This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
The Texas Legislature took three high-profile mulligans last month. Twice in the House and once in the Senate, a majority of lawmakers voted one way on a bill or amendment, only to quickly turn around and vote the other way.
The incidents raise a troubling question: Are lawmakers regularly voting on legislation they don't understand?
“I would be very reluctant to stand up and say that I was poorly informed and ill-prepared and clueless, which is exactly what we’re talking about happened here,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who saw 14 senators take the unusual step of recalling one of his bills a day after voting for it.
The three cases bring to mind criticism lobbed at members of Congress for allegedly voting for measures like the Patriot Act in 2001 and federal health care reform in 2009 without actually reading them. In at least two of the recent reversals in the Legislature, state lawmakers acknowledged they had not properly realized what they had approved.
Amid the erratic pace of a legislative session, a dozen votes can pass by in minutes while others lead to hours of speeches and debate. Lawmakers routinely rely on others — colleagues, staffers, lobbyists and outside groups — to alert them to the key consequences of a proposed measure.
Seliger’s legislation, Senate Bill 346, would require the disclosure of donors to certain tax-exempt, politically active organizations in Texas. The bill originally passed 24-5. A day later, a bipartisan group of senators voted 23-6 to “recall” it, a move usually reserved for a bill in need of a technical correction.
“Quite frankly, after further review of the bill, I believe it is a violation of First Amendment rights,” state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said on the Senate floor while explaining his resolution to recall the bill. “I am very concerned about its unintended consequences. … I own up to my error.”
Republican House leaders support Seliger’s bill and are choosing to ignore the Senate’s request.
In the hours between the Senate’s vote to approve the bill and the move to recall it, Patrick and other senators got an earful from groups that were worried about its impact on their activities. Normally, lawmakers hear about these concerns before the vote.
“No groups had contacted members about voting against the bill to my knowledge,” Patrick wrote on Facebook in a post explaining why he pushed for the recall resolution after initially backing the bill. “No one contacted us.”
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a conservative group that is widely viewed as one of the bill’s intended targets, was among those that publicized their unhappiness with the Senate vote. The group's president, Michael Quinn Sullivan, said he and other conservative activists had seen the bill earlier but didn’t expect it to gain traction.
“I’m not sure if it was on anyone’s big radar until” it passed the Senate, Sullivan said.
But more Democrats than Republicans voted to recall the bill after previously voting in favor of it. Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn, a major donor to Texas Democrats, also opposed the bill.
The switch in the Senate highlights the role outside activists and groups play in educating lawmakers about the impact of proposed legislation.
Sullivan’s group is well known in the Capitol for its Fiscal Responsibility Index, which grades lawmakers based on a few dozen votes each session. The rankings often become campaign issues in Republican primaries. The group routinely emails lawmakers and staffers about upcoming votes it plans to factor into its next scorecard and what kind of vote will be “scored negatively,” Sullivan said.
Several outside groups also provide daily floor reports to members with their take on practically every bill and amendment scheduled to come up on the House or Senate floor.
“There’s a lot of different resources to help us keep up,” said freshman state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, citing research by his staff as well as reports released by conservative groups such as Texas Public Policy Action and the Texas Christian Coalition.
Two groups funded by lawmakers provide in-depth analysis from different ends of the political spectrum. The Legislative Study Group says it analyzes bills from a “progressive” perspective. The Texas Conservative Coalition does the same with the goal of promoting “a conservative vision for state government.”
“Our primary responsibility during session is to track, analyze and make recommendations on hundreds of bills either on the committee level or on the floor,” said John Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition.
Both groups are largely funded with dues paid by legislators who count themselves as members, according to leaders with both organizations.
“Basically, we put out a daily newspaper and it takes a lot of work to make sure we get it right,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the Legislative Study Group. “It’s done every day there’s a calendar on the floor.”
On the day last month that the House took up Senate Bill 1, the main budget bill of the session, both the Legislative Study Group and the Texas Conservative Coalition released an analysis on more than 200 amendments that had been filed ahead of time. Neither group could know in advance what amendments would be offered that day on the House floor.
In the middle of a daylong debate, the House voted 86-57 in favor of an amendment that might have opened the door to negotiations between the state and the Obama administration on expanding Medicaid, a key provision of federal health reform. The amendment had been unexpected. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, had offered it as a substitute to one state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, had filed ahead of time.
After the House passed the amendment, dozens of surprised Republican members heard from groups describing the amendment’s language as at odds with the conservative opposition to expanding Medicaid.
Burnam eventually withdrew it.
“That’s a very good example of the work the organization does,” Colyandro said.
Three weeks after its switch on Medicaid, the House found itself changing course again, this time on whether to abolish the Texas Lottery Commission. This reversal was less about members being uninformed and more about lawmakers choosing to make a political statement.
Several members said they initially voted against continuing the Lottery Commission as a way to signal the House’s opposition to expanding gambling as well as its desire to eventually do away with the lottery. Abruptly abolishing it was impractical, many lawmakers later conceded, as the program provides funding for schools.
Less than two hours after rejecting the bill 65-81, the House voted to pass it 91-53.
In an email to supporters, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, was blunt about why he changed his vote.
“No one anticipated that the bill would actually fail," Larson wrote.