Ken Her­man: Texas Leg­is­la­ture half­way through all the dam­age it can do?

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Ken Her­man Com­men­tary kher­man@states­man.com; 512-445-3907

We’re just about half­way through the 140-day leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Through mid-morn­ing Tues­day, 8,274 pieces of leg­is­la­tion had been filed and 1,241 had been ap­proved.

Sounds pretty pro­duc­tive un­til you re­al­ize that 1,226 of the ap­proved mea­sures were res­o­lu­tions hon­or­ing stuff like re­ally nice dead peo­ple, a home­town church or win­ners of the Rob­stown school district’s cov­eted “Proud You’re A Picker Award.” (Con­grats to Gre­gario Var­gas, Roel Ta­gle and Mary Ann Saenz.)

So, uti­liz­ing ba­sic arith­metic, this means in half a leg­isla­tive ses­sion, 15 real pieces of leg­is­la­tion have been ap­proved by our hard-work­ing leg­is­la­tors and the other ones. At that rate, we can look for­ward to a to­tal of 30 real pieces of leg­is­la­tion by the time the ses­sion ends May 29.

Doesn’t sound like much, I know. But look at it this way: Thirty prob­lems solved for all time.

My math, of course, is wrong. That’s be­cause I’m a jour­nal­ist. Ac­tu­ally, it’s wrong be­cause of the way the Texas Leg­is­la­ture leg­is­lates. Last time they met, our law­mak­ers ap­proved 1,323 laws, not count­ing the cel­e­bra­tory res­o­lu­tions. Odds are good that this year’s to­tal won’t stray too far from that.

There are sev­eral things you need to un­der­stand about how things work at our Texas Capi­tol. First, things work. Sec­ond, there is method to the mad­ness, which is re­as­sur­ing be­cause there also is mad­ness in the method.

By de­sign, things are sup­posed to start slowly, a fact de­tailed on the Texas Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil’s “Dates of In­ter­est” list, which, leg­isla­tive spouses be­ware, is what some leg­is­la­tors spend 140 days seek­ing.

The ses­sion be­gan Jan. 10; March 10 (the 60th day of the ses­sion) was the dead­line for fil­ing bills. There are some ex­cep­tions to that dead­line, in­clud­ing emer­gency ap­pro­pri­a­tions and very, very funny bills.

No mea­sures other than those de­clared emer­gen­cies by the gover­nor can be con­sid­ered on the House or Se­nate floor be­fore that 60th day. The con­cept here is to make time for com­mit­tees’ thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of bills.

Com­mit­tee hear­ings are the heart of the leg­isla­tive process. And bills don’t get to the House or Se­nate floor with­out proof they have the votes for ap­proval. Among the rarest crea­tures at the Texas Capi­tol are bills voted down in a cham­ber. Bills some­times get sig­nif­i­cantly amended in floor de­bate. But they’re rarely killed.

So the com­mit­tees and back­rooms can be where im­por­tant de­ci­sions are made. You’re cor­dially in­vited to the com­mit­tee hear­ings. But all you know about the back­rooms is that they’re in the back.

Some facts about most com­mit­tee hear­ings: Leg­is­la­tors wan­der in and out dur­ing them. Some­times it’s just be­cause they re­ally don’t care. Some­times it’s be­cause they have an­other com­mit­tee meet­ing to at­tend. Some­times there’s some im­por­tant back­room­ing to be done. Some­times it could in­volve a date of in­ter­est.

An­other thing to know about com­mit­tee meet­ings: These are not elec­tions. I of­ten see com­plaints that Com­mit­tee X ap­proved Bill Y al­though a zil­lion wit­nesses tes­ti­fied against it and only four peo­ple tes­ti­fied for it. The best ex­am­ples so far this year are the Se­nate com­mit­tee hear­ings on the sanc­tu­ary cities and transgender bathroom bills.

Seems wrong, right? Wrong. One side’s abil­ity to drum up a pa­rade of wit­nesses does not nec­es­sar­ily im­pact law­mak­ers’ votes. This can be es­pe­cially true of bills in­volv­ing folks (some­times called “lob­by­ists”) who’ve taken ad­van­tage of the un­lim­ited gen­eros­ity al­lowed by our cam­paign fi­nance laws.

You know what might be even rarer than a bill that gets voted down in a leg­isla­tive cham­ber? A leg­is­la­tor whose mind is changed on a bill as a re­sult of wit­ness tes­ti­mony at a com­mit­tee meet­ing.

I’m sure it hap­pens. I’m also sure it doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten. And, just like wit­ness tes­ti­mony rarely im­pacts votes, nei­ther do Capi­tol steps ral­lies. They’re prob­a­bly good for the souls of the ral­liers, but don’t count on chang­ing any leg­is­la­tors’ hearts or votes. What mat­ters most to them is pleas­ing vot­ers back home and lob­by­ists in the Capi­tol — and not nec­es­sar­ily in that or­der.

Here’s an­other thing to know about the leg­isla­tive process. When your side is los­ing on a par­tic­u­lar is­sue, you don’t score points with this tired whine: In­stead of work­ing on (is­sue my side is los­ing on), why don’t law­mak­ers spend more time on (ma­jor is­sue every­body agrees is a ma­jor is­sue)?

The fact is the Leg­is­la­ture, amaz­ingly, can han­dle more than one is­sue at a time. For ex­am­ple, con­sid­er­able leg­isla­tive ef­fort is be­ing ex­pended this year on the bud­get and re­lated is­sues (in­clud­ing school fi­nance), while law­mak­ers also are work­ing on bills some might con­sider more triv­ial (gen­er­ally de­fined as bills you’re against).

It’s also gen­er­ally pro­duc­tive not to in­sult law­mak­ers at a hear­ing. In a tweet this week, state Rep. Ja­son Vil­lalba, R-Dal­las, of­fered this tip for wit­nesses at the House Busi­ness and In­dus­try Com­mit­tee: “Us­ing the ter­mi­nol­ogy ‘greedy hand of cap­i­tal­ism’ is not a win­ning strat­egy.”

One more thing to know about the Leg­is­la­ture at the half­way point: There is no half­time show.

To some, how­ever, the whole thing looks like a well-chore­ographed half­time show.

RALPH BARRERA / AMERICANSTATESMAN

Peo­ple protest­ing the “bathroom bill” fill the Capi­tol Ex­ten­sion out­door ro­tunda March 7.

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