140 Days: A Digestible Guide to the Texas Legislature

Today marks the beginning of the 2017 Texas Legislative Session. For the next 140 days, you’ll hear a lot about bills, committee hearings, and inter-chamber squabbles. For the uninitiated, it can be overwhelming and frustrating. For the staff and advocates working inside the Capitol, it can be overwhelming and frustrating, too.

So as a means of helping you to understand exactly what is going on, this guide is intended to provide a quick, digestible overview of the Texas Legislature and the legislative process. Why trust this guide? It’s written by David Edmonson, the executive director of Austin Tech Alliance, who spent 11 years as a legislative attorney for two Texas state senators.

This is intended to be a high-level overview. If you’re interested in diving more into the weeds, check out the Texas Legislative Council’s guide. And if a word used below confuses you, use this handy glossary of legislative terms.

The basics

The Texas Legislature is composed of two chambers and 181 members: 150 members in the Texas House of Representatives and 31 members in the Texas Senate.

Each member represents a district with set geographical boundaries, so you have one Representative and one Senator that you can call your own. Find out who represents you, as they’ll be the people whose votes you should follow most closely.

During a regular session — which is what’s starting today — the Legislature meets for 140 days beginning the second Tuesday in January of odd-numbered years. A special session, on the other hand, lasts 30 days, is called exclusively by the Governor, and can only consider topics that the Governor specifies.

Legislative leadership

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are governed by presiding officers. Texas Representatives elect one of their colleagues to serve as the Speaker of the House, and today Speaker Joe Straus was reelected to his fifth term. The presiding officer of the Texas Senate is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who is elected by the voters of the state every four years.

Serving as a presiding officer brings a lot of power and responsibility. For example, each chooses which committee a bill will be sent to, appoints committee members and committee chairs, and generally oversees the day-to-day business on the House and Senate floors. There’s a reason the Speaker and Lt. Governor are lobbied so heavily by advocacy groups — they’re uniquely positioned to impact whether an issue gets the green or red light.

The process

The federal legislative process that Schoolhouse Rock taught us all as kids is readily applicable at the state level, too (just substitute the Governor for the President). So if you need a quick refresher, watch the video below or keep reading.

Introducing legislation

Any Representative or Senator can file a bill, which can cover only a single subject and is written to change existing state law or create new state law. Ideas for bills can come from any source: a constituent, the legislator, staff, or outside advocacy groups. Regardless of who thought up the idea, though, only a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate may introduce it into the legislative process.

When a bill is filed, it is given a number and a designation as to whether it was filed in the House or Senate. So H.B. 123, for example, stands for House Bill 123, and S.B. 456 stands for Senate Bill 456. The number is irrelevant, as they’re doled out in numerical order as bills are filed. A select few bills, though, will have lower numbers — usually below twenty — meant to show the support of the presiding officer of that chamber. But only one bill is constitutionally required to pass: the state budget.

The text of legislation may (and likely will) change throughout session, but the bill number never will.

The entire legislative process for a bill filed in the House of Representatives. A bill filed in the Senate would undergo the same process — just beginning with the Senate.

Committee

After a bill is filed, it is referred to a committee by the Speaker on the House side and the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate. A committee is a group of legislators organized around a particular topic, like transportation, criminal justice, or higher education. Each legislator is appointed to a set number of committees by each chamber’s presiding officer, which gives that legislator a vote when their committees hear bills.

Each committee is led by a committee chair, who’s also appointed by the presiding officer. Note that the committee chair alone determines which bills get a public hearing and which get a subsequent vote.

Full chamber

If a bill passes committee, it then goes to the full chamber — all 150 Representatives or 31 Senators, depending on which side the bill sits. The House and Senate have different means of determining which bills get debated on the floor and when. In the House, there are two calendar committees that set the order of bills for debate and thus serves as a gatekeeper for the entire body. In the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor selects which bills come up for debate by the whole Senate, but generally a bill needs the support of three-fifths of the Senators before it is considered eligible.

Assuming a bill passes the entire originating chamber, it has to go over to the other side to repeat the entire process. So during the latter stages of session, the House will be debating Senate Bills and vice-versa.

There are a host of rules and constitutional deadlines that govern when bills are allowed to be debated, heard in committee, or even filed at all. As a result, you’ll see a huge crunch and long hours in the last two months of session as those deadlines quickly creep closer. Time becomes the biggest killer of bills at the Capitol.

The Governor

Assuming a bill survives the legislative gauntlet of the House and Senate, it goes to the Governor, Greg Abbott. Once a bill hits his desk, the Governor can sign the bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it.

If vetoed, the bill can only become law if the veto is overridden by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate. In practice, that rarely happens, so a veto is typically the death knell for a piece of legislation.

Legislative details

You can find out more information about any bill at Texas Legislature Online. Just enter in the bill number (e.g., HB123 or SB456) in the search bar and select “Bill Number.” There you’ll be able read the text of proposed legislation, check past votes related to the bill, and see its current status. As the bill moves through the process, you’ll be able to track any changes to the text.

Want to know what topics the Legislature is likely to consider? Read this handy guide from the House Research Organization.

More to come!

In a future post, I’ll highlight how you can effectively impact the legislative process by directly influencing the decision makers.

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