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Analysis: The only two reasons the Legislature needs extra time

Rumors of a special session are a normal feature in the last days of a regular session. There's no emergency that would force a special session, but don't discount the Texas Legislature's ability to force one by failing to finish its work.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, chairman of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, meets with fellow members on the Senate floor on May 10, 2017. 

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Emergencies and screw-ups are the only two reasons the Texas Legislature has ever met in special session. You can look those sessions up at the state’s Legislative Reference Library — all 119 of them.

Special session No. 120 is a favorite subject of speculation at the Texas Capitol right now. The 85th Legislature’s 140-day regular session has less than two weeks left. Lots of bills are dead and dying. For some, the best chance of legislative success would be in overtime, if they can persuade Gov. Greg Abbott — or force him, through an emergency or a screw-up that must be addressed — to bring lawmakers back to town after Memorial Day.

Depending on what passes in the next few days, Abbott’s bag of subjects — the governor sets, and limits, the agenda in special sessions — could include bathroom bills, public subsidies for private schools, property tax reforms and voter ID. The threat of a special session might prove to be an incentive for lawmakers to consider those and other issues now, in the regular session. If they don’t, a special session — if there’s a reason to call one — could provide the opportunity to take those things up.

That’s why it is important to know why special sessions get called.

Emergencies cannot be controlled. Courts tell the Legislature to repair prisons, change political lines or rejigger the financial formulas for public education. Hurricanes hit the coast and require government help. The economy collapses.

You know: Stuff happens. When it does, your state officials sometimes have no option but to come back to work when they’re supposed to be out of town. These are cases where the overtime is no fault of the government’s.

Special sessions for emergencies can make government officials look like heroes. They’re cleaning up messes, both natural and manmade, and setting things right. Special sessions for screw-ups make them look like they don't know what they're doing.

Screw-ups are much more common. If the Legislature doesn’t pass a new state budget during the regular session, it will be because they haven’t done their work. The budget is the only thing they absolutely have to do. They do it every two years and they know how long it takes, how much work there is. No surprises.

Legislators pushed the budget into overtime after the 1991 session, but they sort of planned it that way. They needed to wait for a money-saving “performance review” from the state comptroller that helped them balance a very tight budget. That budget also required new taxes, money from the creation of a state lottery, all worked out in a special session. Distracting voters with a brand new lottery turned out to be the ticket to a happy ending.

In the 81st Legislative Session, lawmakers failed to approve legislation keeping several state agencies alive. The ideal is to look at the agencies every 12 years, decide whether they’re still needed and if so, whether they need some adjustments. If the reauthorizing legislation doesn’t pass, the agencies go away. If lawmakers want to keep an agency but can’t agree on what to do with it, they include it in what’s known as a “safety net” bill, keeping it alive as is until a future group of lawmakers can have another crack at it.

Several agencies didn’t make it through the first obstacle in 2009 and didn’t get into the safety net, either. So lawmakers had to come back to Austin to put those agencies in a new safety net. Rick Perry, the governor at the time, didn’t want lawmakers to stay for long. He called the special session for July 1, 2009. That was the Wednesday before the July 4 weekend, and he knew lawmakers would want to go home. They got their business done in 48 hours, and that was that.

They should’ve done it during the regular session, but they screwed up. See how that goes?

A special session called for any reason elicits requests to add other issues to the agenda. The governor forced to bring lawmakers back for the budget will be asked to add other pet projects. Anti-abortion legislation, for instance, was added to the list when lawmakers came back to deal with redistricting in 2013.

The state's top leaders are downplaying the possibility right now — sort of. Straus wrote a letter to Patrick, who works all the way on the other end of the Capitol building, to say that they won't need a special session if they knock out some critical issues. Patrick said through an aide that he isn't going to negotiate end-of-session issues through the news media. And Abbott told reporters the big three are working on things and ought to be able to finish before the regular session is over. He also indicated his willingness to call lawmakers back to Austin if they don't.

Perry called 12 special sessions during his 14 years as governor. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was governor for six years. He never called one. Greg Abbott hasn’t called one, either, but he’s only been in office for 28 months and he’s watching an 85th Legislature that’s fully capable of making mistakes.

With less than two weeks left in their current session, Texas lawmakers have two fat chances right in front of them. The budget is on schedule, but it’s not finished. A committee of lawmakers is reconciling the differences in the House and Senate proposals and will bring a compromise to both bodies for approval in the next few days. If that stalls, it could push lawmakers into overtime.

And they have several of those sunset bills — like the legislation they fumbled in 2009 — that still haven’t been passed into law. Last Thursday, the House compounded the problem, failing to pass a safety net bill to keep agencies working if their reviews didn’t get results. The Senate still has a safety net, and if they want to get out of Austin on time, they’ll pass it.

Special sessions for emergencies can make government officials look like heroes. They’re cleaning up messes, both natural and manmade, and setting things right.

Special sessions for screw-ups make them look like they don’t know what they’re doing.

That usually falls on one official. The cold, hard political fact is that governors and presidents are the personifications of government. Most of us know the names of one or two other officeholders, but when things are messed up, most of us blame the chief executives. That’s why Perry buried that quick session in the days before a big holiday. Get in, get out. Take the hit, light a sparkler, crack open a beer and don’t mention any of it ever again.

It worked for him. 

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.

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