San Antonio.
“’I’m going to be opening up two district offices one closer to the northern end, one closer to the southern end of this district,” Casar said. “If somebody’s having trouble… then I want to be their first phone call, somebody who cuts through the red tape.”
‘A remarkable opportunity’ – Texas Comptroller hints at larger-than-expected budget surplus
With less than two months before the start of the legislative session, Texas lawmakers are getting good news about the state’s budget. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar told the audience at a recent Austin Chamber of Commerce event that he expected Texas would have even more money available than the amount he originally forecast.
That’s a big deal since Hegar already estimated that the state would have a record $27 billion surplus. He hinted at the event that it could be much larger, but did not give a specific number, saying his official revenue estimate will come right before the start of the legislative session in January.
“It’s going to be a pretty remarkable opportunity for the legislature to do something that we will never have an opportunity again in Texas history,” Hegar told the audience. “We will never again have an annual tax total collection, compared to the prior year of 25%. We will not still have some federal money that can be utilized instead of state money for general revenue.”
The Comptroller said the funding will give lawmakers more options to address long-standing concerns in the state. He advocated for investing in infrastructures like roads, the power grid and high-speed internet, saying that could set the state up for long-term growth.
Governor Abbott, along with other state leaders, previously called for using much of the surplus to go toward property tax cuts. Those decisions will come from lawmakers next session.
“Now they have to prioritize what are those things that we can do in Texas to hopefully make life a little bit better, that we have not been tending to, and that that mix is going to be a lot of things in the bucket,” Hegar said.
Despite the good news, Hegar had a few words of caution.
Hegar warned that while the numbers look good now, an unexpected event could change things before he releases his official estimate in January. He told the audience a story about talking to his three teenage children about epic events like Hurricane Harvey, the COVID pandemic and the 2020 collapse in oil prices. After each event, Hegar said he told his children “it’s a once in a lifetime event.”
Hegar said he used the phrase again in February 2021 to describe the devastating winter storm to his 13-year-old son. “My son looked at me and he said, ‘Dad, how many once-in-a-lifetime events do I have to live through?'”
Hegar said the question hit home, illustrating how quickly things can change. He pointed to the ongoing war in Ukraine and signs of economic problems around the world as causes for concern.
“We are not immune to the clouds on the horizon to the national the global economy,” Hegar warned.
“I’m saying the economy is slowing down,” he added, echoing his earlier statement that the expected surplus is a one-time opportunity for Texas.
Lawmaker works to end ‘discriminatory tax’ on menstrual products
Texas state legislators could take action in the next legislative session to remove the state’s sales tax on menstrual products.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, filed a bill in advance of the 88th Texas Legislative Session that proposes a “sales and use tax exemption for certain feminine hygiene products.” Under HB70, those exemptions would be applied to tampons, pads, menstrual cups and other menstrual products.
Howard has filed similar tax exemption bills each session since 2017. While there has historically been bipartisan support on the item, bills from previous sessions have never made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
In August, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar joined State Sen. Joan Huffman in announcing his support for repealing state and local taxes on menstrual products. In an August statement to the Texas Tribune, Abbott said he would support eliminating the sales tax if such legislation reached his desk.
Heading into this legislative session, Howard said she feels encouraged this bill will finally be signed into law.
“I think having leadership, though, take a public stance is going to give more of a priority to ensuring that it actually does pass this time,” she said. “So I’m very hopeful that we will be able to get this across the finish line.”
Conversations surrounding repealing sales taxes on menstrual products have grown in momentum in recent years. Nationally, 22 states charge sales tax on period products, as of late September. Five states don’t implement a statewide sales tax, while 23 states have repealed sales taxes on menstrual products, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies.
In Texas, Howard said interest in this issue has been reflected both in and beyond the Texas Legislature.
When she first introduced a menstrual products sales tax exemption bill, she said the issue didn't receive a hearing. The second time it was filed, it received a hearing and bipartisan support but not enough for the bill to exit the committee discussions. Last session, it made it out of committee discussions, but she said legislators just didn't have the time to pass it.
