Texas Politics: Special Session Logistics

History of Special Sessions

Historically, special sessions are only called in order to address emergency issues that hadn’t arisen during a regular session. If, for example, a natural disaster, hit Texas and legislators needed to allocate funds for local disaster relief efforts, a special session might be called. Unlike in other states, only the governor can call a special session. Gov. Perry’s insistence on calling repeated special sessions to address anti-abortion legislation clearly doesn’t reflect an emergent issue in Texas. Instead, it’s a way to circumvent the 2/3 vote rule* in a regular session of either the House or Senate. Normally, a bill has to receive votes from 2/3 of the body in order to pass. In a special session, legislators have the ability to suspend the rules, meaning that only a simple majority has to vote for the bill in order for it to pass. Legislators testified on the House and Senate floor this week that they had never seen such blatant disregard for House and Senate tradition — something that might seem insignificant to an observer, but really changes the entire game. Technically, there is no rule in either the House or Senate rules that mandates that a special session be called for emergency purposes only, but it has been the “Senate tradition” or “House tradition” that these sessions are called only in response to emergent situations, or to reconcile a bill that absolutely must pass before the start of the next regular session. For example, budgets are often hotly debated and sometimes no resolution is reached by the end of a regular session. In that case, there is a valid justification for calling a special session — the state can’t function without that piece of legislation. 

Ignoring the purpose of special sessions isn’t the only problem with Gov. Perry calling another special, however. I know that many have been wondering about the cost of special sessions as we head into 2013’s second special. Members of the Texas legislature get paid $150 per day for food and other living expenses. With 181 members of the House & Senate, that number adds up pretty quickly — $27,150 per day, or $814,500 total. Now I’m the first to admit that math isn’t my specialty, but when you add the cost of the second special session that is rapidly approaching, Perry’s claims that he wants to save protect the Texas economy and cut down on unnecessary spending (the GOP response when anyone proposes an SB5 amendment that would offer preventative women’s healthcare services that are so desperately needed) don’t seem to hold up.

Moving Forward

Luckily, the GOP can’t pick up where they left off on Tuesday night — they have to start the whole process over again. The legislature can only debate or pass bills that are specifically placed on the call by Gov. Perry. Historically, interpretations of the rules have allowed legislators to debate topics that may be considered tangentially related to the issue that the governor has chosen to place on the call. Because Gov. Perry placed abortion on the call for the second special session, any abortion-related bill can be taken up by the Texas state legislature. Two bills have already been filed — one, SB9, by Senator Patrick, and another, HB2, filed by Representative Laubenberg. It seems that Rep. Laubenberg is unafraid of the criticism she’ll face from her colleagues in the house — after an unprecedented night when Rep. Laubenberg refused to answer questions on her own bill and refused to take the mike in order to enter her motion to table, nobody can deny that she’s persistent. 

So far, the text of neither bill has been released — but we can make some educated guesses about what the bills are likely to contain. Rep. Laubenberg originally filed HB2364 in the regular legislative session (it failed to advance through the legislative process), a bill that would have banned all abortions after week #20 of a pregnancy, while Sen. Patrick’s original bill, SB18 (also failed during the regular session), would have put in place stringent regulations on abortion-inducing medications. 

SB9

Texas Legislature Online: You can check the status & read amendments on any bill.

Procedures are slightly different, depending on whether a bill originates in the House or Senate. Once a bill is filed in the Senate, it has to be debated at a Senate Committee meeting. If the bill is passed out of the Senate Committee, it is presented for general debate, amendments, and a vote on the Senate floor. The bill then advances to the House, and the process repeats — if the bill is passed out of a House Committee meeting, it advances to the House floor. Normally, a bill passed by the Texas legislature becomes enforceable law 90 days after it passes. The legislature can add amendments to a bill that require the bill to take effect sooner or later than that 90 day period. Those of you who were watching the SB5 debate in the House, will remember that several amendments would have pushed out the date on which the law went into effect. Rep. Mary González sponsored two amendments; one would have postponed enforcement of the bill until Texas’ repeat teen pregnancy rate dropped under 15%, and the other would have postponed enforcement until 2014, giving clinics more time to adopt newly required policies. 

