Texas Politics - The Legislative Branch go back

1. Introduction
1.1 Tradition Confronts Modernity
1.2 Looking Ahead
2. Organization of the Legislature
2. Organization of the Legislature
2.1 Legislative Sessions
2.1 Legislative Sessions
2.2 Special Session
2.3 Bicameral Structure
2.4 Membership
2.5 Compensation
2.6 Terms of Office
3. Characteristics of the Texas Legislature
3.1 Formal Qualifications
3.2 Informal Qualifications
3.3 Party Affiliation
3.4 Gender, Race, and Ethnicity
3.5 Incumbency
3.6 Age and Occupation
4. Redistricting
4.1 Historical Perspective
5. Powers and Immunities of the Legislature
5.1 Legislating: Bills
5.1 Legislating: Bills
5.2 Legislating: Resolutions
5.3 Administrative Powers
5.4 Investigative and Impeachment Powers
5.5 Immunities
6. Presiding Officers and Powers
6.1 President of the Senate: Lieutenant Governor
6.2 Speaker of the House of Representatives
6.3 Pro Tempore Positions
7. Committees in the Texas Legislature
7.1 Permanent Committees
7.2 Impact of Committee System
8. How a Bill Becomes a Law
8.1 Introduction and Referral
8.2 Committee Action
8.3 Floor action
8.4 Conference Committee
8.5 Governor's Desk
9. Legislative Powers of Citizens
9.1 Constitutional Amendments
9.2 Initiative and Referendum
10. Conclusion: Challenges of Representation
10.1 Reforms
10.2 Opportunities for Citizen Participation

1. Introduction

Legislative bodies carry a heavy burden in representative democracies, and the Texas legislature is no exception. Legislatures must provide avenues for the representation of the numerous and diverse interests in society, and then reconcile the inevitable conflicts in a process of law making and oversight. Legislative bodies are also required to strive to achieve fairness in by functioning in ways that do not systematically provide unfair advantages to particular interests.

The constitutional design of the legislative branch and the political history of Texas have combined to make "the lege," as insiders and observers call it, a peculiar institution. The Texas Constitution creates a part-time legislature that meets for a relatively brief 140 days every other year. The members, so-called citizen legislators, work within a political culture with a strong suspicion of government and a long history of accepting the involvement of wealthy business interests in politics.

Together these institutional and cultural forces have limited the ability of the legislature to fully play its representational role, and have been further amplified by historical factors. The history of racial exclusion until well into the mid-twentieth century and a long period of one-party rule by the old Democratic Party has meant that the institution has struggled to comprehensively represent (or fairly reconcile) the diverse interests of a dynamic and growing population.

At a practical level, the legislative sessions that begin in January of odd numbered years are daunting undertakings for all participants in the process, legislators most of all. The legislature must produce a two-year state budget for a large modern state --- $165.4 billion for the 2012-2013 biennium -- as well as handle bills on a wide range of subjects. And there are lots of them: 6190 bills were introduced in the 80th session that met in 2007, of which 1481 became law.

As former Senator Kip Averitt (R-Waco) frankly discussed in a 2006 speech in the Texas Politics Speaker Series at UT - Austin, the crush of legislation in a short period of time makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for individual legislators to be experts or even well-informed on every piece of legislation on their own. As a result, legislators become dependent on additional sources of information on legislation. Representatives of organized interests - lobbyists - become central to the process, not just because they represent social interests (as discussed in the Texas Politics chapter on interest groups), but also because they can supply legislators with something they vitally need: information. Inevitably, their ability to supply this, as well as a range of other resources, make "the lobby" a central part of the legislative process.

The former Senator's comments paint a clear portrait of some of the practical problems facing legislators. They also hint at some of the central institutional problems that persist as a result of the often archaic design of the legislature: essentially part-time legislators must confront a large number of increasingly complex bills within a very short period of time.

1.1 Tradition Confronts Modernity

Through the lenses of nostalgia, the Texas Legislature embodies a history replete with stories both wild and comic, as colorful characters fight the good fight, look after their friends, punish their enemies, and more than occasionally tilt at windmills. In the more glaring light of critical assessment, the Legislature is the first place that stubborn elites, backward looking bosses, and greedy hucksters went to protect their interests in the face of the profound historical changes that have made Texas ever more populous, more urbanized, and more diverse - in a word, modern. As an institution, then, the Legislature has a rich and complex, but not always savory history.

Many of the most obviously anachronistic and even embarrassing characteristics of the Texas Legislature have been undone by the inability of other institutions and individuals to resist the force of structural change. The long stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the Legislature since Reconstruction slowly gave way in the 1990s, culminating in the 2002 elections which gave Republicans solid majorities in both houses. Enforcement of civil rights by federal authorities and changes in the political culture on the state level led to increased, if not nearly proportional, representation of women and ethnic and racial minorities in the Legislature. Even the Capitol itself was updated with a thorough renovation in the mid-1990s, as if to symbolize the gradual modernization of an institution rooted in the nineteenth century but striving to govern in the twenty-first.

But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the Legislature remains a curious combination of old-style politics, nineteenth century institutional design, and the realities of a state with 26 million people, many of whom live in or near some of the largest urban areas in the country.

1.2 Looking Ahead

Our discussion of the legislative branch focuses on the institutional fundamentals, including its organization, and the background characteristics and qualifications of its members. A focus on legislators is key to understanding how the Legislature - and Texas society - has changed over time. Examining the background characteristics of state legislators also provides an indirect glimpse of which interests are more likely to enjoy representation in government.

We then examine more closely the process of redistricting, the constitutionally mandated redrawing of legislative district lines every ten years (or less) mandated by the U.S. and Texas constitutions. This is required because districts must contain roughly the same number of people, but population shifts can throw off this tenuous balance. The process of redistricting is highly complex, subjective, and consequently political. The result of redistricting can profoundly shape the types of people and interests that are represented in legislative bodies.

Next we take a close look at two critical features of the Legislature: the presiding officers in each of the two legislative chambers and the committee system. The legislative leadership and the committee system have a profound effect on the movement of specific legislative proposals through the rather tortuous legislative process.

We also examine the characteristics of the most prominent function of such lawmaking bodies, the process through which bills are evaluated and laws created. We conclude by examining reform proposals and the various means through which citizens might participate in the activities of the legislature.

2. Organization of the Legislature

The Texas Legislature is the most powerful of the three main branches of government. This seemingly reflects the nature of the state's democratic form of government. However, none of the three branches is particularly strong, and the Legislature may be better described as less weak than the other branches.

Still, the legislative branch's position among the governing structures of both Texas and the United States gives it broad authority. According to the Handbook of Texas Online:

Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the legislature, as representative of the people of Texas, exercises plenary powers, limited only by the Texas and United States constitutions and valid federal laws. The legislature may exercise the state's inherent police power to promote and safeguard the public safety, health, morals, and welfare; and, by nineteenth century judicial interpretation, is superior to local governments, which are regarded as "creatures of the state." The lawmaking institution also possesses the traditional legislative power of the purse (to tax, spend, and borrow money for public purposes), and to organize and confer powers on the executive and the judiciary not otherwise provided for or prohibited in the Texas Constitution. [1]

The bedrock upon which the legislature's authority rests is, of course, its exclusive authority to propose and approve bills as part of the lawmaking process.

2. Organization of the Legislature

The Texas Legislature is the most powerful of the three main branches of government. This seemingly reflects the nature of the state's democratic form of government. However, none of the three branches is particularly strong, and the Legislature may be better described as less weak than the other branches.

Still, the legislative branch's position among the governing structures of both Texas and the United States gives it broad authority. According to the Handbook of Texas Online:

Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the legislature, as representative of the people of Texas, exercises plenary powers, limited only by the Texas and United States constitutions and valid federal laws. The legislature may exercise the state's inherent police power to promote and safeguard the public safety, health, morals, and welfare; and, by nineteenth century judicial interpretation, is superior to local governments, which are regarded as "creatures of the state." The lawmaking institution also possesses the traditional legislative power of the purse (to tax, spend, and borrow money for public purposes), and to organize and confer powers on the executive and the judiciary not otherwise provided for or prohibited in the Texas Constitution. [2]

The bedrock upon which the legislature's authority rests is, of course, its exclusive authority to propose and approve bills as part of the lawmaking process.

