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As Clock Winds Down, Bill Body Count Mounts

It’s easier to spike legislation than to pass it, and timing is important. Nothing is dead for certain until the session ends, but lots of important things are not done, and the regular session ends on Memorial Day.

State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake,  debates from the back microphone in the Texas House on May 13, 2011.

The lobby adjoining the Texas House chamber was full this week — full of professional beggars in very nice clothes hoping, here at the deadline, to save or kill whatever they were paid to save or kill.

It’s almost closing time in a system where most legislation ultimately dies. Most legislative deaths are undramatic. Bills are sent to committees and never return, dying without hearings or without ever coming to a vote. Some die spectacularly, with angry arguments and speeches and close votes out on the floor. Many die at the end of a session, when the deadlines turn even minor setbacks into fatal time delays. The stakes are high.

For instance, bills that originated in the House had to be on their way to the Senate by midnight Friday, so the House met late every night to pack in as much legislating as possible. Every delay amounted to a death threat. Even dinner and lunch breaks can be controversial with people who fear they’ve run out of time.

Republicans and Democrats alike worry over bills that come late on a given day’s agenda. When the House quit shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday, 30 bills were stuck at the bottom of the calendar. The next day’s list was that much longer. The stuff at the bottom of the calendar when the deadline comes dies. Legislators and lobbyists and activists with darlings at the bottom of the Thursday calendar had plenty to wail about, and the smart or experienced ones knew they were in trouble days before they saw the final result. They’ve been grousing about delays all week.

For supporters, the advancing deadlines remove bargaining leverage; they increase it for opponents.

An example: A package of three payday lending reform bills sponsored by Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake, came together over months of mediation — the real kind, with lawyers and such. All the talk ate time, putting the package in deadline danger. The most forceful vocal opposition came from Gary Elkins, R-Houston, who frankly told the members they were messing with his occupation — he’s a payday lender — and maintained that he wasn’t a man with a conflict of interest but was instead a legislator with a particular expertise who could assist his fellow lawmakers. He compared himself with lawyer-legislators who pass bills in their areas of expertise, among others. Nobody challenged him. Elkins succeeded in taking some financial disclosures out of a financial disclosure bill. A second bill in Truitt’s package got hung up on a parliamentary technicality. A third faced stouter opposition on Thursday, but passed after a debate in which Truitt made an issue of Elkins' financial interests.

Truitt has been working with reformers and the industry since before the legislative session — and this isn’t the first session for proposed reforms in the short-term lending business. But a million little delays (helped by a million little lobbyists) pushed it to the end of the session and close enough to deadlines to take away any leverage Truitt and the outside reformers had.

It’s easier to spike legislation than to pass it, and timing is important. Nothing is certainly dead until the session ends — that’s one reason the lobbies are full of supplicants and assassins this month. The system has 9,000 ways for zombies to get up and dance out of the legislative cemetery, and it happens all the time.

That said, lots of important things are not done, and the regular session ends on Memorial Day. Between now and then, the rules in the House and Senate make it progressively more difficult to pass legislation. The state budget isn’t done, but it has priority status, and not passing that bill ensures a special session. State House and Senate redistricting hasn’t been finalized. In fact, the Senate didn’t even unveil maps until this week, and nobody has seen an official U.S. Congressional map. That one could get left for the courts to decide. The health insurance exchanges required under the federal health care law haven’t passed, nor has legislation for post-conviction DNA testing to help exonerate wrongly convicted felons.

It can be minor or major legislation. If it’s not out of there pretty quick, it’s not coming out.

All eyes for the next few days will be on the clock. Rep. Jim Landtroop, a freshman Republican from Plainview, caught the deadline mood with a Twitter post from the floor of the House on Thursday morning: “it’s 11:00 in the #TXLege and we have not voted on a single bill???”

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Gary W. Elkins Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate