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Analysis: Legislative Dance Partners Stepping on Each Other's Toes

The Texas House and Senate are ignoring each other's work, slowing progress on bills like open carry and border security legislation. They're ruffling feathers, too.

Texas House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, talks over amendments to border security legislation on Mar...

Few normal people can tell you whether a piece of legislation started in the Senate or the House. It doesn’t make much difference. The real measure of legislation is whether it becomes law.

But lawmakers are not like the rest of us: They might be the only people who care whether it is a Senate or a House bill that passes, but sometimes they care quite a bit. That can throw them off course.

On Monday, the House passed legislation that would permit licensed Texans to carry handguns in the open. The Senate did the same thing a month ago, sending an open carry bill to the House that has yet to be referred to a House committee for consideration. The two versions have some differences, as always, that might be reconciled in a meeting of lawmakers from each body. But there is one difference that cannot be reconciled: House Bill 910 and Senate Bill 17 don’t have the same number.

Ignoring the Senate’s version gummed up the works, and the Senate’s answer to that slight was nearly simultaneous. The Senate voted out a border security bill, and instead of running with House Bill 11, which arrived in the Senate on March 23, senators went with Senate Bill 3, passing it and sending it to the House.

For any of this to get into the law books, someone must blink, agree to drop their own legislation and work with the bill sent over by the people on the other end of the building.

To become law, a piece of legislation is filed, gets through a committee in one chamber, passes that chamber, then gets sent over to make the same laps in the other chamber. Things that have passed the House go to the Senate for approval, and vice versa. Conference committees of House and Senate members meet to iron out differences in what the chambers have approved, and then those compromises go to each place for final approval. On everything but constitutional amendments, the resulting legislation goes to the governor for approval or veto.

That’s the Schoolhouse Rock version. What’s happening now is that the people in the Texas House and Senate are operating like Nebraskans. Nebraska, as you know from middle-school civics, has a unicameral Legislature. Only one chamber. Nobody has to phone a friend to succeed.

Read what the Senate did as you choose: They either fumbled a major piece of legislation that’s on the governor’s hot list and slowed it down, or they offered a bit of retaliation for the House’s disregard of the Senate’s open carry bill.

Maybe you saw some of the heated reaction from state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, directed at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate?

“Had they chosen to do what historically happens and pass the House bill over with their changes, we could be quickly moving to a conference committee and getting this bill on the governor’s desk much sooner rather than later,” Bonnen said.

He might have said the same about the House and handguns.

Patrick and company declined to answer him, but the standoff has the makings of an Al Pacino-Robert De Niro movie — with actors cussing, yelling and otherwise chewing up the scenery.

Other bills, big and small, are caught in similar crossfire, including legislation that would move the ethics-enforcing public integrity unit from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers or someplace else; reauthorize the state’s river authorities; regulate accidental spills from wastewater facilities; limit debit card surcharges; manage and collect disputed oil and gas royalties on state land; allow people with terminal diseases to opt for experimental or clinical drug treatments that have not been approved for general use; and one that would eliminate a tax on fireworks.

It’s not that legislators don’t know how this is done. The Senate waited for the House’s budget and passed its version of that so that the two bodies can get to work on their differences. The chambers swap ownership of the budget each session to make sure no one monkeys with the only bill that absolutely has to pass.

And the tomfoolery on some of the other bills has some practical effect, believe it or not. The House and Senate are feeling each other out as they enter the end-of-session crunch, when negotiations, tactics and deadlines become critical. The major legislation tends to work out, and it gobbles up time that might otherwise be used for less important bills.

That Darwinian bottleneck keeps most proposals from becoming law and forces lawmakers to focus on what’s important to the state. And on who gets credit.

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