2.1 Legislative Sessions

As mentioned above, the Legislature convenes in regular session for only 140 days (counting Saturdays and Sundays) every two years. The session begins in January of odd numbered years - after the November elections two months earlier. The legislature convenes on the second Tuesday in January and ends at the end of May or early June.

All legislation that has not been approved by both houses by the last day of the session is dead. At the end of the regular session there is always a crush of legislation that is passed in a flurry of activity. This can lead to the passage of bills that have not been thoroughly reviewed by both of the full chambers, leaving open the possibility of slipping in provisions (sometimes unrelated, or non-germane) that favor special interests.

After the regular session the governor can call as many special legislative sessions as he or she may wish. The governor sets the agenda for these sessions, which usually focus on extremely important state business. The threat of calling a special session gives the governor power to get the legislature to deal with pressing issues, and provides a useful tool for governors - though one that is not without risks.

Each two year period for which a single cohort of representatives and senators are elected has been identified by a unique number dating back to the beginning of statehood. For instance, the legislature of the 2001-2002 period was the 77th Legislature, followed by the 78th legislature in 2003-2004.

The 140 day session is an extremely short period of time to conduct the state's business, especially considering the large size and considerable diversity of both the population and the economy of the state. The short session is in part a reflection of the Reconstruction era during which the current Texas Constitution was written. After the excesses (real and perceived) in the use of governmental authority by the Radical Republican administration of Governor E.J. Davis, a convention was called that rewrote the constitution along very restrictive lines. The short legislative session - along with the limited powers given the Governor - exemplifies the attempt of the Constitution's authors to restrict the ability of the government to govern too much.

2.1 Legislative Sessions

As mentioned above, the Legislature convenes in regular session for only 140 days (counting Saturdays and Sundays) every two years. The session begins in January of odd numbered years - after the November elections two months earlier. The legislature convenes on the second Tuesday in January and adjourns in late May or early June.

All legislation that has not been approved by both houses by the last day of the session is dead. At the end of the regular session there is always a crush of legislation that is passed in a flurry of activity. This can lead to the passage of bills that have not been thoroughly reviewed by both of the full chambers, leaving open the possibility of slipping in provisions (sometimes unrelated, or non-germane) that favor special interests.

After the regular session the governor can call as many special legislative sessions as he or she may wish. The governor sets the agenda for these sessions, which usually focus on extremely important state business. The threat of calling a special session gives the governor power to get the legislature to deal with pressing issues, and provides a useful tool for governors - though one that is not without risks.

Each two year period for which a single cohort of representatives and senators are elected has been identified by a unique number dating back to the beginning of statehood. For instance, the legislature that convened in 2009 was the 81st Legislature, followed by the 82nd legislature in 2011.

The 140 day session is an extremely short period of time to conduct the state's business, especially considering the large size and considerable diversity of both the population and the economy of Texas. The short session is in part a reflection of the Reconstruction era during which the current Texas Constitution was written. After the excesses (real and perceived) in the use of governmental authority by the Radical Republican administration of Governor E.J. Davis, a convention was called that rewrote the constitution along very restrictive lines. The short legislative session - along with the limited powers given the Governor - exemplifies the attempt of the Constitution's authors to restrict the ability of the government to govern too much.

2.2 Special Session

After the biennial 140-day regular session has expired, the Governor can call an unlimited number of special sessions. The governor decides what the legislature will work on during these special sessions.

Traditionally, governors called special sessions only during difficult times, like the budget crisis of the mid-1980s when world oil prices had plummeted. However, the mere threat of calling a special session often is enough to force the legislature to focus on the policy areas of greatest concern to the governor. Generally, legislators don't like to stay in Austin past the end of the regular session because of their part-time status. They have other jobs and careers, some in the far-flung reaches of the state, which they put on hold while in session.

2.3 Bicameral Structure

Like the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of all states but Nebraska the state lawmaking institution in Texas has two houses, an upper house (the Senate) and a lower house (the House of Representatives).

This bicameralism- the division of the legislature into two chambers - is part of a long tradition in Anglo-American and Western political history. In the United States this tradition was rationalized by the framers of the Constitution as a way of deliberately weakening the Congress, the branch of government most directly influenced by popular pressure. By splitting the popular branch in two, goes the argument, you make it more difficult for that branch to coordinate efforts for any particular legislative agenda.

The bicameral Congress was also the solution to the stalemate between the populous states and the relatively sparsely populated states. The latter feared that a single legislative chamber whose seats were to be apportioned by population would put them at a perpetual disadvantage on key issues. The famous Connecticut Compromise broke the impasse by proposing a second chamber in which each state would get two seats.

On the state level, the seats in both houses of the legislature are apportioned by population. Nevertheless, the bicameral state legislature means that any bill that is introduced must twice wend its way through a complex process of review, amendment, and approval. This extends considerably the time it takes to pass a law, and it introduces many more opportunities to derail a bill. The net effect is to restrict the overall volume of successful legislation.

2.4 Membership

Texas has a total of 181 state legislators, with 150 members of the House and 31 members of the Senate. The membership of both houses is elected from single-member districts, whose boundaries are redrawn every decade after the U.S. Census is taken and the movements and growth of the population across the nation and the state are identified.

Every Texas resident lives in a single district for the state House, another for the state Senate, and yet one more for the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate districts are much larger than the state House districts, because there are only 31 regular members of the Texas Senate, compared to the 150 members of the Texas House.

In addition to its 31 members, the Texas Senate has one additional position: the office of the President of the Senate, which is an office that is constitutionally assigned to the Lieutenant Governor. Technically, the Lieutenant Governor is not a member of the Senate, but nevertheless plays a significant role in that chamber. This arrangement is similar to the national government in which the Vice-President serves as the president of the U.S. Senate. However, the Lieutenant Governor has much more authority as a legislator.

2.5 Compensation

State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.

The truth is that legislators work for many days leading up to the legislative session, and then work very long hours, seven days a week, once the session begins. Furthermore, legislators spend a lot of time campaigning for office and subsequently servicing constituents. This reduces hourly compensation to well below minimum wage.

For comparison, consider the data in this chapter's feature, Thinking Comparatively: Legislative Membership, Salaries, and Permanent Staff. Of the 43 states and territories (including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) that pay their legislators an annual salary (as opposed to weekly or daily sums), Texas ranked third from the bottom. Texas ranked below much smaller, less urbanized and economically less dynamic states such as Maine, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Some of those states that pay weekly or daily sums, still pay a daily average that exceeds that of Texas legislators.

In addition to their annual salary all legislators and the lieutenant governor receive a per diem personal allowance of $128 for every day the legislature is in session (both regular and special session). This adds up to $17,920 for the regular 140-day session. Annual compensation for the year in which the legislature is in session totals $25,120 - which includes the $7,200 salary and $17,920 per diem allowance. For the biennial term, legislators earn $32,320, or a yearly average of $16,160.

Consider that the median annual household income in the United States was $44,389 in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Consider also that the "poverty" threshold, in official terms, was $19,307 for a family of four; $15,067 for a family of three; $12,334 for a family of two, and $9,645 for individuals that same year. According to the Census Bureau, the legislators of the second largest state in the union earn a salary below the national poverty level and far below the national median income.

Furthermore, legislators do not receive additional salary beyond the per diem allowance for special sessions. As politics in the state have become increasingly contentious, and as the state's growth requires more time to complete the state's legislative business, special sessions have become quite common in recent years. (See Special Sessions of the Texas Legislature in the Bureaucracy chapter of Texas Politics.) This puts a considerably greater burden on legislators, but with only minor compensation.

Critics and reformers argue that the low pay of state legislators limits their independence from well-funded special interests. This issue once again became front-page news in 2002 when the Travis County District Attorney launched an investigation of legislators who lobby the state bureaucracy. In response, Senator Jeff Wentworth (R. San Antonio) announced in October of that year that he would no longer lobby the bureaucracy on behalf of private clients. [3] The concern here is that legislators could use their legislative power over the bureaucracy to coerce departments and agencies to make regulatory and other decisions that would favor powerful interests who have hired the legislators to lobby privately on their behalf.

