President Barack Obama’s visit to Austin last Friday put a hindsight spotlight on a hard-to-fathom veto issued in June by Gov. Greg Abbott.
In anticipation of massive traffic caused by a presidential drop-by during South by Southwest, Austin Mayor Steve Adler suggested folks work from home that day. And he meant work from home, not “work” from home.
As it became clear, we were handling the potential mess pretty well. Adler tweeted: “Everyone who is working from home today deserves credit. Austin, take a bow.”
Inspired by his tweet, I tweeted this bit of genius: “Maybe everyone should work from home every day.”
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Shortly thereafter, local Democratic consultant and frequent tweeter Harold Cook responded with, “Didn’t Abbott veto that bill?”
I didn’t immediately recall that particular 2015 veto. But state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, did.
Austin state Rep. “Celia Israel and I had a bill that would have made telecommuting easier. Was inexplicably hard to pass. And was vetoed,” Watson tweeted.
It drew this Twitter response from Israel, “We ain’t giving up either!”
”How can I help?” Adler chimed in via Twitter.
Watson’s Senate Bill 1032 fell victim last year to Abbott’s veto after narrowly surviving a “fuzzy slippers” argument against it on the House floor.
The bill relates to “authority for certain state employees to work flexible hours and to work from home or other authorized alternative work sites.”
Many state workers, with approval of their agency head, already do that. The Watson/Israel bill merely would have allowed lower-level supervisors to approve telecommuting.
The Senate Research Center analysis of the bill cited a Texas A&M University Transportation Institute finding that state employees in Austin “telework at levels much lower than their counterparts in Austin and in peer state agencies” and “that state agencies can influence congestion through programs that lead to modified work commutes.”
The Senate sent the bill to the House on a 22-8 vote in April.
The House took it up May 23, the day of the fuzzy slippers speech by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who began by noting she had “a little bit of heartburn” about the bill.
I mean somebody getting up in their fuzzy slippers and robe and sleepy-eyed sitting in front of the computer. That’s not what I think the taxpayers have in mind for those that are being paid to do the work of the people.
State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball
“The taxpayers, the ones that are paying the freight, the ones that are paying all of the bills. Many, if not most of them, have to get up every morning, get the kids to school, fix lunch for the kids, run carpool, go to work, come home, get dinner ready, do the laundry, get everybody to bed after the homework is done, then get up the next morning and do it all over again,” Riddle told Israel, asking, “Is this something we really want to do for government?”
Israel told her the state wants “happy employees” and “less congestion.”
I vote aye on both of those. Riddle was unpersuaded.
“Would this not cause a problem for oversight?” she said. “I mean somebody getting up in their fuzzy slippers and robe and sleepy-eyed sitting in front of the computer. That’s not what I think the taxpayers have in mind for those that are being paid to do the work of the people.”
Israel reminded Riddle that lots of state workers already were telecommuting and the bill would merely expand the program that — as far as I know — hasn’t caused significant problems.
The measure won final approval 77-63 on May 25, which is close for a House vote.
Abbott vetoed it June 20, stating the existing telecommuting system for state workers provides the proper balance of flexibility and “management controls that minimize the potential for abuse of these privileges.”
SB 1032, he wrote in the veto message, “would result in reduced accountability, inconsistent application and greater potential for abuse.”
Abbott also didn’t like provisions concerning overtime pay and time off earned while working away from the office: “Authorizing employees to earn overtime or compensatory time for work performed at home raises legitimate record-keeping and management concerns.”
Seems that the guv is a guy who’s a tad suspicious of state employees and fears they might “work” from home when they’re supposed to work from home.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. firstname.lastname@example.org