It’s likely that we’ll see at least a few proposed amendments on the newly filed abortion bills. Should any of the amendments be successful, they would, at the very least, offer more time to women and clinics before the strict abortion restrictions went into place. Best case scenario, the extra year or two before the bill becomes enforceable may provide Democrats with enough time to regain control of the legislature — making it possible to repeal the bills. Anti-abortion bills aren’t the only thing on the agenda for this year’s second special, however. So far, transportation and sentencing requirements for 17 year olds convicted of felonies are on the agenda along with abortion. It’s pretty unlikely that the GOP will repeat their own mistake and allow abortion to wait until the end of the session, but no doubt Democrats have some tricks up their sleeves to drag out the debate on transportation and sentencing. It’s also worth noting that special sessions rarely span the full 30 day period they’re allowed, often wrapping up within one or two weeks.

Texas Legislature FAQ

How many people are there in the Texas Senate? There are 31 seats in the Senate, currently divided between 19 GOP Senators and 12 Democratic Senators.

How many people are there in Texas House?  There are 150 seats in the House, currently divided between 95 GOP Representatives and 55 Democratic Representatives.

How often does the legislature meet? Texas legislature is one of only a handful of states that meets biennally — five month sessions every other year. Because the legislature meets for such a short period of time, it does make special sessions more likely than they would normally be.

What’s a quorum? What do we need it for? A “quorum” means that a minimum number of members have to be present for business to proceed as usual. In the Senate, 2/3 of the members of the Senate have to be present. That means that if 11 members are gone, no Senate business can occur. Sometimes one party will refuse to show up to proceedings in one house (or both) in order to prevent unwanted legislation, but it’s a pretty extreme tactic that only happens in extremely rare instances. It’s possible that Democrats could prevent a quorum by refusing to show up to the second special session. In fact, Senators Zaffirini, Whitmire, West, Van de Putte, Lucio, Hinojosa, and Ellis, are all names that you probably remember from the Senate filibuster — they were all part of the “Texas Eleven,” when Texas Democrats refused to allow redistricting legislation by fleeing Senate proceedings and hiding in Albuqurque — so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

What is DPS? These troopers are from the Department of Public Safety. They’re basically state police officers.

Do we vote for the Governor and Lieutenant Governor on the same ticket? Okay, so nobody asked me this, but Virginia did suggest I share this info with y’all. We vote for them on separate tickets, meaning we could have a Gov. from one party and a Lt. Gov. from another (in fact, it’s happened several times before, once under Bush!)

What is the 2/3 rule in the Senate? 

*Y’all, there has been considerable confusion about the 2/3 rule in the Senate — I read the Senate rules 3 times and still couldn’t figure out why a 2/3 vote was required. Major shoutout to Ben Philpott at KUT News for finally providing the answer:

“In the Senate all bills are brought up in the order they get through committee and reach the senate floor. The first bill in line is called a blocker bill. If you want to get to something behind the blocker you have to suspend the Senate rules, which takes a two-thirds vote. And Democrats have enough votes to keep abortion skipping to the front of the line. In the first special session, the rule wasn’t in play because there wasn’t a blocker bill.

Before the first special session, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, questioned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst about a hypothetical second session, and if a blocker bill would be allowed. Watson asked if it would be appropriate to place a blocker bill on the call, if redistricting is passed in the first session.

Dewhurst said Senators should follow tradition and keep the two-thirds rule out of the first session because the legislature needed to pass redistricting. He then said they didn’t have to follow tradition in keeping the rule out of any future special sessions.

So, with redistricting maps passed, lawmakers might just see a few stumbling blocks in the form of blocker bills in the second special session.”

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3 Comments

  1. “Normally, a bill has to receive votes from 2/3 of the body in order to pass.” This is not accurate. A simple majority is enough to pass a bill; the 2/3 rule being circumvented is the Senate tradition of only taking up a bill if 2/3 of the body is willing. Also, perhaps historically special sessions wrapped up more quickly, but in recent history they have almost always gone the full 30 days or close to it.

    Reply

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