“Dear Watchdog: You are a writer, a reporter, a wordsmith. My suggestion is for you to draft a letter the posse members can send. Sincerely, Wayne Whitman of Hurst”
Mr. Whitman, your suggestion could not have come at a better time. Friday was the deadline to introduce bills at the Texas Legislature. Now that we know what cards are on the table, the posse can figure out what hands to play.
The posse are readers of this column, plus people in the DallasNews Watchdog Posse group on Facebook, and those who receive a periodic “action newsletter” from me. (Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to join.)
We are several thousand Texans who want to fix the unfair property tax system, punish deceptive electricity companies, get protections from crooked roofers and, in our newest cause, enact a strong data security law to protect Texans’ privacy from data miners.
The Watchdog has tips on how to write to lawmakers now if you want to get involved. But a couple of quick stories.
Story #1. It’s 1996. Several hundred community members are on buses taking us to Austin to a meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission. We want money to expand Texas 114 from Grapevine to soon-to-open Texas Motor Speedway.
We wear nerdy ballcaps that say “114.” We present a petition with 20,000 signatures.
But then one of our leaders presents a cache of children’s crayon drawings that depict the hazards of the roadway. One showed a mother who was killed in a roadway accident.
“This is a first,” a commissioner said.
The money came through. Hundreds of millions of dollars. You can drive on the results.
Moral: A letter is not the only way to persuade leaders to help. An emotional appeal that tugs at heart strings can get the job done. Sometimes crayons do the trick.
Story #2: A state senator recently asked me to meet him for coffee to discuss electricity companies. One thing he said: “I don’t get any mail on this from people.”
Hmmm. You want mail?
Top consumer issues
We don’t have any bills that will fix the electricity system.
For crooked roofers, we have House Bill 2101 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1168, which would create the state’s first modern roofers’ registry system with civil and criminal penalties for the bad guys.
For property tax reform, we have the big one — Senate Bill 2. But in my previous column, The Watchdog listed dozens of others and highlighted them in “Can Texas fix its broken property tax system? These lawmakers’ ideas might not have a chance.” You can pick the bills off that list you’d like to promote.
For data security, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller, introduced House Bill 4390 on Friday. The Texas Privacy Protection Act is designed to protect our online privacy and regulates the selling of our personal data. (See sidebar for more info on that.)
Find your pet cause
Thousands of other bills were introduced. If you have an issue that matters to you (example: red-light cameras), use the “Bill Lookup” and text search functions on Texas Legislature Online.
It’s a free service. You pick your favorite bills and set up email alerts so every time your bill moves, you get a notice. It’s what lobbyists use; you can do it, too.
Who to write
After a bill is introduced, the House speaker or lieutenant governor assigns it to a committee. Most of the tax bills are now in the hands of state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Burrows is a little-known lawmaker in only his third term, but now his power is tremendous. From all those property tax bills, he decides which gets a hearing, a committee vote and then a full floor vote. Like all chairpersons, he can kill a bill by ignoring it. And he has a Senate counterpart, too, who does the same.
Along with writing the governor, your state senator and state representative, you can also write committee chairs and members of any committee in both the Senate and the House.
All that information is easy to find at Texas Legislature Online as you search in the 86th regular session or 86(R) as it’s called.
What to write
Consider email, but then print it and mail it as a postal letter. It’s easy to lose an email in an inbox, but a postal letter goes somewhere, right? (Preferably not in the circular file.)
I won’t give you a draft letter because it’s important that it comes in our own words. So much of what they receive are form letters.
Write respectfully but seek to leave an emotional impact. Ideally, your letter should be one page and the emotional equivalent of a child’s drawing. (And include one of those if you wish!)
Mention the bill you support and briefly remind what it does. Explain why you care and thank them for their consideration.
If appropriate, add: “P.S. I voted for you.”
Don’t know who your lawmaker is? Easy enough to find. At OpenStates.org, you can type in your address and quickly get the answer. If that doesn’t work, other websites offer a similar service. Search for “find my state lawmaker by address.”
Every lawmaker also has an official government web page. Write to their Capitol office in Austin, and not their district office.
The mailing address for all state senators is: P.O. Box 12068, Austin, TX 78711-2068.
The mailing address for all state reps is: P.O. Box 2910, Austin, TX 78768-2910.
Remember that senator who told me “I don’t get any mail on this.” I’m going for my crayons.