In a statement, Senator Wentworth said:

The people of Texas have made it clear that they want low-paid, part-time citizen-legislators representing them in the Texas Legislature by repeatedly voting against constitutional amendments aimed at increasing the $600 per month salary legislators are paid. As a result, legislators almost without exception have simply continued to earn a living doing the same thing they did before they were elected. In my case, that has been representing clients as a lawyer. [4]

So while the low pay awarded Texas legislators may preserve the spirit of the "citizen legislator" and the aspiration of limited government, the practice also creates ethical dilemmas and unintended consequences, such as the strengthening of well-organized interests who can afford to hire a wide array of lobbyists - including legislators themselves.

2.6 Terms of Office

Elections for both houses of the Texas Legislature are held every two years in even-numbered years (2002, 2004, etc.). Members of the Texas House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms, while Senators serve four-year terms. The terms of office in the Senate are staggered: approximately one-half of the membership is elected every two years. In contrast, the occupants of all seats in the House are elected every two years.

Staggering the terms of office in the Senate derives from a long history of parliamentary practice. In the American experience, staggering the terms of office for the U.S. Senate was rationalized by the framers of the Constitution as a means of reducing the disruptive impact of popular sentiment during political or economic crises. The framers feared the destabilizing consequences of replacing the entire Congress in a single election that happens to coincide with a period of upheaval.

The impact of this strategy in Texas is uncertain. The term for senators is not overly long at four years, and the vast majority of legislators come up for reelection every two years.

Some commentators have even recommended that terms be extended to six years for senators and four years for representatives (all staggered) because the short terms do not permit the development of expertise on legislative procedures and the substance of specific policy areas. The short terms also mean that legislators are constantly campaigning, instead of focusing on legislative matters. The constant campaign also puts legislators at a disadvantage in dealing with experienced lobbyists. [5]

3. Characteristics of the Texas Legislature

Organizations have both a formal-legal structure - often created by a charter like a constitution or articles of incorporation - and an informal structure or organizational norms - created by tradition, habit, and often unspoken practices and beliefs. The formal-legal qualifications for the membership in the Texas legislature are quite simple and not restrictive. The informal requirements for membership have historically worked to create a relatively homogeneous legislature dominated by socially conservative, white males. In recent decades, the barriers created by informal qualifications have been lowered by legal and cultural changes that have admitted a somewhat broader array of Texans into legislative offices.

The video features on the right-hand side of the page feature current and former Texas state legislators discussing how they got involved in public service, and how this public service led them to serve in the Texas legislature.

3.1 Formal Qualifications

The formal qualifications for serving in the state Legislature are few. For both houses of the Legislature Article III of the Texas Constitution specifies age, voting status and residency requirements.

Members of the House of Representatives must be at least 21 years of age, registered voters, legal residents of the state for at least two years, and residents of the districts from which they are elected for at least one year. Members of the Senate - the upper house - have slightly more demanding qualifications to fulfill: they must be at least 26 years old, registered voters for at least five years, and residents of the their district for at least one year.

3.2 Informal Qualifications

For several decades following the adoption of the current constitution, the membership of the Texas legislature was homogeneous - almost all were Democrat, white (Anglo or Germanic), conservative, and male. One might also add to the list: married, middle-aged, and working either in law or business.

The economic, political and social forces that have so transformed Texas in the past few decades have similarly transformed the state Legislature. The transformations of the national political parties, increasing participation of women in the workforce, immigration from other states and from Mexico, the growth of cities, and the diversification of the state economy have all contributed to greater - though limited - diversity of the membership. One way of understanding the trajectory of increased diversity in the legislature is to look at the history of legislative caucuses. The video feature in the right hand bar also features an interview with San Antonio house member Trey Martinez Fischer, who discusses the role of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

3.3 Party Affiliation

Two transformations that changed patterns of party affiliation in modern Texas occurred at roughly the same time and are partly interdependent. One was the rise of the Republican Party in Texas. The other was federal enforcement of voting rights in all of the former confederate states. Many date the beginnings of a viable Republican Party in modern Texas to 1961 when an obscure college professor named John Tower won the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Lyndon B. Johnson, who became the Vice-President of the United States. (See Republicans Rising in the Political Parties chapter of Texas Politics.)

Just a few years later, after the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of the official and extra-legal mechanisms used to exclude African Americans and other minorities from political participation were abolished or abandoned. The elimination of poll taxes and the introduction of federal oversight of redistricting helped to ensure minority access to voting and the chance for more ethnically and racially diverse choices once in the voting booth.

The Republican Party's ranks began to grow as the economic dynamism of the state attracted more and more Northerners with conservative and Republican orientations. Meanwhile, as more minorities began to participate, they gravitated toward the Democratic Party. In response, many conservative, white Texas Democrats switched horses, joining the newly competitive Republicans.

By the 1997-1998 term Republicans had won a majority of the seats in the state Senate, and after the 2002 election became the majority in the state House of Representatives as well. A graph of the number of seats held by each party in the Legislature since 1939 clearly illustrates the change in party power.

3.4 Gender, Race, and Ethnicity

In the 1970s more women began to participate directly in state politics, and at about the same time, so did Latinos (Mexican Americans, primarily). By 2003, women had gained thirty-two seats in the House (about 21 percent of the total) and four seats in the slower-to-change Senate (about 13 percent). In the 82nd legislative session the number of women in the House fell slightly to 31 members while in the Senate women gained a few seats to bring their numbers up to six. (See this chapter's feature on Gender in the Texas Legislature.)

Both chambers have become more diverse racially and ethnically as well. In the thirty-eight years between the 62nd legislature and the 82nd (from 1971-2011), the percentage of Mexican Americans in the House rose from 7.3 percent to 20.7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of African Americans in the House rose from 1.3 percent to 12 percent.

Similar changes are evident in the Senate, whose membership in 1971 included only one Mexican American and one African American (3.2 percent each of the total membership). By 2011, those numbers rose to seven (22.6 percent) and two (6.5 percent), respectively. (See this chapter's feature on Race in the Texas Legislature 1971 - 2011.)

The impact of these and other trends has been a weakening of the historically restrictive "informal qualifications" for membership in the state Legislature. While lagging behind the social transformations in the broader society, today's legislature is much more diverse than even a generation ago.

3.5 Incumbency

Despite the greater diversity of the Texas legislature in recent years, one of the factors that has maintained continuity with traditional patterns in the make-up of the membership is the advantage of incumbency. Historically, there has been very slow turnover of the membership: a pattern that continues today. The 2007 - 2008 Senate, for instance, had only five members, or about 6.2 percent, who were new. In that same legislature, the House, with its shorter terms of office, had twenty-three new members, or 15 percent.

In the aftermath of the volatile 2010 elections, the Senate had no new members; the House, however, had 38 new members. Twenty-two of those new members defeated sitting incumbents. The defeat of several members who served only one term and represented competitive districts suggest that these members may not have been able to take full advantage of their status as incumbents. They were not well established in districts with closely matched numbers of Republican and Democratic voters.

After the 2012 elections, the Senate has five new members, only one of which defeated a sitting incumbent; the House has 41 new members. While only 12 of these new members defeated sitting incumbents, 9 of those defeats came in the Republican primary, an indication of the increasing competitiveness within the state's dominant party. The high turnover also reflected a number of retirements.

Incumbency is a huge advantage when running for legislative office because it allows more opportunities for name recognition. A voter merely recognizing a candidate's name can provide a critical advantage because of the large number of offices for which Texans vote. As voters move down the ballot (to "down-ballot" contests like those for state legislator), they have to rely on less and less knowledge of the candidates. Often voters will vote for a candidate in these races simply because they recognize - or think they recognize - the candidate's name.

Incumbency also helps candidates raise campaign money from powerful special interests. If you've supported a special interest's position on legislation, campaign contributions are a common way of recognizing support. But only incumbents have this opportunity. As a general rule, special interests will bet more money on an incumbent than a challenger, even where special interests see challengers as potentially supportive, because of the expectation that the incumbent will win. The primary goal for special interests is to be on the winning side in any election. As a result they are likely to play the odds and bet on the candidate most likely to win, the incumbent. All things being equal, incumbency and the support of contributors are thus mutually reinforcing.

