Last month when I sat down with state Rep. Donna Howard in her office, the Capitol building was like a ghost town. The third special session had ended the week before, and most of the legislators had scattered soon after, either to return home or take a vacation.
“We didn't get a summer break,” Rep. Howard laughed when I asked if she had been able to relax at all this summer. “This is our vacation.”
Few Texas lawmakers deserve that vacation more than Annie's List and EMILY's List-endorsed Rep. Donna Howard. The Austin representative was busy long before the 83rd regular session began, preparing research on the consequences of family planning cuts in order to persuade her colleagues to restore the funds. Rep. Howard was also appointed to the Appropriations Committee, a group that holds significant power over most legislative decisions.
During the regular session, Rep. Howard authored and filed 55 bills and joint resolutions. As the House approached sine die for the “kumbaya session,” she was pleasantly surprised with the Democrats' ability to garner some bipartisan support for their agenda. That is, until Perry called the first emergency session.
Read more about Rep. Donna Howard's accomplishments this session after the jump.Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin native, was first elected in 2006 to represent District 48 encompassing northwest, west, and southwest Austin. A former Eanes ISD school board member and critical-care nurse, she uses her expertise and past experiences in both fields to lead Texas policymakers in matters of education and health care.
This legislative session was Rep. Howard's fourth, and according to her, the regular session actually went better than expected.
“There were concerns that this session was going to be even more conservative and difficult than the previous one,” she said. “But in fact, a lot of people have refered to it as the 'kumbaya session' because there was lot of working together.”
Much of that bipartisan work happened at the budget level, where Rep. Howard worked to restore crucial education and family planning funds. This legislative session was her first on the House Appropriations Committee.
“I was able to lobby for myself and got appointed to the Appropriations Committee for the first time,” Howard said. “That was a huge step for me and for my district in terms of being able to work from the money end of the decisionmaking, since that drives everything.”
Howard was one of the key leaders who worked to put over $5 billion, including $2 billion for population growth, back in the Texas budget for Texas schools.
“That's not total restoration [from the 82nd Legislature's cuts],” she added. “It's not perfect, but it was a big win for the Democrats.”
The state's family planning budget also recovered from the massive cuts in 2011, thanks in a large part to Rep. Howard, Rep. Jessica Farrar, and the rest of the Women's Health Caucus. During the 82nd Legislature, the appropriations bill had slashed the family planning budget by two-thirds and Planned Parenthood was barred from receiving Women's Health Program funds.
In the interim before the 83rd session, Rep. Howard worked to generate bipartisan support for restoring the cuts. The Women's Health Caucus gathered research on the areas most affected by the decimated family planning budget to show Republican lawmakers how their constituents were affected.
“We had strong Democratic women working on this issue,” Rep. Howard said. “We came up with maps that could show every member fo the House their region, what clinics had closed down, what clinics had reduced services, and the amount of money that their region lost.”
Rep. Howard's and the Women's Health Caucus' hard work paid off. The funding was not only restored: Additional funding was added.
However, after the gains that Democrats made during the regular session, Governor Perry's series of special sessions during the summer would change the bipartisan atmosphere of the House floor. After the House passed the abortion restrictions during the first special session, they were sent to the Senate floor for Sen. Wendy Davis to take care of.
And along the way, thousands of Texans decided to make their voices heard at the Capitol too — an action that, according to Rep. Howard, will leave a lasting impression on the Texas Legislature.
“One of the challenges we have, the way the political process works, is that it's hard to get your foot in the door sometimes,” she said. “People that came to the Capitol this summer got their feet in the door. And now that they're in, they see that it really is possible and that they can make a difference.”
Rep. Howard was also involved in the Department of Public Safety inquiry after the office released a press statement claiming that protestors brought jars of human waste to the Capitol, but did not produce evidence or eyewitness testimony.
Although she has since turned over the investigating to local journalists, she emphasized the importance of holding leaders accountable.
“The concern was that it was being used for political purposes to create a negative impression of citizens who were lawfully gathered and working within the rules of the Capitol,” Howard said. “If you can't trust that what comes out of the Capitol, and the security folks can be used in some political way, that goes against what any of us think of our democracy.”
Rep. Howard recently announced her candidacy for reelection for District 48, but she's already looking forward to what she can accomplish in the 84th legislative session. She hopes to continue her work in ethics reform legislation, some of which passed the House and Senate but was vetoed on the Governor's desk.
“There are some really obvious things that we need to change that have to deal with us being more transparent, open, and honest with the electorate about how we raise and use funds,” she said.
Howard hopes to lead the charge on reforming laws on personal financial statements for elected officials, as well as preventing former legislators from using leftover campaign funds to lobby after leaving office.
“Of course, it's really the fox guarding the henhouse,” she said, referring to Perry's veto of bills that create more transparency and oversight. “But next time it certainly won't be him. And we're hopeful that we'll have Wendy in that seat.”
This legislative session, perhaps more than ever before, Rep. Donna Howard has proved to her constituents and all of Texas that she is willing to fight for good policy and responsible use of the budget. Still, when I asked her if she had anything else to share with Burnt Orange Report readers, she turned the spotlight back to the thousands of Texans who challenged the Legislature this summer and continue to engage in meaningful activism.
“The involvement of people from all over the state of all ages, women and men, coming and staying and being here and witnessing — it was so incredible,” Rep. Howard said, beaming. “And no matter what happens with the legislation, that is going to have a monumental impact on how business is done from here on out.”
Photos courtesy of The Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman.
Follow Natalie on Twitter at @nsanluis.