A Millenial’s Response to the League

Brigid HallAs a master’s student (and an 80s baby) at the University of Texas School of Social Work, I have pushed myself to reach beyond the campus community to make connections with other groups. For a class assignment, and with the encouragement of my grandmother, an active member of her local League in upstate New York, I attended a LWVAA unit meeting back in October. I was originally drawn in by the wide range of issues the League studies, and the variety of presenters the League invites to educate attendees on those issues. I have since become a dues-paying member and attended a few more events.

In today’s climate of extremist politics and regressive policies, civic participation is crucial to ensure the will of the people is present in the government that represents them. Recent popular uprisings, from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring to the African Summer, demonstrate that the desire for a responsible and reflective government spans race, gender, class, and age. The decommissioning of the Holly Power Plant is an excellent local example of a diverse community banding together to make change. An entire community united to demand a healthier neighborhood, and Austin Energy was forced to take action. The dualistic nature of our political system divides people and makes inclusive dialogue extremely difficult. Organizations such as the League of Women Voters are essential to restoring participation and faith in our democracy.

As my relationship with the organization continues to grow, I am searching for ways to enlarge the community that associates with the League. The nonpartisan and informative structure of the League offers an inclusive environment that encourages participation from diverse individuals. To increase the diversity of participants, the League needs to increase their visibility in the community. As a proud new member, I plan on starting a campus branch of the League to share our organization with the university community. Gaining authorization to advertise on campus will provide opportunities to host voter registration drives, publicize meetings and generally increase our presence among a younger generation.

In addition, distributing a past issue of the Voters Guide while registering voters will give individuals a closer look at the League to see its truly nonpartisan nature. As Dianne Wheeler’s high school voter registration drive moves forward, and as I organize similar events on campus, the Voters Guide will serve as a take-away piece to keep the League on people’s minds. I want to speak out on behalf of the League to acquaint others with its structure and to extend invitations to our events. I am passionate about creating a healthier future, and I see transgenerational engagement as an important step toward this goal.

Stewart’s call to action to the Millennials will not go unanswered. We have the energy, passion and desire to make positive changes to our political system, and the League has the experience of historical activism. A strong partnership will make our demands louder and more inclusive.

Please visit this blog on the League website, and leave your ideas of how we can build partnerships between the League and the UT community.  I look forward to hearing how we can build a stronger, more age-inclusive, League.~Brigid Hall

More on Geographic Representation in Austin

The Austin League’s SMD study group has examined two sources of information about what happened in cities that changed from at-large to some form of geographic-district-based representation system. One source is a report written in 1984 called “Local Government Elections Systems,” which includes data from six large cities – Fort Worth, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Richmond, VA, and Charlotte, NC. Respondents from these cities were interviewed to assess their perceptions of the changes that occurred in city government after they went from at-large to some form of geographic district representation.

Additional data we’ve studied comes from a book called “Governance by Decree, The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas” which went into great detail about that city’s change from at-large to hybrid in 1975 as well as its change from hybrid to district-only in 1991.

We have summarized pertinent information from both these sources as follows:

Perceived Differences between Hybrid (H) and District Only (DO)

H-city minorities reported less satisfaction with city government responsiveness than in DO cities.
In DO cities, council member vote-trading and coalition-building increased.
In Houston (H), 4 council members came from SW Houston. 3 at-large and 1 from the district.

In the following results, Hybrid (H) and District Only (DO) cities produced similar findings.

Perceived advantages after changing to geographic representation:

Minority representation on boards and commissions increased.
Minorities thought city government responsiveness improved.
Many minorities and non-minorities felt better able to raise issues with their council member.
Some geographically-concentrated groups felt more represented.
Neighborhood groups and non-business special-interest groups felt more represented.
Residents in Ft. Worth and San Antonio, two DO cities, thought that city-wide issues were better addressed.
More council member involvement in city administration.
Increased citizen involvement.
In competitive races, voter turnout increased.
Very significant increase in community participation and council meetings.
More council member involvement in neighborhood meetings.
Residents felt more empowered, long-neglected interest groups became much more active.
Perceptions of community involvement generally confirmed that districting encouraged participation.
Decreased spending for district campaigns, but only at first.
More grassroots campaigning, less media.
Possible to win a “shoe-string” campaign that would be impossible under at-large.
More small donations to candidates.
More diverse candidate pool.
Dallas: previously hidden intra-council conflicts became transparent.
Dallas: many more contracts went to minority-owned businesses.