The state's much more competitive political environment, combined with redistricting, generated a relatively high turnover rate in the 78th Legislature. These factors contributed to the ability of the Republican Party to finally gain its long sought after majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The 2010 mid-term elections led to another legislative session with a large number of incumbents defeated, all but one of whom were Democratic incumbents defeated by Republican challengers.

Despite its importance in determining the membership of the Texas legislature, incumbency is less of a factor there than it is in the United States Congress, as comparison of historical incumbency success rates in the two bodies illustrates.

3.6 Age and Occupation

Another, informal qualification that continues to be important is age - specifically, it helps to be middle aged or older. While the members of the House of Representatives tend to be younger than those of the Senate, 80 percent were at least forty years old in the 2003-2004 legislature, and 44 percent were at least fifty years old. Some 77 percent of the Senate in the same session were at least fifty years old.

Additionally, it helps to be either a lawyer or businessperson. Twenty-nine percent of the legislators in the 2003-2004 legislature were lawyers. Another 28 percent of the House and a whopping 60 percent of the Senate listed business or accounting as their professions. If you add farming/ranching, insurance and real estate to the "business" category, you can see the overwhelming presence of business interests that actually reside in the statehouse. This chapter includes an interactive tool that allows you to examine the characteristics of Texas legislators and compare the chambers to each other and to the legislature as a whole.

4. Redistricting

Both the United States and the Texas Constitutions mandate the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts every ten years using population measurements taken by the U.S. Census. [6]

This periodic readjustment is necessary to give all of the districts approximately the same number of people. If we didn't readjust the districts periodically, some districts would eventually have many more people than others, giving voters in less populated districts more influence in a particular legislative chamber or board. Also, as Texas has gained seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in each national census in recent decades, it has needed to reapportion these seats within the state. After the 2000 census, for instance, Texas gained two additional seats in the U.S. House.

The Texas Constitution of 1876 required that the Legislature pass a redistricting plan during the first session after the publication of the decennial national census of the population. However, the Legislature sometimes did not follow through on this obligation. [7] This resulted in the under-representation of the people in those districts where population grew faster than the rest of the state. The failure to redistrict favored the rural areas at the expense of Texas's growing urban centers. The latter's faster population growth meant they deserved additional seats in the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

Because of the great imbalance in representation that had developed over the decades, an amendment was adopted in 1948 that gave the Legislature extra incentive to carry out their obligations as specified under the original Constitution. Under this amendment, if in the first legislative session after the publication of the decennial census of the population a redistricting plan was not adopted, the responsibility passed to the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB). The LRB is composed of the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, Comptroller of Public Accounts, and Commissioner of the General Land Office. The prospect of the LRB determining district boundaries represented a significant incentive to the Legislature to seriously engage its redistricting obligation, as a LRB-authored plan would diminish significantly lawmakers' control over their own reelection fates.

4.1 Historical Perspective

The redistricting process in Texas has produced increasingly intense negotiations and conflicts in recent decades as the Republican Party gained enough support to challenge, and then reverse, the Democratic Party's historical monopoly in the state. These struggles over redistricting have been compounded by profound demographic changes - considerable population growth, and high rates of urbanization and immigration - in recent Texas experience. Partisan conflict over redistricting culminated in the intensely politicized process during the 78th Legislature in 2003, when the leadership of the new Republican majority in the legislature revisited the redistricting process and passed a plan supplanting the 2001 plan that had been implemented by the courts. In the video clip in the bar to the right, two major players in the 2001-2003 fight - former Senator and, briefly, acting Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, and former Speaker of the House Pete Laney -- discuss the nature of the 2003 fight and it's ramifications. (This video was recorded in 2006 as part of the Texas Politics speaker series. It is about 45 minutes long, and you can use the slide bar at the bottom of the frame to move through the video.)

Before the 1960s the pace of demographic change in Texas was relatively slow. Democrats dominated the political system while African Americans and other minorities were widely excluded. This meant that the social and political structure of legislative districts changed very little or were of little consequence since many working class individuals, especially African Americans and Latinos, were shut out.

Changes made by both Congress and the courts in the application of voting rights to the drawing of district lines sought to ensure minority representation. Some of these new rules had unintended consequences, as this chapter's feature The Rules Matter: Redistricting and Civil Rights illustrates.

Several demographic trends have increased the stakes of redistricting. The process of urbanization in the post-World War II period caused profound shifts away from the countryside (which had dominated the political system) to the cities. Urbanization gave way to a long and ongoing process of suburbanization, enabled in part by the interstate highway system, which was begun during the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s. In the last couple of decades, suburbanization gave us "soccer-moms" and "office-park dads" as voting blocs increasingly targeted by political campaigns. Manipulating how district lines are drawn in relation to these constituencies has become a high-contact sport played in the arena of state politics.

Probably in part due to the political conflict surrounding the process in the last round of redistricting, a February 2012 poll directed by the University of Texas in conjunction with the Texas Tribune found that 42% of those surveyed in a statewide poll supported the idea of an independent redistricting commission. As the graphic presenting the poll results illustrates, however, redistricting was far from a burning issue -- 30% of those asked replied that they didn't know. But for those paying attention to the issue, Democrats favored the proposed commission at a higher rate than did Republicans and independents (click on the "breakdown by party" tab in the feature).

One way to understand the dynamics of this process is to look closely at a particular district that partisans have fought over in recent years. This chapter's feature Redistricting Texas style: a case study focuses on Texas's U.S. House District 24, in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, in the context of the recent history of redistricting in the state.

5. Powers and Immunities of the Legislature

The Texas Legislature has several important areas of authority and responsibility. The power that first comes to mind is legislative, or lawmaking, power. The Legislature enjoys other important powers, including oversight of the executive administration, investigative power, and impeachment power which will also be discussed below.

The primary responsibility of the Legislature is, of course, carrying out the duties we associate with making laws: considering and deliberating on bills (which may become laws), resolutions, and constitutional amendments. The main focus of legislative responsibilities is proposing and passing bills. The Legislature can also propose and pass resolutions, which do not carry the weight of laws, but instead are typically used for commemorations and declarations. In addition, the Legislature exercises authority concerning amendments to the Texas Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

5.1 Legislating: Bills

A bill is an item of proposed legislation that is introduced into either one of the two chambers of the Legislature for consideration and markup. A bill may die in the committee to which it is referred or later at one of many points in the lengthy legislative process. Or, it could pass every hurdle in the both houses, and go to the Governor for approval. Bills become laws only when the Governor signs them or refuses to veto them. (See this chapter's section on How a Bill Becomes a Law.)

In each 140-day session literally thousands of bills are introduced, the majority of which never become laws. Still, the number of bills that do become laws is quite considerable. In the 78th Legislature (2003), for instance, 5,592 bills were introduced in the House and the Senate combined. Some 1,384 of these bills were approved by both houses, 1,336 of which became law.

There are three types of bills that can be introduced: general, special, and local. The most important are the general bills which are applicable to all individuals and property throughout the state. Special bills and local bills are more limited in scope. The special bills provide exceptions to general laws for specific individuals or types of property. Local bills apply to only a limited geographical area or local government (e.g., the city of Fort Worth, Cameron County). If all the legislators from the affected area agree, then usually there is no opposition from other members.

Because of constitutional limitations on the types of local bills, the Legislature has developed the practice of passing so-called bracket bills, which do not name a specific local government or entity. Instead, they apply to a certain local government by specifying, for instance, that the bill applies to all counties with a land area between 6,190 and 6,200 square miles (only one, Brewster County). These are technically general bills, but in reality they function like local bills. The Texas House of Representatives has placed some limits on the use of bracket bills, forcing legislators to be more general when writing legislation targeted on specific local areas.

5.1 Legislating: Bills

A bill is an item of proposed legislation that is introduced into either one of the two chambers of the Legislature for consideration and markup. A bill may die in the committee to which it is referred or later at one of many points in the lengthy legislative process. Or, it could pass every hurdle in the both houses, and go to the Governor for approval. Bills become laws only when the Governor signs them or refuses to veto them. (See this chapter's section on [link]966|How a Bill Becomes a Law[/link].)

