Texplainer

Dennis Bonnen isn't Texas House speaker yet but he's hiring people like he is. How does that work?

The Texas House is about to get a new speaker and more than two dozen new members. While they all have started transitioning into their new roles, they can't do much until they are officially sworn in to their new positions next month.

The House chamber at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 16, 2017, the morning after the end of the special session.
Texplainer

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Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader L. Fisher.

Hey, Texplainer: The next legislative session starts on Jan. 8. What can the presumptive next House speaker do before then? What about incoming freshmen?

After state Rep. Dennis Bonnen announced he had coalesced enough pledges to succeed the retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, he wasted no time building out a team.

Over the course of about two weeks, the Angleton Republican tapped a chief of staff, a communications director, a finance director and a working group of lawmakers to name the next House parliamentarian. And on Wednesday, he announced ten people who would serve as his policy staff as speaker.

There’s just one problem: while Bonnen appears to have locked down more than enough support in the 150-member House, he hasn’t been elected speaker yet. The lower chamber won’t vote on Straus’ successor until the Legislature convenes next month. And even though Bonnen is the only lawmaker with his hat in the ring to become the next House speaker, he’s not allowed to assume the role just yet.

In short, that means there are several speaker-related duties he can’t yet officially execute — including one of the office’s most important jobs: appointing members to the House's many committees, and deciding who will chair them.

Those appointments are usually among the first tasks for a House speaker at the start of a session and they play a big role in determining which bills ultimately make it to the House floor for a vote — and which ones won’t. (Still, when Straus first won the speakership in 2009, he didn’t announce committee assignments until nearly a month after the 81st Legislature convened.)

In addition, Bonnen’s not allowed to use the speaker’s budget to pay the people he intends to hire until he's been officially handed the gavel.

“There are no state funds being expended on any presumptive candidates,” said Robert Haney, chief clerk of the Texas House. “Most everything that’s been announced so far through his office are just his intentions. Any of his appointments to his presumed speaker’s office are not receiving state funds.”

The exception to that rule, Haney said, would be those who already work in Bonnen’s House office who will move with him to the speaker's office, should he get elected.

In the meantime, Haney added, there’s nothing preventing Bonnen from beginning his transition into the role by determining who will serve on his staff next year.

“Obviously [Bonnen] is not in the position yet, but every presumptive speaker has to get organized for the session,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “The problem is that the session is so short that it’s impossible to get organized if you start day one of the session. You have got to start months and months in advance.”

“Formally, there’s little he can do, but informally there’s a lot he has to do,” he said.

Freshmen lawmakers work under similar constraints.

Democrats flipped a dozen state House seats in this year’s midterms. On top of that, some Democrats and Republicans in the chamber are being replaced by members of the same party. While representatives-elect can bring people who worked with them on their campaigns to the Capitol next month, they’re not allowed to pay them with state funds — or expend any state funds — until they take their oath of office on Jan. 8. If staff are getting paid by incoming freshmen, that money is coming out of those presumptive lawmakers’ campaign accounts. Ahead of, and during, each legislative session, state lawmakers are now barred from fundraising. The deadline to fundraise in the lead-up to the next session ended Saturday.

Freshmen members of the Legislature won’t even get the keys to their Capitol offices until Jan. 5 — three days before the start of the next session.

Similar to the likely next House speaker, however, they can begin the transition process.

John Bucy, a newly elected Democrat who successfully unseated Republican state Rep. Tony Dale of Cedar Park, said he and the 25 other incoming freshmen recently picked out their parking spaces, Capitol offices and where they’ll be sitting — and who they’ll be sitting next to — on the House floor at the Legislature’s freshmen orientation late last month.

They can also begin pre-filing legislation. Hundreds of bills have already been filed.

“That’s pretty much the only thing that a member-elect really can do,” Haney said. “Nothing official is happening until the oaths are taken — whether that be as a member or as the new speaker is elected from the members of the body.”

So what exactly do representatives-elect say they’re doing before session?

“The moment [the media] called my race I got phone calls from several leaders of the Democratic caucus inviting me to a caucus meeting the next day,” said Democrat Erin Zwiener who won a Central Texas House seat last month by defeating Republican Ken Strange. “Before that meeting was over, the Texas Democratic Party folks were poking us saying, ‘Hey do you have time for a quick meeting to talk about your re-election?’”

“But now that fundraising is over,” she added, “I am very excited to get to focus on preparing to govern.”

The bottom line: Neither newly elected state lawmakers or the likely next Texas House speaker can do anything official until they are sworn into office on the first day of the legislative session next month. They can begin the transition process, however, which includes naming staffers and — for representatives-elect — filing bills.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.