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The Texas Legislature is supposed to meet for up to 140 days in every odd-numbered year, but lawmakers don’t have to work on each of those days — or even on most of them.
This year’s regular session started Jan. 12, the second Tuesday of the year. The Texas Senate met for two days, left town and then came back for one more day this week. The House worked for three days that first week and then also left town, returning for two days this week.
Both the House and the Senate are skipping next week and will be back in session Feb. 9, and that covers the first four weeks of this 20-week legislative session, or 20% of the time allotted in the Texas Constitution. One month in, your lawmakers will have spent a few days of light work at the office and nothing that requires a lot of attention or angst from the rest of us.
This isn’t intended as a knock on the government’s work ethic. Blame the pandemic, and get ready for a legislative session that, in both the number of laws produced and subjects considered, will probably fall far short of what’s normal. They’ll write a budget, debate new responses to the pandemic and the recession, and argue about police funding, police brutality and behavior, racial justice, and voting and election law, among other things.
And it’s typical for the beginning of a session to be a slow time in terms of work product. Lawmakers get organized, electing a speaker of the House and waiting for their committee assignments. They file bills that will be debated later and introduce starting budgets for the two-year period starting in September.
All of that is either done or underway. But this is also the time of a session when legislators build and renew the relationships that will get them through the last weeks of the session, when the workload is heavy, the arguments sometimes hot, and the performance pressures are greatest for people whose professional futures depend on the often erratic approval of the voting public.
Those relationships are what usually get them through, and the social network of the Capitol — not a virtual community reached with phone apps, but a real one built on close, face-to-face communication — is busted, thanks to COVID-19. The relationships are important on much more than a personal level. To get their work done, and to serve their constituents, members have to deal with each other across all sorts of differences — party, race, gender, geography, age. That’s much more difficult to do if they don’t have some kind of connection, and many of those connections are either created or renewed in the first weeks of a legislative session.
One of the big chores on the agenda — drawing political maps based on new census numbers — has been pushed into late summer, and into special legislative sessions. The census count was delayed by the pandemic, and the numbers won’t be ready until then. That’s one issue that won’t be crowding the regular session agenda.
The other must-do — writing a balanced state budget — was made much easier by the comptroller’s official economic forecast. State revenues from taxes and other sources will be flat, but not down enough to force lawmakers to make big cuts, or to pressure them to find new money elsewhere, whether in taxes or in new places like legal marijuana or casino gambling.
Lawmakers will get busy, eventually. They’ll have some noisy arguments, and they almost always bring something to the Capitol that few of their constituents were expecting. Some are eager to join the official response to the pandemic, a job that the governor has handled for almost a year without relying on the Legislature for help.
They might even go the full 140 days allowed by the Constitution, a stretch that would take them to Memorial Day. But don’t expect to see them in their offices, or their chambers, as much as you normally would.
The pandemic hit their workplace, too.
Disclosure: The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts 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.