A Special Session for Self-Made Emergencies

Special sessions are the emergency rooms of legislation: much of the work done there could have been avoided if people had taken some care.

The issues on the agenda for the current special session are prickly, but they could have been addressed during the regular session had state leaders been able to gather legislative support for them. They couldn’t, and now the patients are lined up on tables, awaiting attention.

In the first bed lies redistricting, which has been in the same condition since the day after the November elections.

Here in the second emergency bay is transportation, an expensive piece of work stymied by the Legislature’s longstanding resistance to new taxes and fees and its strong allergic reaction to debt. The adage that everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die apparently has a government variation: everybody wants a strong road system and a ready supply of water, but nobody wants to pay for it.

Gov. Rick Perry added a couple of other issues, both of which came up during the regular session and, after legislative consideration of one kind or another — leaving something ignored on the shelf is a kind of legislative consideration, after all — neither one emerged at the end.

 

Now they’re in the emergency room. Legislation that would tighten regulations for abortion providers and outlaw abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy — heralded by the governor in a mid-December speech before the beginning of the session and scarcely mentioned since — is now on the special session agenda. So is legislation to clear up sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds.

This overtime treatment has an advantage for the people in charge. During a regular session, lawmakers file thousands of bills and approve more than a thousand pieces of legislation.

Things get lost in there. It’s a competition for attention. You can pass something that’s important and meaningful and never get on the evening news, grab a headline or rise above a tweet.

This is a recognition business. Legislators want to do good, but they want credit for it so the folks at home — and if they’re lucky, across the state — will notice them doing good and reward them for it.

In a special session, the competition for headlines isn’t with other legislation, but with the rest of the world: the Spurs versus the Heat, towns running out of water, hot housing markets, whether the federal government is listening when you order pizza on the phone. Lots of people don’t even know the state Legislature is meeting. Politically active people are tuned in, however, and the issues on the plate are particularly appealing to partisans.

The risks of special sessions revolve around deadlines and costs. This session began a few minutes after the end of the regular session on May 27, and it comes to an end — whether lawmakers are done or not — on June 25. The House, which didn’t have anything to do while the redistricting committees were traveling the state hearing public testimony, comes back on Monday after a two-week recess. The Senate met twice during the House’s recess without doing any substantive work.

So the list of things to do is expanding just as time is running out. The governor can call lawmakers back as many times as he would like — and at this rate, they might be around all summer.

That’s where cost comes in. Some lawmakers have opted out of the daily $150 payments they are each entitled to whenever the Legislature is in session; it just doesn’t look right to some of them to be paid when there is no work going on. With all 181 lawmakers and the lieutenant governor on the payroll, the cost is $27,300 per day, or $819,000 for a 30-day session.

That’s barely measurable in the shadow of a $197 billion state budget, but it is a big number, one that the average voter can understand. And if the special sessions drag on with few or no results and the costs mount, negative impressions of state officials could rise with them.

It didn’t have to be this way. The abortion issue arose early in the regular session. The attorney general was pushing for a redistricting vote in March. Transportation was an issue before the session even began.

They just didn’t seem like emergencies back then.

 

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