In each 140-day session literally thousands of bills are introduced, the majority of which never become laws. Still, the number of bills that do become laws is quite considerable. In the 82nd Legislature (2011), for instance, 5,769 bills were introduced in the House and the Senate combined. Some 1,379 of these bills were approved by both houses, 1,354 of which became law.

There are three types of bills that can be introduced: general, special, and local. The most important are the general bills which are applicable to all individuals and property throughout the state. Special bills and local bills are more limited in scope. The special bills provide exceptions to general laws for specific individuals or types of property. Local bills apply to only a limited geographical area or local government (e.g., the city of Fort Worth, Cameron County). If all the legislators from the affected area agree, then usually there is no opposition from other members.

Because of constitutional limitations on the types of local bills, the Legislature has developed the practice of passing so-called bracket bills, which do not name a specific local government or entity. Instead, they apply to a certain local government by specifying, for instance, that the bill applies to all counties with a land area between 6,190 and 6,200 square miles (only one, Brewster County). These are technically general bills, but in reality they function like local bills. The Texas House of Representatives has placed some limits on the use of bracket bills, forcing legislators to be more general when writing legislation targeted on specific local areas.

5.2 Legislating: Resolutions

A resolution is merely a formal statement of opinion or of a specific decision. It is not a proposed law. A simple resolution may be passed by either chamber of the Legislature. A joint resolution must be passed jointly by both chambers. Neither type of resolution requires the signature of the Governor.

Joint resolutions are the mechanism by which amendments to the Texas Constitution are proposed. Such resolutions must be approved by the voters in order to become amendments. Joint resolutions are also used to ratify proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution or to call a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

A third type of resolution, the concurrent resolution, must be approved by both houses and usually requires action by the Governor. Concurrent resolutions are used to offer commendations or a memorial, send congratulations or a statement of welcome, or request action by a governmental entity. This type of resolution is also used for administrative actions within the Legislature that require the agreement of both houses, like adjourning the Legislature or creating a joint session. Resolutions for this type of internal administration do not require action on the part of the Governor.

5.3 Administrative Powers

The legislature's administrative powers take four forms:

  • Ratification of gubernatorial appointments - The Senate must approve most bureaucratic appointments made by the Governor with a minimum of two-thirds of the senators present in favor. This ratification power has an added twist known as senatorial courtesy, which compels the whole Senate to respect the wishes of the senator representing the district in which the appointee resides. If that senator approves of the appointee, then the Senate will approve the appointment. The reverse holds true, enabling a senator to reject an appointment too.

  • Creation, abolition, and redefinition of state agencies - Through general legislation the legislature can create new agencies or abolish existing ones. Less dramatically, the Legislature can mandate new responsibilities and redefine existing responsibilities of state agencies. The Legislature also relies on its Sunset Advisory Commission to make recommendations concerning the continuation of almost all state agencies. (See Sunset Review in the Bureaucracy chapter of Texas Politics.)

  • Requiring regular and special reporting from state agencies - The Legislature can pass general legislation requiring reporting from specific state agencies. Additionally, the Legislative Audit Committee appoints the State Auditor, who provides information regarding the appropriateness of the use of state funds.

  • Budget approval over state agencies - Through biennial appropriations, the Legislature provides funding for the executive branch agencies to perform their functions. Of course, the level of funding the Legislature provides can enable an agency to do more or less than it had hoped. The legislature's own budgeting organization, the Legislative Budget Board, provides lawmakers with information to evaluate government operations for the purposes of setting agency budgets.

5.4 Investigative and Impeachment Powers

The Legislature has the authority to administer oaths and subpoena witnesses and documents in order to obtain information about issues and problems to be addressed through legislation. Such investigations may be conducted jointly by both houses, or by a single house or single committee within either house.

Additionally, the House of Representatives has the power to impeach state judges all the way up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court of Texas, as well as executive branch officials.

The impeachment process is the first step in prosecuting a state official for crimes and offenses, much like an indictment in criminal courts. This step simply seeks to confirm that the charges brought against an individual have merit. If the House does impeach an official (i.e., finds sufficient cause for the charges), the Senate then tries the case.

5.5 Immunities

The list of immunities of Texas legislators is short, but of crucial importance. Critically, they cannot be sued for slander or otherwise be held accountable for statements made during legislative proceedings. This is important because for an open discussion of public issues legislative debate must be unrestricted and uncensored. If legislators had to worry about being sued for things they said, the democratic process would suffer.

6. Presiding Officers and Powers

The wide dispersal of authority that exists in the executive branch ironically is absent in the Texas Legislature, the popular branch of government. The leader of each chamber exercises considerable authority over the rest of the membership, and over the flow of legislation.

The authority vested in the offices of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House historically has been reinforced by the strong personalities of leaders like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, both of whom served as Lieutenant Governor. It almost seems that a strong personality is required just to be able to attain these offices, particularly that of Speaker of the House, which is elected by that chamber's membership. In any case, the offices themselves are invested with considerable institutional power.

6.1 President of the Senate: Lieutenant Governor

The office of the President of the Senate is occupied by the Lieutenant Governor, an executive branch position that is elected independently of the Governor. The most powerful legislator in Texas, ironically, is the Lieutenant Governor - a member of the executive branch.

Even more ironically, the executive branch duties of the Lieutenant Governor are almost non-existent, except in the case of the Governor's death, resignation, removal from office, or absence from the state. In such circumstances, the Lieutenant Governor exercises the powers and duties of the office of the Governor.

The Lieutenant Governor's legislative duties, however, are much more robust. The Lieutenant Governor appoints the committees of the Senate: a considerable power, since committees generally control specific policy areas.

Furthermore, the Lieutenant Governor has authority in the Senate to assign bills to specific committees. Generally, the various committees have responsibility over specific areas of public policy. A bill dealing with jails would normally be assigned to the Senate Criminal Justice committee, and so on. But the rules for assignment to committee are weak enough that they give the Lieutenant Governor considerable discretion in assigning bills to committee. Because bills often touch on several policy areas, "ownership" of a bill is uncertain, and the Lieutenant Governor may prefer one committee over another. The Lieutenant Governor thus can choose to reward or punish a committee and its members, or interest groups, by selecting the committee to which to assign a specific bill.

In addition to these considerable institutional powers, the Lieutenant Governor serves on several important boards and may also cast the deciding vote on the Senate floor in case of a tie. The Lieutenant Governor serves as chairman of the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Council, and is vice-chairman of the Legislative Audit Committee and the Legislative Education Board.

Also, when the Legislative Redistricting Board convenes (only when the Legislature is unable to approve a redistricting plan for both houses) the Lieutenant Governor serves as one of the five members.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the Lieutenant Governor has exerted growing influence in lawmaking and in administration and public policy since World War II. This may result partly from two changes to the office over the course of the twentieth century.

First, the length of the term of office for the Lieutenant Governor was constitutionally extended from two to four years beginning with the election of 1974. Second, lieutenant governors have served ever more numerous terms since the 1890s. Until then, it was customary for lieutenant governors not to seek reelection to a second term. Over the next few decades, two different lieutenant governors were elected to third terms. And, in the post-World War II period, Ben Ramsey was elected to a record six terms, and Bill Hobby to five terms. Hobby actually served more years than Ramsey because four of his five terms were for four years.

This extended longevity in office can significantly enhance the informal influence and legislative expertise of lieutenant governors, while allowing them to consolidate their control over the committees and individual legislators.

Most recently, the greater intensity of electoral campaigning for the office of Lieutenant Governor between the two major parties could have the potential of reducing the tendency toward reelection. If the office were to be occupied alternately in succession by members of one party then the other, it could be weakened in the long run. This is because the Republican Party's seemingly solid majority status among the Senate membership (especially after the 2001 redistricting) could lead to situations where the president of the Senate is a member of the minority party in that chamber. Such a situation could pose an additional obstacle in the Senate to passing legislation.

6.2 Speaker of the House of Representatives

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the lower chamber of the Legislature. Each time a new legislature convenes - every odd-numbered year - the membership is constitutionally obligated to elect one of its own to occupy this position.

