Wearing comfortable shoes should be a job requirement for Lauren Sheer.
For the last 10 years, Sheer has helped bring UTMB’s voice to Austin—walking, and sometimes running, back and forth between her office on Congress Avenue and the capitol building. As Assistant Vice President of Legislative Affairs, she’s on her feet constantly during Texas’ biennial legislative sessions, advocating on behalf of UTMB regarding various topics—from funding priorities to proposed legislation that could impact the institution.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Lauren, as I meet up with her mid-week in February.
Texas’ 85th legislative session began in January and is limited to 140 days; however, the governor may call additional special sessions if needed. Although the state budget is the only bill the legislature is constitutionally required to pass each session, thousands of additional bills are usually filed for consideration. Sheer and the small team in UTMB’s Health Policy and Legislative Affairs office monitor them all for potential impacts.
She quickly brings me up to speed on a few bills her office is tracking as we walk underneath the impressive 300-foot-tall dome in the capitol rotunda, on our way to the Senate chambers. A Senate committee has just introduced proposed legislation dealing with research, and Sheer wants to hear the discussion.
“I send bills like this one to our faculty, staff and administrators, who can take a look at it and let me know what the implications would be for UTMB—it’s very helpful,” she says as we take a seat in the public gallery overlooking the meeting. “I’ve been working with some of our research staff as well as our legal department to get feedback on the bill. I also collaborate with UT System on bills, because other health-related institutions often share similar concerns.”
Sheer points out a few committee members who are also UTMB alumni before we head to the House Appropriations Committee meeting. The chair is expected to announce subcommittees that will take a “deep dive” into specific portions of the budget, such as health care, criminal justice and education. Sheer explains that the House and Senate recently released their proposed appropriations bills.
“This session, the House and Senate proposed budgets are fairly far apart,” she says. “So we’ve taken a look at what each legislative body has done, learned what the differences are and have put together materials to go around and meet with members to discuss the impact of proposed reductions. We want them to have all the information they need to make decisions and ensure that they know what our programs do and how important they are to the university’s mission.”
She points specifically to the Senate’s budget proposal for FY18 and 19, which essentially eliminates all “Special Items”—that’s a budget bill category that contains funding for specific and unique programs at higher education institutions. If fully enacted, it would cut $42.9 million in funding for UTMB over the biennium. Sheer pulls out a handout she created with funding priorities to discuss with legislators. It lists vital programs such as the planned Biocontainment Critical Care Unit that would be impacted if funds were not restored.
“It’s important to remember that it’s still very early in the process,” says Sheer. “This is a starting point. What the House and Senate eventually agree upon and send to the governor for his signature will look different from what has just been introduced. But where it will end up, we won’t know until the end of session—and that’s the hard part for everyone back at UTMB who is trying to plan for the upcoming fiscal year.”
When the meeting adjourns, we meet up with Dr. Ben Raimer for lunch in the capitol cafeteria. It’s crammed with people, so Sheer scouts out an empty table as Raimer takes the opportunity to highlight the vital role Sheer fills. As senior vice president for Health Policy and Legislative Affairs at UTMB, he first hired Sheer to be a legislative coordinator nearly a decade ago. The two have adjoining offices and have forged a close working relationship since then.
“We are so lucky to have Lauren,” says Raimer. “She knows everyone around the capitol and always puts the university’s best face forward everywhere she goes—and that’s a really big help around here. That means doors get opened for meetings and it also means that she’s presenting accurate information. She knows our budget as well as anyone at the university—and she knows what articles our items are in and what laws govern each item. It’s a remarkable task and not everyone can balance that many different things, but she does it extraordinarily well.”
Sheer smiles, mentioning that she originally went to UT Austin to become a dentist, but decided to switch career paths after taking a summer job in then-State Representative Craig Eiland’s office during college.
“It fascinated me—all the subjects the legislature addresses and discusses that impact people’s daily lives,” says Sheer. “That’s what drew me in and I’ve been involved ever since. And it’s an honor to work for UTMB. I was born on the island and my family owns a business on 35th and Broadway, so it’s nice to work for an institution where you have a history and connection.”
Her passion about UTMB is evident as she meets with several legislators in the afternoon, including Rep. James White, who is the chair of the House Corrections Committee and has several prison units in the counties he represents. Sheer has to constantly be on her toes. As she works with his staff to schedule a future meeting regarding correctional health care, White steps out of his office and says, “Come on back!”
“Meetings get moved around all the time and sometimes legislators pop out of their office and are able to meet right then, so I have to be ready at all times,” says Sheer. “Other times, I have to be ready to sit around and wait, which can be frustrating, but it’s important to be respectful of legislators’ schedules and meet with them whenever I can.”
It’s not uncommon for Dr. Owen Murray, UTMB vice president for Offender Health Services, to join Sheer for meetings with legislators and their staff. In fact, that afternoon, Murray and Sheer meet with Senate staff to discuss critical funding issues for Correctional Managed Care. I get to sit in on the meeting, where I learn some incredible facts about the wonders CMC employees work, such as offering the 47th lowest price per inmate for health care in the nation—at $11.50 per inmate per day—without sacrificing quality.
Each day during the legislative session, Sheer engages in dozens, if not hundreds of conversations with elected officials and their staff. And she’s just as busy between sessions, attending hearings and reporting back to UTMB leadership on all the issues regarding research, hospital regulations, graduate education, formula funding for programs… the list goes on and on.
“During the interim, I’m also inviting legislators and their staff down to our campuses for site visits,” she says. “You might see us walking the halls of Jennie Sealy Hospital, the Galveston National Lab or a prison—it’s really helpful for them to get a firsthand look at what we are telling them about all session long.”
I say goodbye to Sheer after walking across the capitol grounds back to her office. She will spend the last few hours of her day preparing talking points for Dr. Callender, as he will be testifying in front of a House appropriations subcommittee the following week. Sheer’s days will get longer as the session progresses—she’ll often work from 7 a.m. to well past midnight. It takes endurance and stamina, but if anyone can do it, she can. When she’s not running from chamber to chamber, she’s chasing after her twin sons, who turn 5 this year.
“It’s tiring, that’s for sure,” says Sheer. “Everybody who works in this world jokes, ‘So what vacation are you taking after session?’ But I don’t take my job for granted. It’s a big responsibility—there’s not much that happens in Austin that doesn’t impact UTMB’s 12,000-plus employees in some way, and I’m humbled to work with a great team and tell the institution’s story to anyone who will listen.”
Sheer knows the legislative session marathon doesn’t end until the final gavel drops. At the finish, she will have have worn through a few pair of shoes—but the UTMB community can rest assured that their interests have been supported every step of the way.
For updates on Texas’s 85th legislative session, check out Ben’s Blog at www.utmb.edu/hpla/ben-g-raimer-md/bens-blog, written by UTMB’s Dr. Ben Raimer.