The Texas Senate unanimously preserved its controversial two-thirds rule on Wednesday in a vote that also approved a significant change to how so-called sunset bills will move through the Legislature.
With no public debate, senators voted 27-0 to approve a set of rules for the session that will guide how bills are handled in the Legislature’s upper chamber for the next five months.
The issue drawing the most attention in the negotiations was the fate of the two-thirds rule that prevents bills from being brought up for debate on the Senate floor unless two-thirds of senators consent. The rule has historically allowed a determined minority of senators (in recent years, the body’s Democratic delegation) to block passage of bills that have the support of more than half of the body's 31 senators.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has been lobbying his colleagues to do away with the rule since he joined the Legislature. He said Wednesday that the rule “stifles debate” and that he’s drawing more senators to his side with each session. He said he believes “nine or 10” senators now support an end to the rule.
“We’re a few away,” Patrick said.
Notably, Wednesday's approved Senate rules do not include any exemptions to the two-thirds rule, also known as “special orders.” In the last two sessions, the Senate passed rules that included an exemption on the two-thirds rule for votes on voter ID legislation. Lawmakers passed a voter ID bill last session that is currently mired in federal legislation.
Several senators said there was far less interest in pushing any exemptions to the two-thirds rule with voter ID no longer an issue for the Legislature.
“We were very emphatic that we don’t want special orders,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “You either have a two-thirds rule or you don’t have a two-thirds rule.”
Senate leaders still may consider exploiting loopholes in the two-thirds rule later this session. Two years ago, senators used such a loophole to pass a version of the budget with support of a simple majority of senators.
In passing the new rules, senators did change how this session’s batch of "sunset" bills will be handled. Those bills are home to major reforms for agencies that have been recently reviewed by the state's Sunset Advisory Commission. If a sunset bill for a particular agency doesn’t pass, the agency ceases to exist. This year’s agencies up for "sunset" include the Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Railroad Commission.
In recent years, most sunset bills have been sent to the Senate Government Organization Committee. Starting this session, that committee is chaired by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
Under the new rules, each sunset bill will now go to the committee with the jurisdiction over that area of government.
Though it lightens her committee’s workload for the session and her own influence over those bills, Zaffirini said she supported the change. While she said it is "more efficient to have all the sunset bills go to one committee,” she added that the change "brings new people to the fore," and that "committee chairs have always felt very strongly about receiving the bills related to their jurisdiction.”
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, voted for the change but said she was conflicted about it, as sending sunset bills to the Government Organization committee allowed for them to be viewed by “fresh eyes.”
But several senators said it was important to rely on the area-specific expertise of the lawmakers on individual committees.
“No one knows more about criminal justice than [Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Chairman] John Whitmire, so if you have a sunset on criminal justice, it ought to go to his committee instead of Government Org, that has to start all over,” Patrick said.