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Long days at the State Capitol

Plano Courier
By Bill Conrad
Sunday, May 12, 2013

At the invitation of Rep. Jeff Leach, reporter Bill Conrad shadowed the first-term Plano representative for two days at the Capitol in late April.

11 a.m. Monday

Several hours before the start of what will end up being a marathon session of the Texas House followed by hours of committee meetings, Rep. Jeff Leach is huddled in his office reviewing bills with his legislative staff.

Chris Kirby, the recent University of Texas graduate who serves as the freshman representative’s legislative director, has a spreadsheet listing all 18 bills that will be heard by the Criminal Jurisprudence committee on which Leach sits. Kirby and Leach discuss worries about unfunded mandates and civil liberties, before Leach says he will likely support 17 of the 18 bills on the agenda.

Since long days at the Capitol can be hectic — especially for a freshman lawmaker — Leach relies on his staff of three paid employees and three interns to keep him informed on the issues that affect not only his constituents in District 67, but the state as a whole. While Leach and other lawmakers get the credit for passing laws, it is clear that much of the behind-the-scenes work is done by people whose names are rarely mentioned by the media or general public.

“At the end of the day I make the decision on how I am going to vote, but there are thousands of bills here, and without a great staff it would be almost impossible for a representative to vote effectively,” Leach says. “I am probably biased, but I have the best staff of any person here at the Capitol.”

Leach’s mid-morning meeting with Kirby is his ninth of the day, which began with a 6:30 breakfast with fellow North Texas Republicans regarding the state budget. The number of meetings Leach has scheduled makes it clear why he says the key to being a state legislator is having access to a hot pot of coffee. Over the next 24 hours, he definitely gets his money’s worth out of the Keurig tucked neatly on the shelf outside his office.

11:30 a.m. Monday

While criminal jurisprudence issues have dominated the morning, Leach’s afternoon will be filled with talk about H.B. 4, which would use $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” to help shore up water concerns in the state. The issue is a top priority for Gov. Rick Perry and Speaker of the House Joe Strauss, but dissension among the ranks of the Republican Party has caused both men to call meetings with Republican lawmakers prior to the House’s 2 p.m. session.

Prior to attending his meeting with the governor, Leach says he is not in favor of the bill, but added his position could change multiple times before a vote is held.

“We all know that water is an important issue,” Leach says prior to meeting with Perry. “The question I have is whether this is fiscally responsible. We should have a serious conversation about using money from general revenue, rather than immediately turning to the rainy day fund.”

2:10 p.m. Monday

Leach and his fellow lawmakers begin debate on the day’s House calendar.

While Leach is on the floor, his staff is still in his underground office preparing for future committee meetings, as well as answering questions from constituents. The latter takes up a large amount of their time, says Murphy Simpson, Leach’s legislative aide and scheduler.

“We hear from well over 100 people each week via telephone or email,” Simpson says while affixing stamps to a stack of letters due to be sent out later in the day. “But on some bills that number is a lot higher. Everyone who contacts us gets a personal response.”

Kirby says people are also encouraged to drop by the office when they are in Austin, noting 10 to 15 residents of District 67 drop by each week.

5:10 p.m. Monday

On the House floor, serious debate began on the water funding bill around dinnertime. What had been seen by some to be a debate among Republicans instead turned into a war of attrition between House Democrats, led by Rep. Sylvester Turner, and the Republican leadership. Turner is eventually successful on one of his points of order, which are objections to a bill based on House rules. With his point of order sustained, debate on the bill immediately ceases and the House adjourns.

8:24 p.m. Monday

With the adjournment, House members scatter to rooms throughout the west side of the Capitol for committee meetings. In addition to the 18 bills on the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee agenda, Leach also presents a bill he authored to the House Ways and Means Committee. When all is said and done, the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee adjourns at 2:30 a.m., ending a 20-hour day at the Capitol that Leach called “a normal committee day.”

8:30 a.m. Tuesday

The following morning, Leach appears no worse for wear, likely because of the oversized cup of coffee he is carrying around his office.

Leach says he realizes the importance of securing the future of the state’s water needs. He says he hopes to one day be able to look back and tell his grandchildren about how he and the other members of the 83rd Legislature solved the state’s water problems.

“The big debate is how we do it,” he says. “In our meeting with the governor we went back and forth and agreed on some things and disagreed on other things. Yesterday was an interesting day and went like no one thought it would. That debate will happen again. If we don’t get it done before the end of the session, we will be here for a special session.”

8:55 a.m. Tuesday

With the day slated to be a lot more laid back, Leach takes time to talk about what the most difficult aspect of the session has been.

“Most weekends I am able to go home, but in May we have a lot of Saturday sessions so my wife and kids will come down to Austin,” Leach says. “I think any representative will tell you that is the hardest part of the job. I haven’t seen my family in 10 days, and they are just three hours away. Luckily, when the kids are eating dinner at home and I am able to get away from my committees, I FaceTime with them so it looks like I am sitting at the kitchen table with them. My kids are strong and my wife has been wonderful. They are why I am doing this.”

The 83rd Legislative session adjourns May 27. Even though Leach and his fellow freshman representatives are more than 100 days into their first session, he says he is still in awe each day he comes to work.

“I am not trying to be token, but every morning when I drive up the Capitol I get goose bumps,” he says. “It is a tremendous responsibility and a great honor. Numerous times every day it is a blessing and a burden, but it is a great burden. My hope is we are able to report back in June that we have kept our promises and have done what we set out to do.”


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