The Texas Legislature Rides Again – A Primer for the 85th Legislative Session

When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not guilty.’

  – Theodore Roosevelt

The Texas Legislature is in session: no person or property interest is safe.

To comprehend the danger, you must first understand the relatively incomprehensible legislative process. It begins innocently enough when a legislator files a bill proposing a new or modified law.

Bills must be filed by the 60th day of the session (this year, March 10th)  Miss the deadline, and the bill can only be considered as an attached amendment to another bill. This explains the race at the end of each session to attach completely unrelated amendments to popular bills.

The head of each chamber refers the filed bill to a committee. Complex bills have to first pass through a subcommittee.

After holding a public hearing or two, the committee either takes no action (allowing the bill to die in committee) or it recommends the bill for passage (with or without changes). In a striking example of inefficiency, the committee’s recommendation is merely advisory and not binding on either the House or the Senate.

The chief clerk of each chamber puts the recommended bill on the calendar for consideration and vote, with calendar placement according to a number of complex and arcane rules. The political games ramp up accordingly.

The bill is supposed to be read (by caption only) for three consecutive days in the chamber. The Senate usually suspends the second reading, while the House insists on all 3 days. Then there are various amendments and votes, all in accordance with the rules adopted by each Chamber on the session’s first day.

If the bill passes one chamber, it is engrossed (all of the changes and corrections are incorporated into it) and sent to the other chamber for consideration.

If the second chamber passes the bill with amendments, then it is sent back to the first chamber. Bills with multiple changes are sent to the conference committee to work out the differences. Failure in conference results in the bill being killed. Success sends the bill to both chambers for more shenanigans and another vote.

A passed bill is sent to the Governor, who has 10 days to sign it, do nothing, or veto it. It takes 2/3 of both chambers to over-ride a veto. Lots of bills arrive on the Governor’s desk at the end, so there is an exception to the 10-day rule: if only 10 days are left in the session when the Governor receives the bill, then he has 20 days to act. That means that a vetoed bill is dead because the Legislature is out of session and can’t vote to over-ride.

This year, the legislature adjourns on May 29th, and June 18 is the Governor’s last day to act. Already more than 1500 bills have been filed.

The Legislature meets every two years for a ridiculously short period of time to make monumental decisions with often catastrophic consequences. Looking at the convoluted process, it’s a wonder that anything gets done.