Thursday, February 9, 2017

Disagreements Among Friends

The Texas legislature is underway. That happens late January through early June every odd-numbered year. So there an intense couple of months during which everybody is trying to get attention for their issues. The only required legislation is the budget (balanced budget is required). Everything else is extra—sometimes good, sometimes bad.

This past Saturday our District 7 State Senator Paul Bettencourt held a luncheon with precinct chairs and other interested conservatives, to talk about several issues and encourage support. Over 100 people attended.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt speaking to the crowd on Saturday

Then, Monday night was the quarterly Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee Meeting, which is made up of precinct chairs and other officials. When we do new business at these meetings, that can include resolutions, which basically are statements we vote on. They are not law, and are nonbinding, but can have some clout with the legislature since we’re a big conservative body. I didn’t get the official count, but somewhere around 200 people had a vote, while an additional 50 or so looked on.

At the Saturday meeting Paul Bettencourt talked about lowering property tax increases. The idea is to cap annual increases at 4% (down from 8%). This is in response to the average home’s taxable value being increased 36.4% between 2013 and 2016, even as the oil industry has been in a downturn.

This is SB 2 in Texas. The low number indicates high priority interest among Senate bills. It is now in the Finance Committee, waiting for consideration. Interested citizens can contact their state senator as well as members of the finance committee to express their opinions.

Paul Simpson chairs the HCRP Executive
Committee Meeting on Monday
An issue that came up at both meetings is school choice. There’s a bill containing two good ideas: Education Savings Accounts and Tax Credit Scholarships [SB 3, which is a priority for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick]. Another bill suggests ESAs for special education students only, which is how it was handled in Arizona [HB 1335]; I would prefer this be open to any student. And there are companion bills for Tax Credit Scholarships [HB 1184 authored by Dwayne Bohac, my representative, and SB 542 authored by Senator Bettencourt].

I’ve been writing about ESAs since last spring when I learned about the idea. The tax credit scholarship idea is new to me, but it fits what I’ve had it in my mind for a long time. Businesses can receive a tax credit for donating to a scholarship fund. Students in either public or private schools can access an allotted amount for these scholarships. No money comes out of the state’s education budget. It is a free-market solution. I envision a day when we are post-public-school-monopoly, and this is the type of solutions that allows us to see that every child still gets an education.

HB 1184 came up as a resolution at the HCRP meeting, and there was a lot of disagreement. The procedure for debate is: the resolution is presented, the presenter gets 1 minute in support, then a person in opposition gets 1 minute, going back and forth until either no one else wants to speak in favor or opposition, or there have been 3 speakers for each side.

Unless you’re in the world of alternative education, you might think just the way you’ve been trained to: public school is the way we care about the education of the next generation, and care about the teachers who teach them. Anything outside that paradigm faces resistance. But among conservatives as a whole, we generally prefer free market to government solutions. And we prefer individual choice and accountability to government mandate. So the fact that there is disagreement shows there is some education of conservative activists that needs to happen if we’re going to get school choice ideas mainstreamed.

One of the arguments was that we should be against anything that takes money away from public schools—but this legislation takes zero dollars from that budget.

Another argument came from a homeschool mom I respect. She resists anything that could be skewed in any way to allow the state to regulate homeschooling. I am with her on the concern—but not about this opportunity. Tim Lambert of Texas Home School Coalition is reading every word of legislation to make sure we can support it, and feel assured it can’t do damage to homeschool freedom.

In addition, there’s a proposed constitutional amendment [HJR 62] to protect private and home schools from state and local regulation. This is already the law in Texas, but there’s so much public school mindset that well-meaning people say things like, “Well, they should have accountability” and “Someone should be making sure they’re actually teaching, for the sake of the children.” If you know better, you know that is always interpreted as government interfering the parents’ decision about the care and upbringing of their children, overruling the parent, and using governmental power to coerce certain things to be taught, regardless of the parents’ better wisdom about their own child.

When it came to the vote on this resolution, it was close. The chairman called it in favor of the proponents, but a standing vote was called for. That also looked somewhat close, but the chairman again called it in favor. A roll call vote was requested, but the body refused.

After this kind of disagreement, even among those you’re sitting next to, everybody just moves on. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Another issue of disagreement Monday night was a resolution to eliminate multilingual ballots. I wasn’t in favor of the resolution, although I understand where this is coming from. I am in favor of making English the official language of the United States, and I’m in favor of making it the official language of the state I live in—and any other state where the people choose that. We have official state trees, birds, and flowers. Of course we should have an official language. If you don’t speak that language, you’re at a disadvantage in our society.

But that doesn’t mean we outlaw every other language, or act like we’re too good to tolerate anyone who doesn’t speak our language. We’re a country of immigrants. My grandfather arrived here in 1906, unable to speak English. Of course, he learned the language, and became a citizen.

Learning the language is a requirement for citizenship. That is why there’s some resentment about a law that forces us to spend money to provide ballots in multiple languages. There seems to be an assumption, as well, that if a person can’t speak English, then how can they legally be a voting citizen?

They have a legitimate question. But, if someone is a citizen and not in prison, they have a right to vote.

Learning a language is a challenging thing. I’ve learned two foreign languages. I’ve gotten good in at least one of those to study the materials for citizenship in that language (hypothetical, since you study in English here). I have opportunities to speak in these languages usually a couple of times a week. But I’m not fluent enough to read and fully understand the wording such as we see in ballot propositions—which are sometimes oddly worded and cause confusion.

As a good citizen, I study the issues before going to the polls. Arguably, a person who speaks English only marginally could study ahead of time, and prepare. Look up words. Maybe even read a translation ahead of time. But you have to admit that a great many English-speaking Americans don’t do that level of preparation before going to the polls. We let them vote anyway.

So, while I don’t think the law should require us to provide ballots in multiple languages, it is a courtesy I think is good to do. I qualified this past election to be a bilingual election clerk. My polling place was expected to have bilingual clerks for Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese; a precinct with 50+ surnames related to those ethnicities is expected to offer these services if we can. Those who need language help can also bring in their own helper, who is sworn in with an oath not to influence the voter. We usually get 2-3 Spanish speakers and maybe one of each of the others on a busy election day. Those who speak other languages must provide their own helper, and they won’t get the ballot in their language. They know that ahead of time. Since they’re in an English-speaking nation, this shouldn’t surprise them.

But since we use e-Slate machines, rather than paper ballots, there’s very little printing costs—only the estimated amount for those who request a paper ballot. So, as a courtesy, it doesn’t seem too big a burden to provide a ballot in these three common languages.

There was debate on both sides at the meeting. An argument against is that it makes us look bigoted to have this resolution go through, where media will its spin without allowing the full context of the arguments. Proponents won handily.

And then we went on to the next issue.

I’m surprised at how much disagreement there is, sometimes passionate, all in one party where conservatism is the rule. But the example of civil discourse, and moving on while remaining friendly with your differing neighbors, is something I’m glad to experience.

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