Texas lawmakers began a 140-day sprint on Jan. 8 to get as many of their policy initiatives passed as possible before the 86th legislative session concludes on May 27. The Legislature only meets in the spring of odd-numbered years, but laws passed during this period can have immediate and lasting effects on the everyday lives of Texans.
Once state lawmakers have been elected, their first opportunity to join the legislative process is to file a bill. Sherri Greenberg, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and current professor at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said lawmakers rarely draft the language of the bills they file personally.
“First, the state representative or state senator needs to get with Legislative Counsel,” Greenberg said. “Think of them as a law firm for the members of the House and Senate — they actually draft the bill. If you do not have Lege Counsel draft your bill, then you may file a bill that is not done in the proper format with the proper clauses.”
Once a bill has been successfully filed, it is assigned to a committee. The purpose of committees is to scrutinize legislation before it makes it onto the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.
Susan Nold, director of UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, said the task of assigning bills to committees is carried out by the leader of each chamber.
“In the Senate, the lieutenant governor decides which committee to refer a bill to,” Nold said. “In the House, the speaker’s office refers bills to committees and the House rules will usually designate committee jurisdiction.”
The members of each committee are required to approve each bill before it can be scheduled for a final vote. The large role that committees play in the legislative process is apparent during the first 60 days of the session, a time when no bills can be debated on the floor of the House or Senate.
Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at The Texas Politics Project, said this 60-day waiting period is designed to prevent lawmakers from proposing unfinished legislation.
“The idea behind this is that, because legislation is going to begin in committees and it’s going to be debated in committees, part of the goal is to make sure committees don’t rush through their work and start putting stuff on the floor without it being fully debated and thought through,” Blank said.
However, Gov. Greg Abbott has the ability to designate certain topics as “emergency items” and allow them to be considered before the 60-day limit on debate is over.
In order for a bill to to become law, it must be passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the governor. The second chamber to receive the bill can either pass the bill as is or assign it to a committee so changes can be made. If the House and Senate pass two different versions of the same bill, a conference committee is formed by members of each chamber to sort out the differences in each draft. If a compromise is reached, the new version of the bill must subsequently be reapproved by both chambers.
“If (a bill) doesn’t come out of conference committee, it’s dead,” Greenberg said. “And if it comes out of conference committee and each house doesn’t approve it, it’s dead. So the process is set up to kill bills, not pass them.”