The Speaker is elected to the House just like all the other members, from a single-member House district that includes approximately 1/150th (recall, there are 150 members) of the Texas population. This stands in contrast to the Speaker's counterpart in the Senate, who is elected to the state-wide office of Lieutenant Governor - an executive branch office.

The vote in the House to elect the Speaker occurs on the first day of the regular session. But, as many commentators have noted, the campaign for the Speaker starts many months before the actual vote. During this time, candidates for Speaker contact members of the Legislature to secure their support. This may involve a little horse-trading for, say, the chairmanship of a committee of particular interest (if you're from west Texas, you might want to chair the Agriculture and Livestock committee). More generally, legislators will want to be on the Speaker's legislative leadership team, working closely with the Speaker on the broader legislative agenda.

Of course supporting a losing candidate can be costly. Conversely, being on the winning side can be quite advantageous. The fact that the Speaker is elected every session by the membership means that the Speaker comes into the leadership position owing many more favors than the Lieutenant Governor does in the Senate. Choosing whom to support for Speaker, can be for individual legislators a bit like crossing a minefield.

The Speaker is constitutionally empowered to maintain order during debate on the floor (as opposed to debate in committee). This means recognizing legislators wishing to speak and ruling on procedural questions. The Speaker also must sign all bills and joint resolutions passed by the Legislature. All of these powers are held in addition to the powers of any regularly elected member of the House of Representatives, so the Speaker may vote on all bills, resolutions and other questions that come before the House.

The more significant powers of the Speaker are granted by the membership in the House Rules of Procedure. These are adopted by a vote of the full House at the beginning of every regular session of the Legislature. These rules empower the Speaker to appoint the membership of all standing committees (while respecting the rule of seniority), including designating the chair and vice-chair of these committees.

In addition, the Rules of Procedure give the Speaker responsibility for referring all proposed legislation to committee, subject to the committee jurisdictions set forth in the rules. As in the Senate, internal rules give the various committees jurisdiction over legislative areas, but the Speaker enjoys considerable discretion in referring bills to the committee of his choice. This magnifies the Speaker's power over the flow of legislation. Even though the Speaker has made all committee appointments, he (historically the position has been occupied by a male) still has the power to direct legislation to the committee that will most likely produce the outcome he wants.

The rules also allow the Speaker to appoint conference committees, to create select committees, and to direct committees to conduct interim studies when the Legislature is not in session.

Finally, the Speaker of the House serves on the Legislative Council and the Legislative Audit Committee, and serves as vice-chair on the Legislative Budget Board. He is also a member of the Legislative Redistricting Board.

The current Speaker of the House is Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who was first elected Speaker in January, 2009 and reelected in 2011 and 2013.

6.3 Pro Tempore Positions

Both houses of the Legislature have pro tempore (for the time being) leadership positions. At the beginning of each session, the Senate elects one member to serve as the President pro tempore when the Lieutenant Governor is absent or that office becomes vacant. A different member of the Senate - usually a senior member - is elected at the end of the session to serve as President pro tempore during the interim when the Legislature is not in session.

In the House, the Speaker simply appoints a member to preside over that chamber for a temporary period when the Speaker may be absent. Alternatively, the Speaker can appoint a Speaker pro tempore for the entire session.

7. Committees in the Texas Legislature

Committees act as important gatekeepers and shapers of proposed legislation and other actions of the Legislature. There are two general types of committees in the Legislature: permanent committees and temporary committees.

7.1 Permanent Committees

Permanent committees carry over from one session to the next. Sometimes permanent committees are discontinued and new ones created, but they are generally long lived.

All the committees in the Senate and most of the committees in the House are focused on specific areas of public policy (like agriculture, commerce, natural resources, etc.). Additionally, the House has some committees that deal with the processes and functioning of that particular chamber (e.g., Calendars committee).

Each chamber of the Legislature has its own classification for permanent committees. The Senate rules identify two types:

  • Standing committees are the permanent committees of the Senate whose chairs and other members are named by the Lieutenant Governor. All of these committees deal with areas of public policy (as opposed to internal functioning of the Senate).

  • Special committees are essentially subcommittees of regular standing committees in the Senate that are created to study important issues (like border affairs, electric utility restructuring, or agriculture). These committees have less permanence than standing committees, but because they are responsible for areas of public policy and can carry over from one session to the next, we choose to regard them as part of the system of permanent committees.

The House has two types of committees as well:

  • Substantive committees are similar to standing committees in the Senate. They deal with issues of substantive public policy like energy, the environment, and insurance. The House has slightly more than twice the number of substantive committees as the Senate has standing committees. This reflects the greater number of representatives seeking a committee chair or at least membership on an important committee. Control over an area of policy exercised by each committee gives the chair and its members considerable influence.

  • Procedural committees are a type of permanent committee dedicated to regulating the operations and functioning of the House. Although they don't deal with the substance of public policy directly, these committees play a critical role in the legislative process. The Calendars committee, for instance, can be very influential. In the short legislative session getting an early date for consideration on the floor is critical to a bill's chances of success. As a consequence, seats on this and other procedural committees are highly coveted.

In addition to the permanent committees in both houses, there are a number of temporary committees.

  • Conference committees are composed of members of both chambers and are formed to resolve differences between bills that deal with the same issue passed by each house. You can imagine that even if two bills start out the same, by the time each wends its way through the tortuous processes of both houses, they will come out in quite different forms. Consequently, one last revision is conducted by a subset of legislators from both houses. The bill is returned to both houses for a final vote.

  • Interim committees are formed to consider bills when the legislature is not in session as a way to do preparatory work for the next session. They also may be formed to study a particular problem that has come up since the end of the last session.

  • Ad hoc and select committee are established to study specific issues, problems or questions.

Sometimes these temporary committees are formed within a single chamber, or they are formed as joint committees with members from both chambers.

Of these temporary committees, conference committees tend to be the most important in affecting legislation. Conference committees are composed of five members from each house appointed by the respective presiding officers to resolve any differences between the house and senate versions of a measure. Conference committees are formed when the originating chamber refuses to concur in changes made by the other chamber. Upon reaching an agreement, the conferees issue a conference committee report (text of a bill and required attachments) that is then considered for approval by both houses.

7.2 Impact of Committee System

The committee system fundamentally shapes the work of the Texas Legislature, influencing what bills are considered and how far they advance through the long legislative process. The committee system also channels the support of well financed interest groups to specific committees and their members. This has a strong impact on the reelection opportunities of incumbent legislators. The committee system thus shapes both the legislative process and the distribution of power in the Legislature.

Though the presiding officer in each house wields tremendous authority to appoint committee memberships and to refer legislation, once a bill is referred, the responsible committee then enjoys considerable authority to shape the bill.

This authority in turn provides considerable opportunity for committee members, especially their chairs, to collect substantial campaign contributions from special interests. The public interest group Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) showed that committee chairs in the house received significantly greater sums in campaign contributions on average than their non-chair colleagues. The thirty-one chairs in the House of Representatives in 1995, according to the TPJ, received on average $127,141 in contributions compared to an average of $98,170 for the rest of the house over the two-year electoral cycle that began in January of that year.

8. How a Bill Becomes a Law

Passing legislation in Texas is a long and difficult process, perhaps appropriate given the importance and seriousness of creating new laws. Despite the actual complexity and detail involved in passing legislation, the basic process is quite easily grasped after examining the process in detail. In a 2004 Texas Politics interview, State Representative Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) described the process of a bill becoming law, from the perspective of a legislator.

The same basic steps are repeated in both houses of the Legislature. Still, there are important differences in the details of each house's rules and structure that impact that chamber's handling of a bill. These are discussed below, along with the conference committee process and brief coverage of the Governor's options in dealing with bills sent to him by the Legislature.

8.1 Introduction and Referral

A bill must be passed by both houses of the Legislature in order to be sent to the Governor for approval or acceptance as a law. It can be introduced in either chamber first, or both simultaneously to speed the process, except that all bills for raising revenue must start in the House.

A bill can be introduced only by a member of the Legislature. This member is known as the sponsor of the bill. But the sponsor typically is not the originator of the proposed legislation.