Perceived drawbacks after changing to geographic representation:

Some respondents felt that council as a whole was less effective solving city-wide problems.
Average campaign spending when running against incumbents was not much less than before.
Business/development interests’ power decreased, but only slightly.
Increased cost for mayoral campaigns.
Increased workload for mayor.
Longer, more divisive council meetings, and more council members tinkered in operational details.
Little evidence that racial, geographic or other special-interest issues were better addressed.
Some geographically-concentrated groups felt less represented.
Wealthy interests were still the major source of funding.
Dallas required some minor adjustments to City Charter.
Dallas: more conflicts between council members and city manager.
Dallas: cronyism and corruption increased.
Dallas: the increase in minority contracts improved things only minimally for low-income residents.

Requiem – or Resurrection – for the Texas Women’s Health Program?

by Karen Nicholson, President, LWV-Texas

The League is outraged that the Texas Women’s Health Program (WHP) has been put on the “hit list” of state services. Initially authorized by the Texas Legislature in 2005 with strong bipartisan support, WHP has provided preventive family planning and other healthcare services to women living at or below 185% of the federal poverty level and who are US citizens. The state has paid only 10% of the costs of these services, with the federal government paying 90%. WHP has served women who do not qualify for other government-funded family planning programs but who would qualify for Medicaid prenatal and delivery care if they were to become pregnant. According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, WHP helped some 217,377 women receive such services as wellness exams, contraception, diabetes and cancer screening and treatment of gynecological infections in its first two years. Despite the proven need and cost-effectiveness of WHP, the Texas Attorney General has taken a position that will terminate this essential service. His recent interpretation of state law prohibits the Health and Human Services Commission from contracting with agencies such as Planned Parenthood. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will not provide federal money to Texas under these circumstances, which means that thousands of poor women are about to loose vital preventive health care. This will increase unwanted pregnancies, resulting in INCREASED state expense. The Texas Department of State Health Services has estimated that it costs less than $170 per year per woman for family planning services and more than $8500 per woman for Medicaid delivery, postpartum and infant care. This isn’t the only hidden cost of this foolish decision: illnesses that could have been prevented through early detection and treatment will end up requiring far more expensive hospital care — that is still paid for by working Texans. We are not stuck with this decision. The League, itself created by public outcry, calls on all Texans who agree that making available basic health care services is sensible to contact Governor Perry and Health Commissioner Tom Suehs and asking that they remove the “Planned Parenthood exclusion” from Texas’ application for renewal of the WHP.

Don’t stop there: Spread the word and urge your colleagues, friends and relatives – via email, Facebook, Twitter and any other means available to you – to make these same contacts and save WFP for Texas women!

Contact information: Governor Rick Perry, Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 12428, Austin, Texas 78711-2428; Opinion Hotline for Texas Callers (800) 252-9600; messages can be sent online at http://governor.state.tx.us/contact

Thomas Suehs, Executive Commissioner , Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Brown-Heatly Building, 4900 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX 78751-2316; 512-424-6502

Some ideas on LWV and UT students

I think we could put our heads together and come up with an idea for a League activity at UT that would be consistent with LWV principles and generate student interest.

Some thoughts I have:

LWV Austin could moderate a candidates forum on campus for a race that resonates with students in particular. This could be for a public office or a political position within the UT student structure.

We could moderate a panel discussion or debate on a public policy issue. Speakers would be students.

Voter registration is much higher in Travis County than voter turnout, especially for city elections. What about an effort to improve voter turnout in historically poor-performing voting precincts?

Brigid and I are holding a planning session in March to come up with an action that makes use of all our strengths to create a positive impact on our government. We’ll be discussing this on our Facebook page. Be sure to “like” LWV Austin Area so you’ll know when we’re meeting.

Second anniversary, and I’m NOT celebrating

On January 21, the nation marks the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which enabled corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence federal and state elections. As a result of this ruling, spending in 2010 increased over fourfold compared to the last mid-term elections in 2006.

As the 2012 election season ramps up, so will special interest financing of political advertising. With the proliferation of SuperPACS, electioneering can now be done with total anonymity, thus depriving voters of vital electoral information.

Voters must take action to help remedy this by asking every candidate they meet to state their positions on campaign finance reform. Opensecrets.org and Project Vote Smart both provide reliable financial information on elected officials as well as candidates.

Voters should also carefully question every anonymous political ad they see and consider the motivations behind an expensive ad campaign that attacks a candidate. Are these ads really trying to inform voters, or just inflame them?

– Stewart Snider