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We have this conversation every two years, right? The one about the night in the Texas House where everything was so tense and where a small group of political malcontents either held a bunch of really, really important bills hostage or maybe even killed them?
It happens regularly at the end of legislative sessions. The Texas House is like a fourth-grader who doesn’t remember big homework assignments until Sunday night. The kid piddles all weekend and then throws together a baking soda volcano in time for first-period science on Monday.
The House seemingly fools around for 15 or 16 weeks — it’s a 20-week session — before pulling all the stops and trying to get all of its work done. And in the middle of the scramble, deadlines begin to crowd the calendar.
The first deadline passed last week, killing pages of legislation that didn’t get the full attention of the House before the stroke of midnight on that fateful 122nd day of the legislative session. They got to the top of page 7 (of 21) on the list of eligible legislation. Everything after that died.
But that’s the way this works. That deadline comes on the 122nd day of every session. Its ugly little twin — the 134th day — is lurking right around the corner. Dozens of bills are certain to die in the House that night, too.
Every session has its variations, too. This time, a small group of conservative House members decided to kill more than 120 local and uncontested bills all at once, in retaliation for what they see as unfair treatment of their own proposals by the leadership of the House. And on the deadline night, they slowed the proceedings with questions and procedural folderol, adding to the tension of the looming deadline and the desire of many authors and sponsors hoping the House would reach their legislation before midnight.
They found their drama, too, like they almost always do, in a bill that fell just out of reach. When it was over, the House had risked playing itself into the Senate’s hands.
House Bill 3302 is boring. The state has an agency review process called sunset. The idea is that almost every state agency should be reviewed every 12 years, reworked where needed and killed if it can’t justify its continued existence. If lawmakers don’t act on an agency, it automatically goes out of business.
They can delay an agency’s review for a later Legislature with a “safety net” bill, like HB 3302. Some big agencies could fall victim to that, if the House and Senate don’t pass their sunset bills: Texas Department of Transportation and the State Bar of Texas, for instance.
The Texas House is like a fourth-grader who doesn’t remember big homework assignments until Sunday night. The kid piddles all weekend and then throws together a baking soda volcano in time for first-period science on Monday.
The Senate also has a safety net bill. It hasn’t passed, but it has another week and a half to get the bill through both chambers and rescue the agencies whose reviews lawmakers haven’t completed.
Here’s the trick: Without a safety net, some state agencies might die. The Legislature doesn’t want them to die. So a failure like that might require a special session. Some people think a special session would offer a second chance at a handful of issues important to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate.
Now Patrick has a lever. He controls a bill the House needs, and he needs the House to look at some issues he wants passed.
Maybe you want to blame the Freedom Caucus, or credit them, for the whole situation. The bill did get stuck, and they were slowing things down, and nobody in the House seems to like them much.
But that’s a little facile. Everybody knew about the rules, the deadlines, the pile of legislation and the burbling animosities among the House’s many factions. They know how the end of a session works, with a crush of bills and stormy tempers and the failure of roughly four of every five pieces of legislation.
They knew better, but they put some important bills into that dangerous territory anyway. Just like a kid tinkering with a volcano on a Sunday night.
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- In a legislative process where so many issues die quietly in committees and parliamentary actions, making politicians attach their names to their positions can be a powerful thing. The "sanctuary cities" bill tested that theory.
- As the Legislature grinds its way through the final three weeks of the regular session, the state's top three leaders are pushing and shoving, figuratively speaking, to the finale and beyond — to the 2018 elections.
- The Texas Legislature is moving into the part of the calendar when certain dates are circled in red. More bills are killed by clocks and calendars — by those circled deadlines — than by votes.