More commonly, bills begin as twinkles in the eyes of organized interest groups, private corporations, lobbying organizations, and law firms. These organizations offer considerable expertise in the specific subject areas and in the formal requirements (style, organization and content) of proposed legislation. Sometimes they even write the full text that is submitted to the chief clerk.

The shortness of the legislative session has led to the practice of pre-filing bills before the legislative session begins. On the first business day in the week following the November general elections current members and those just elected but not yet seated may begin pre-filing bills. After the 2010 election, lawmakers pre-filed 394 bills. This represents a significant increase from previous years such as the 134 filed after the 2004 election.

When a bill is introduced it is assigned a number that begins with HB (House Bill) if introduced in the House and SB (Senate Bill) if introduced in the Senate.

The Texas Constitution requires three readings of a bill on the floor of each house. The first reading occurs when the bill is introduced. Here the reading clerk in the House or the Secretary of the Senate reads aloud the bill's caption, a short summary, and announces the committee to which the Speaker (or the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate) has assigned responsibility for working on the bill.

Because the legislative process is time-consuming and the legislative session is short, it is common for identical companion bills to be introduced in both houses at once.

8.2 Committee Action

After the bill has been referred to committee but before any action by members, the committee staff must produce and distribute an analysis of the various provisions in the bill. The committee chair may request a fiscal note and an impact statement to determine the costs of implementing the bill and its effects on specific aspects of state administration.

The committee or a subcommittee to which the bill has been assigned may decide to pigeonhole the bill (putting it at the bottom of the committee's agenda, effectively killing the bill). Otherwise, it will hold hearings that allow various constituents and other experts to testify on the content of the proposed legislation. Additionally, the committee may make substantial changes to the bill. This mark up process may involve rewriting specific sections, and adding and deleting provisions.

After all of the changes have been made to the bill, the committee votes on whether it should be considered by the whole chamber. By simple majority vote the committee decides whether to report the bill favorably, unfavorably, or not report it for floor consideration at all. An unfavorable report or no report will kill the bill.

8.3 Floor action

House Action

Assuming a favorable committee report, the bill introduced in the House must be scheduled by one of two committees for floor debate:

  • The Local and Consent Calendar Committee is responsible for legislation impacting only a limited number of local jurisdictions (cities, counties, etc.), consent bills, and non-controversial resolutions.

  • The Calendars Committee is responsible for all other bills, placing them on one of three calendars: the Emergency Calendar, Major State Calendar, and General State Calendar.

The Calendars Committee has thirty days after receiving a bill to vote on placing the bill on one of the three legislative calendars for floor consideration. After this period, any member of the House can make a motion on the floor to place the bill on a specific calendar. If seconded by five members and passed by majority vote, the bill may be scheduled for floor action. This procedure is rarely undertaken.

When the bill comes up for consideration on the floor as scheduled, it is given the second reading (usually limited to reading only the caption). After debate (typically limited to ten minutes for each speaker) and amendment, a vote is taken for tentative approval.

After all the debate and amendments, the bill is ready for its third reading. Amendments may still be offered, but these require a two-thirds majority approval at this point. A simple majority is needed to pass the final version of the bill.

Senate Action

Lacking a calendars committee, the Senate relies on the Intent Calendar which schedules bills for general consideration in the order in which they are reported favorably out of committee. However, the Senate does not follow this order. At the beginning of the legislative session, a dummy bill (not intended for floor action) is placed at the top of the Intent Calendar, making it necessary to take up all other bills outside of the regular order.

To do this the sponsor of the bill or a member of the reporting committee must get recognition from the President of the Senate (the Lieutenant Governor) to make a motion to take up a bill outside of the Intent Calendar order. Two-thirds of the members who choose to vote must approve such an action.

If the bill is taken up by the Senate, it is given its second reading, at which point it is opened for debate and amendment. As in the U.S. Senate, there is a tradition in the Texas Senate that permits members to speak for as long as they wish (or otherwise can physically sustain). When members try to kill a bill by "talking it to death" and using up so much time that the rest of the Senate agrees to move on, this is known as a filibuster.

If the bill is approved on the second reading, it is ready for its third reading and, ultimately, final approval. As in the House, amendments are allowed at this point and require a two-thirds majority vote of members present.

Although the Texas Constitution requires that a bill receive each of its three readings on three separate days, this rule can be suspended by a four-fifths vote of members present. Though the House rarely uses this motion, it is routinely used in the Senate to pass non-controversial legislation, particularly toward the end of a legislative session.

8.4 Conference Committee

If the versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate differ - which is most likely the case - the bill must be considered by a conference committee made up of five members of each chamber appointed by the respective presiding officers.

Depending on the extent of the differences between the two versions of the bill the conference committee may have to rewrite whole sections and even add amendments. After all deliberations and changes, the conference committee votes on the final version. At least three of the five members from each house must approve the conference committee version.

The conference committee sends a report back to both chambers, where the full chamber must approve the modified bill by a simple majority in order for it to go to the Governor's desk. No amendments or changes are allowed at this point. Though either of the full chambers could send it back to the conference committee for additional work, this action usually kills bills.

8.5 Governor's Desk

The chief executive (the Governor) must approve or reject all proposed legislation. The state Constitution gives the Governor ten days after receiving a bill (not counting Sundays) to take action. If the Legislature has adjourned this period is extended to twenty days.

The Governor can take one of three actions:

  1. sign the bill into law
  2. take no action, which allows the bill to become law after the period for gubernatorial consideration expires (ten or twenty days)
  3. veto the bill by sending a formal message of rejection to the Legislature

In the case of appropriations bill, the governor also has the option of vetoing specific items with the line-item veto. This type of veto does not apply to other types of bills.

When the Governor vetoes legislation, the Legislature may override the veto with a two-thirds vote in each house. However, because the legislative session is so short, many vetoes occur after the Legislature has adjourned, thereby denying any opportunity to override the Governor's decision. A bill cannot be taken up in a subsequent legislative session unless it goes through the entire legislative process all over again.

Recently, the issue of post-session vetoes by the Governor has come to the public's attention because of concerns about the influence of special interests. Within days after the 77th legislative session ended in 2001, Governor Rick Perry accepted over $1.2 million in campaign contributions, including $175,000 on the first full day after the session adjourned. Most of this first day's haul came from members of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. As it turned out, Mr. Perry vetoed eighty-two bills: a record number. These included four bills that the lawsuit reform group opposed.

One might expect high numbers of vetoes, given the increasing number of bills passed by an ever efficient legislature over the past decade. Still, the eighty-two bills vetoed in 2001 seemed unusually high and generated some criticism. [8] Subsequent ethics legislation passed in the 78th legislature prohibited campaign contributions later than the thirtieth day before the legislative session convenes or before the twentieth day after the legislative session ends.

9. Legislative Powers of Citizens

In addition to the influence that Texans exert through elections and pressuring their legislators in the regular legislative process, Texans shape their laws in one other important way. They approve (i.e. ratify) amendments to the state Constitution.

9.1 Constitutional Amendments

Amendments to the Constitution are voted on in special elections. In the special election held on November 6, 2007 there were no fewer than sixteen proposed amendments to the Constitution. These ranged from a proposal to allow state judges to finish out their terms after reaching the mandatory retirement age while still serving on the bench to the abolish of the office of Inspector of hides and animals. Still, the power to approve or reject proposed amendments to the state Constitution is important, and sometimes the proposed amendments actually address core issues related to the functioning of our state government. (See the discussion of Mode of Amendment in the Constitution chapter of Texas Politics.)

9.2 Initiative and Referendum

Two other common mechanisms of legislative authority available to citizens of many of the other states are not currently available to Texans. These are the initiative and the referendum. They have become the subject of considerable interest group organizing in all of the states, including Texas.

Initiative is a two-part process specified in a state's constitution that allows citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments usually through signature gathering, and ultimately to adopt or reject these proposed laws during general elections. The process reflects the two main stages of regular legislation: proposal and adoption (or rejection).

Usually citizens groups consult with attorneys and other legislative and political advisors to draft a proposed law (an initiative), after which they submit it to the designated agency or office of state government responsible for review and ultimate placement on the ballot in the next general election. This responsibility typically resides either with a state's secretary of state or its attorney general, who develops a summary and a label for placement on the ballot, and who estimates the fiscal impact (on taxes and spending) of the proposed law. These same functions are carried out by the Texas Legislature when it proposes a bill - each bill is given a number, a formal title, a working title, and a summary.