Outside the State Capitol, though, she said she's inspired by the number of young Texans who have advocated for the repeal and discussed the ways these extra costs have impacted their lives.
"It's been extremely encouraging to see the young women who are even in high school, as well as in college, who actually came to Austin to testify in support of this legislation. That's how strongly they feel about this," Howard said. "This is a discriminatory tax — it impacts half of our population at some point in time in their lives."
If approved, menstrual products wouldn't be the first to receive sales tax exemptions in Texas. Currently, the Texas Comptroller's office offers sales tax exemptions for medical products like drugs and medicine, wound dressings such as bandages and dietary supplements.
August estimates from the Comptroller's office indicated sales tax on menstrual products would generate approximately $28.6 million during the next biennium, which is Texas' two-year state legislative and budgetary period. By comparison, Hegar's office projected an ending balance for the 2022-23 biennium of $27 billion.
“Taxing these products is archaic, and it is time for Texas to join the 24 states that already exempt tampons and other feminine hygiene products from sales tax,” said Hegar in the August release, “Texas can absorb this lost revenue easily, but for countless Texas women, this will mean significant savings in their personal budgets over time.”
While the immediate impact of a sales tax exemption passing would mean less money spent on menstrual products, Howard said it could also improve educational and employment opportunities for many Texans.
"We've been told by the school districts that several young women do not attend school for a couple of days each month, because they do not have access to these products," she said.
With that has also come historical stigmatization of periods and related conversations, Howard added. By having many young Texans advocate for this repeal and several leading state officials offer their support, Howard said this increased civic engagement has translated into possible long-term policy changes.
"I think it's so encouraging to see young people recognizing the power of their civic engagement and taking it seriously, and coming in and talking about an issue that sometimes is stigmatized," she said. "I've been extremely proud of these young women in what they've done and I think it's going to bode well for the future of their civic engagement — they're going to see that what they've done has made a difference, and it's been incredible to watch."
'It's a responsibility' - Long-serving Senator is first in line to file legislation
If lawmaking were a class, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini would probably write the syllabus.
When pre-filing for Texas' 88th Legislative Session opened up Monday, more than 900 bills were filed. And sure enough, the Laredo Democrat was again first in line to file legislation in the Senate — this time, the first 44 bills filed for her chamber.
One of the longest-serving state senators and first Mexican-American woman elected to the Texas Senate, Zaffirini began her tenure in 1987 — back when Democrats still controlled the chamber.
"Being on time is important but being earlier is even more important," she said. "We were taught to be on time, to be respectful of other people's time and to be there. It's an ethic that I learned from the Ursuline nuns, and my staff and I embrace our mantra, which is serviam — in Latin, 'I shall serve.'"
Over the years, the senator has been honored by lieutenant governors for her perfect attendance record — in 35 years, Zaffirini has never been absent or missed a floor vote. During the 2021 session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick honored the senior senator with a special gavel, marking her achievement.
“She has not missed a vote since 1987," said Patrick on the Senate floor in April 2021. "Sixty-five thousand consecutive votes — that’s just unbelievable."
When it came to learning the trade of lawmaking, Zaffirini said she never had any mentors or figures who took her under their wing.
"I mentored myself. I learned by watching other people," she said. "My very first session, I watched intently, I chose a seat in the back row ... I just watched them, especially how they conducted themselves, how they responded to attacks, how they responded to insults, how they handled debate."
To this date, the senior senator still sits in the back row of the chamber, continually learning from her colleagues in one way or another.
"I actually advise other new members to do the same thing — to pick up the senators they consider the best and to consider the ones that perhaps don't conduct themselves as well, and learn from observing," Zaffirini said.
The start of the next legislative session in January will mark the 18th time she returns to the Capitol for a full session. Zaffirini said she'll be guided by the same principles that have brought her this far.
"It's a responsibility to serve in the Texas Senate. It's a responsibility to represent constituents and to be there and to vote," she said. "It's not an obsession with work, it's just a way of life. You work hard, you play hard."