Ken Herman: Texas Legislature halfway through all the damage it can do?
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.
People protesting the “bathroom bill” fill the Capitol Extension outdoor rotunda March 7.