After this initial processing, supporters of the proposed initiative print petition sheets and circulate them for signature by registered voters. The various states allowing the initiative process require different numbers of signatures (a good thing, since the entire state of Wyoming has 150 thousand fewer inhabitants than the city of Austin). If the minimum number of signatures are collected within a specific time period, they are submitted for examination of validity, after which the secretary of state certifies the proposition and assigns a place on the ballot for the next general election. If a simple majority of voters approve, then the initiative becomes a law.

A referendum is also a proposed law placed on the ballot for citizens to either approve or reject. The key difference from an initiative is that referenda (plural of referendum) are proposed by the legislature or by local governing bodies like city councils. In 1990, for instance, the Austin city council placed a referendum on the ballot proposing municipal funding of the proposed Austin Convention Center. This drew widespread and often rancorous debate, but in the end gave Austinites a chance to participate in an important decision that would shape the character of their city.

Despite the absence of the initiative and referendum in state-level policy making, these two forms of popular legislative power are important topics in contemporary Texas politics. Ever since 1978 when California passed its famous Proposition 13 to roll back local property tax increases, successive Texas gubernatorial administrations promised to support constitutional amendments that would permit initiatives on the state level.

Indeed, much of the initial drive for the initiative and referendum in Texas (and in many other states) originates from groups for whom cutting taxes and spending is a high priority. And, the Republican Party has generally carried the banner for the initiative and referendum since the 1970s. Currently, the non-partisan group Initiative for Texas is the main organized group championing adoption of these forms of popular legislation.

It is true that much of the drive in the past two decades to spread the adoption of the initiative process to the various states has been led by conservative groups. Still, by now the battle has been joined by more liberal groups, seeking to blunt the conservative push and going on the offensive with its own initiatives. A national umbrella group, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, was founded in 1998 to "... help defeat right wing initiatives and to develop a pro-active, national initiative strategy for progressives."

In Texas the drive to adopt the initiative process seems to originate more from grassroots conservative populists in the Republican Party than from the business sector (that is, from the base, not from the leadership). Back in 1979, when Republican Governor Bill Clements threatened to call a special session of the Legislature if it did not send him a bill to institute the initiative process, his leading opponent was a Houston lobbyist James K. Nance. Nance's law firm represented such major corporate clients as Union Carbide, DuPont, Houston Power and Light, Pennzoil, and United Texas Gas Transmission. [9]

10. Conclusion: Challenges of Representation

The opportunities and challenges for popular representation are more evident in the legislative branch than in any other branch of government. With 150 seats in the House and 31 in the Senate representing geographic districts that cover the entire state, the Texas Legislature is the single most broadly representative governmental body in the state.

Over the past few decades the Legislature has become more diverse with more women and minorities, and Republicans, reflecting some of the broad general currents in Texas politics and society.

Still, even viewed in the best light, representation is fundamentally limited. Despite increases in female and minority representation, their proportions of the membership remain below their numbers in the population at large. Nor have the professional and industry backgrounds of legislators varied much over the years. Our state lawmakers still come disproportionately from the ranks of lawyers and businesspersons, from industries including insurance, real estate, construction, petroleum, and agriculture.

Even those members of the legislature who do not originally come from these professional and industry backgrounds become subject to the considerable pressure to represent those interests, sometimes at the cost of the public interest. This is because the cost of electoral campaigning in the modern era has become onerous for any but the most generously funded candidates. The biggest sources of such funds are private sector businesses and other special interests.

10.1 Reforms

The very structure of the Legislature can inhibit the vibrancy of popular representation in the Texas capitol. One commonly proposed reform would increase legislators' pay. Low pay adds to the dependence of our legislators on other sources of income just to sustain themselves and their families, never mind paying for all of the additional costs of campaigning. This is part of the reason they take jobs that include lobbying the very legislature in which they are members, working as so-called rainmakers (essentially salesmen) for law firms, or lobbying city hall back in their districts. [10]

Another proposed structural reform is to increase the length of the legislative session. Lawmakers have already developed ways to extend the period of legislative activity by engaging in extensive pre-session work after the November elections. The number of bills submitted on the first day of pre-filing in recent years (394 in 2010) reflects significant pressure to conduct more legislative business than can be completed during the 140 days of the regular session. The Texas economy (estimated at over $763 billion in 2001) [11] ranks higher than that of a majority of countries in the world. Yet, we still maintain a legislative system that was devised in an era when the state was relatively unpopulated and economically primitive.

Some have gone beyond calling for longer legislative sessions, instead favoring a full-time legislature much like the U.S. Congress. Any lengthening of the legislative session would reduce the distortions caused by having to rush legislation through at the current furious pace. It would allow more time for legislators to carefully examine the bills they vote on, and time for the public to learn about and consider the issues before their legislature.

Lengthening the regular session and increasing compensation also might give legislators time and support to develop additional policy expertise the better to conduct the public's business. This would diminish their reliance on special interests for policy expertise and the actual writing of bills.

Other proposed structural changes include restricting legislative lobbying by the membership and strengthening reporting requirements for campaign contributions. This would make it more difficult for well-funded special interests to exert control over key legislators.

Some have called for reduction in the number of committees in the Legislature. Ideally, the committee system creates centers of specialized knowledge over complex areas of public policy. In practice it tends to function as a mechanism for allowing special interests to dominate select areas of public policy more easily. Instead of having to provide campaign contributions and other support to the entire Legislature (or at least a majority of the Legislature), special interests merely have to support a majority of members on the committee that controls their area of concern. This criticism goes to the heart the concept of iron triangles or subgovernments - policy subsystems that serve special interests at the expense of the public interest.

Finally, some have even called for a decrease in the number of representatives in the House. Having 150 members (almost half the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives) is thought to be excessive by some. The more individuals involved in any activity, the more difficult become coordination and control, thereby diminishing efficiency. As an added though minor benefit, reducing the number of seats would make it easier to pay for increases in compensation: it would make money available that could be distributed across a reduced number of legislators, while reducing the total cost of any additional increases in compensation.

10.2 Opportunities for Citizen Participation

Despite the persistent and often persuasive arguments for reform, the Legislature as we know it is designed to be a means of representation, and does offer opportunities for political participation.

First and most obviously, citizens can vote, campaign for a specific candidate, or run as a candidate. Additionally, they can write to their legislators and schedule meetings with them. In general, legislators are pleased to be presented with opportunities to speak with and meet their constituents. The input they receive from citizens usually is heard, if not always heeded. Legislators need to know what their constituents think about public policies so that they have a broader view of the alignment of forces supporting and opposing specific proposals. If they don't hear from citizens, they are left assuming that the issue has little importance for the people back home.

Texans can join interest groups or form their own groups to pressure the Legislature - veteran lobbyist Jack Gullahorn suggests that interest groups and their lobbyists reason for existing is to fight what each group thinks are bad ideas. In an appearance in the Texas Politics Speaker Series at UT - Austin, State Senator Kip Averitt argued that when legislators know what their constituents feel strongly about, they are very likely to follow those preferences, particularly if many of their constituents feel a particular way and make their preferences known to legislators.

The Getting Involved features throughout the Texas Politics site provide many suggestions for influencing the legislature. Additionally, citizens can pursue their preferred policy outcomes through the other branches of government, and may be able to influence the Legislature indirectly through other government actors. They can sue for preferred interpretations of laws, or the outright overturning of laws, in both the state and federal court systems. Or they can seek to pressure the bureaucracy to implement state laws in particular ways.

As the Texas Politics discussion of the nature of collective action suggests, and anyone who has been involved in sustained efforts to influence the legislature can attest, political involvement can be costly in terms of time and resources. This gives well-organized and well-funded interest groups seeking economic advantage substantial leverage in the legislature. But the same rules that provide them access guarantee access also to individuals and grass roots groups, however difficult it may be to sustain efforts at influencing legislators. This difficulty continues to fuel talk of reform of the very structure of the Legislature; but in the meantime, millions of Texans remain involved in trying to influence the legislative process.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 103
go back