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Biennial Blues?

Come January, as Texas lawmakers begin work to pass bills and tackle the yawning budget gap, they will go up against a simple but implacable barrier: time. Texas is one of a dwindling number of states whose legislatures hold scheduled meetings only every two years. Just three other, far smaller states — Montana, North Dakota and Nevada — still have biennial legislative sessions. Lawmakers differ on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, especially for budgeting. Regardless, Texas seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

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Come January, as Texas lawmakers begin work to pass bills and tackle the yawning budget gap, they will go up against a simple but implacable barrier: time.

Texas is one of a dwindling number of states whose legislatures hold scheduled meetings only every two years. Just three other, far smaller states — Montana, North Dakota and Nevada — still have biennial legislative sessions.

For Texas legislators, the challenge will come into stark relief when they must plug a budget gap that could top $20 billion for fiscal 2012-13; the state’s general revenue funds budget for the current biennium, by comparison, is estimated at $87 billion. They must make major financial decisions and plan budgets that will stand for the next two years at a time when the economy is difficult to predict. It is partly because of the challenges associated with biennial budgeting that most states have moved to annual sessions.

“It’s just something that doesn’t work well,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, who wants to change the state Constitution to force the Legislature to meet yearly. If biennial budgeting was a good idea, he added, “other governments would be doing it — cities, counties, schools. And they don’t.”

During the 19th century, when traveling was difficult and state legislatures generally fell into disrepute, many states gravitated toward a biennial system. As recently as 1940, only four states had legislatures that met every year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research group. But as state budgets became more complicated and the federal government pushed more responsibilities onto the states, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, most legislatures switched to annual sessions, according to Brian Weberg, director of NCSL’s legislative management program. The legislative branch of state government correspondingly became more powerful.

Not all of the states with annual legislative sessions have switched to annual budgeting, however. According to the NCSL, as of 2010, 20 states — down from 44 in 1940 — plan their budgets every two years. One consequence in Texas is the need for emergency supplemental appropriations bills toward the beginning of most sessions, said Raymond, vice chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee. He said lawmakers are also often tempted to raid, and increase, fees intended for specific programs in order to balance the general budget.

Another consequence of a biennial, time-limited system is a logjam of bills at the end of the session. (A counterargument is that longer sessions can lead to too many frivolous bills.)

Oregon is the latest to switch to annual legislative sessions. Last month, its voters approved a constitutional amendment enabling the Legislature to meet yearly, but for 35 days and 160 days in even- and odd-numbered years, respectively. Arkansas, another holdout, changed to annual sessions this year after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008.

Texas has not always embraced the biennial approach. The state waffled in the early days: the 1836 Constitution did not address the issue but stated that House members should be elected yearly — and the Republic’s Congress soon allowed annual sessions. The Constitution of 1845, however — the year Texas became a state — specified biennial sessions. In 1869, yet another constitution opted for annual sessions, but that changed in 1876, when the constitution that is still in effect today specified biennial sessions.

To switch to an annual system would require a constitutional amendment. That has been done 467 times since 1876, but one key phrase has survived: “The Legislature shall meet every two years, at such time as may be provided by law, and at other times when convened by the Governor.” A 1960 constitutional amendment added this refinement: “No regular session shall be of longer duration than one hundred and forty (140) days.”

Some Texas politicians say that even as others move to annual meetings, Texas will continue to stand against the tide.

“The citizens of Texas inherently don’t trust government,” said Kip Averitt, who until recently served as a Republican state senator from Waco. He added, “I don’t think the public perceives it as a problem.”

Indeed, between 1949 and 1975 Texas voters rejected five constitutional amendments calling for a switch to an annual session. Legislative pay increases were also on those ballots in four of those instances. Last session, Raymond introduced legislation to add a session in even-numbered years dedicated to the budget, lasting up to 60 days, or 90 if a majority of lawmakers approve. He said he thought that the recession might spur action. But after billions of dollars in federal stimulus money got marked for Texas in 2009, Raymond said, lawmakers quickly lost interest.

Even if the Legislature passed Raymond’s proposal, which he has already reintroduced for the coming session, the change would then need to be approved by Texas voters.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has made small government a theme of his tenure, would oppose any move to annual legislatures, said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman. “We need to be focused on how to limit government in people’s lives,” she said, “not create more of it.”

In Texas, a 30-day special session costs about $1.2 million, according to a 2009 estimate from the Legislative Budget Board. So a 60-day session might cost double that, Raymond said. Lawmakers’ $168 per diem allotment during sessions, which could soon get cut to $150, among the expenditures involved.

Only 10 states, including large ones like California, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have full-time or nearly full-time lawmakers who generally earn a living wage — upward of $95,000 in California’s case — off their legislative work, according to the NCSL. By contrast, Texas senators and representatives earn $7,200 annually (not counting the per diem) for their public work — among the lowest rates in the nation, and less than even Louisiana or Mississippi.

Some state legislatures that convene yearly do so only for a short time. For example, Wyoming, the least-populous state, has regular sessions of up to 40 days in odd-numbered years and about 20 in even-numbered years.

In practice, of course, the Texas Legislature sometimes does meet for more than 140 days. Perry has called eight special sessions — most of them about a month long — in his 10 years as governor.

And Texas lawmakers hardly work for just five months every two years. They meet with constituents (an activity that biennial supporters say annual sessions might cut into) and hold hearings year-round. Texas also has a large legislative staff relative to other states, said Weberg of the NCSL. Staff members of groups like the Legislative Budget Board, a legislative committee that develops recommendations for the budget, work year-round.

“It’s a full-time job if it’s done correctly,” Averitt said of lawmakers’ role.

Raymond, for his part, wryly points out one immediate advantage of switching to annual budgeting via annual sessions.

“Practically speaking,” he said, "if you pass my bill, the deficit turns from $25 billion to $12.5 billion."

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Economy State government Budget Texas Legislature