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Agenda Texas: Constitutional Slowdown

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Budget negotiators may have hit another speed bump, and we answer your questions about the session.

The Texas Capitol on the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.

Budget Deal Not Done

Just because we’re almost at the end of the session doesn’t mean things are ending nicely. The on-again-off-again squabble over the final version of the state budget has, like any good Taylor Swift song, ended in a breakup.

House Democrats, led by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, don’t like how Senate budget writer Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, wants to use a fund dedicated to help poor people pay their electric bills.

"He’s asking the people in this House and specifically the Democratic caucus to trade the funds for the poor in order to provide tax breaks," Turner said.

Does that mean we’ll never ever, ever get a budget deal? Stay tuned.

Legislative Questions, Part 1

As we wrap up the session, let’s get to some of your questions about lawmakers and the legislative session. We’ll get to a couple today and a few more tomorrow. Let’s start with a perennial criticism of the Legislature:

James Grigsby writes us, “It seems that the Texas House and Senate waste so much time on bologna.”

It points to a criticism lawmakers hear every year: Why can’t they speed things up?

The answer goes back to the creation of Texas and our state Constitution. That super awesome document lays out a Constitutional Order of Business, which decides a timeline, of sorts, for the 140-day legislative session.

And the timeline is stuck in the slow lane. Hugh Brady, a legislative consultant who teaches legislative law at the University of Texas School of Law, said it all starts with the time it takes just to set up legislative committees.

“They’ve got to hire staff and, you know, find out what room they’re going to be meeting in, and the speaker has to make the committee appoints," Brady said. "So February and March are pretty much focused on filing bills and hearing bills in committee.”

But, of course, even after the session is up and running, they never run too fast.

Tuesday night was the deadline for the House to give initial approval to any Senate bills. Lawmakers started late and took over an hour to say the Pledge of Allegiance and the morning prayer and to go through some initial resolutions.

And throughout the night, even with a deadline looming, lawmakers generally took their time.

Jim Henson, a Tribune pollster who heads the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said it might look like lawmakers are wasting time but that the orderly flow of legislation is designed to pace the session.

“The flip side might be, do you really want your Legislature, in particular the Texas Legislature, for that matter, to go in and just start passing stuff right away? You might not want that," Henson said.

So if the Legislature isn’t going to go faster, what about making lawmakers work longer?

That’s our next question, which comes from Trey Dunn on Twitter.

Why is Texas one of only four states that have biennial legislative sessions. What are the pros to that? @agendatexas

— Trey Dunn (@oncetreyminator) May 15, 2013

 

UT-Austin professor and political documentation Paul Stekler said the answer there is the same thing responsible for the slow pace of each legislative session: the Texas Constitution and its framers, who thought it was a significant pro to limit the power of government.

“It’s sort of an anachronistic vestige of the kind of politics that were around in the 19th century," Stekler said.

But now the state has the world’s 14th-largest economy, eight of the country’s 15 fastest-growing cities, five of the country’s 11 largest cities and about a thousand people moving in every day — a few things people tend to point out when they suggest we might need a full-time, or at least fuller-time, Legislature.

There have been a few attempts in recent years to create a full-time Legislature. But Stekler said every other year for only 140 days is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Do I have concerns about the sun rising in the morning?" Stekler said. "There’s not much I can do about it. It’s not going to change."

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