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Analysis: Winning and Losing Without Even Voting on the Bills

Voting against legislation isn't the only way to kill it. Some of the most powerful tools available to Texas legislators are found in the dry pages of their parliamentary rulebooks.

House Parliamentarian Chris Griesel shows the rule book to a group of House members including Rep. David Simpson, R-Longvi...

You have to do everything exactly right in the Texas Legislature just to find out if your legislation would win or lose on its merits.

Losing a vote is far from the only way — or even the most common way — to lose a fight here. And as lawmakers enter the final six weeks of this session, their ability to manipulate their rules and traditions becomes more important.

Ever heard of a point of order? It’s a parliamentary way to call a foul and to stop consideration of a piece of legislation that contains an administrative error.

Just this week in the House, opponents of the open carry legislation that would allow handgun licensees to carry unconcealed weapons used a point of order to delay it. They found a legal mistake that had to be repaired before the bill could be considered.

Here’s the rule that got the gun bill shot down:

“All committee reports must be in writing and shall include a list of the names of the persons, other than members of the legislature, and persons or entities represented by those persons, who submitted to the committee sworn statements indicating that the persons were present in favor of, in opposition to, or without taking a position on the bill or resolution.”

More than 100 bills were flushed with it; it turned out that the mistake was caused by a computer glitch. Another one was a headliner — the legislation that would limit local control over oil and gas operations in Texas cities. And it’s all getting patched: Both the gun bill and the oil and gas bill could be considered by the House on Friday.

Nobody loves technicalities, but they can be significant. Every once in a while, a pilot forgets to put the landing gear down and belly flops the plane onto a runway. A cook leaves out the sugar and gets an adobe brick instead of an angel food cake. A legislator omits a witness list and gets sent back to committee for repairs.

Get used to this. Delay is one of the most effective tools available to a lawmaker. Calling out rules violations is customary in the House and unusual in the Senate.

Senators have other ways to hold things up. For instance, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is a key vote on whether to repeal the state law that allows the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges if they have lived in the state for three years, graduated from a Texas high school and have the grades and test scores to get into college.

Senate rules prevent consideration of most legislation unless 60 percent of the senators agree to debate. That legislation is a vote short of what it needs to come to the floor for a debate. Seliger says he hasn’t decided whether to support it. Combined with the other yeas and nays, the bill remains stuck. Seliger is delaying it, but he has also put himself in place to bargain. Want to talk to him about this legislation? Great, because he wants to talk to you about something important to him.

See how that works? Delays in a system with a deadline amount to power. People have to check off their legislative grocery lists while the store is open, and there are just six weeks left.

A bill that would move the ethics-enforcing public integrity unit to the Texas Rangers from the Travis County district attorney’s office was bonked on Thursday for technical reasons spotted by a Democrat who wants it to fail. It went back to committee for fixing and could be back to the full House as early as next week.

That’s easier in April than it will be in May. Competing legislation is stacking up as committees send bills to the full House and Senate for consideration. Each bill has to succeed on both sides of the building in order to become law. And the power of the technicality rises as the days go by.

A legislator who hopes to kill a bill can muster the votes to kill it, either in committee or later in the full House or Senate. Or they can hope the other side makes the kind of mistake that would knock a bill out of line in a government variant of chutes and ladders.

This week’s episodes were not fatal to the bills, because there is time to climb the ladders again. Soon there won’t be, and lawmakers trying to kill legislation have a couple of ready tools: Build a majority and get the votes, or scour the legislation for tiny but fatal flaws.

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