Monday, November 24, 2014

The Legislature is Upon Us

As provided for by our Texas Constitution, the Legislature will convene in regular session at high
noon on the second Tuesday of January in the coming odd-numbered year.  The Secretary of State will open the session.  The House will then proceed to select a Speaker, and we're off on another legislative adventure.

The Tea Party and far right-wing members of the House have threatened to try to overturn speaker Straus.  It appears, however, that Straus' reelection as Speaker of the House is safe. Numerous conservative Republicans have denounced the effort to field a Tea Party candidate against him on the grounds there is not enough support to do so, and they do not want to alienate the Speaker the first thing in a session.  Speaker Straus will proceed then, after his election, to name committees and committee chairs.  The power of the Speaker, once elected, is statutory--and he is given the right to control the flow of legislation through his committees and committee chairs.

Straus has a reputation for an evenhanded method of presiding over the House and is expected to continue in that posture.  The unusual thing about this session, however, is that, normally, the Senate is the more pliable body, softening often radical views. This time it appears there will be a role reversal in this respect.

On the Senate side this session things will be somewhat delayed.  The incoming Lt. Governor-elect will not be sworn in until 10 days after the session begins.  Out-going Lt. Governor Dewhurst will preside opening day.  The Senate will probably adopt rules early, but committee assignments will wait on the new Lt. Governor.

The Lt. Governor traditionally presides over the Texas Senate.  Texas is somewhat different from most other states in that the office of Lt. Governor in most states is generally ceremonial.  There is no statutory provision that the Lt. Governor will preside, name committees, or control the flow of legislation.  In most states the presiding officer is the person who is leader of the majority.  Texas' Lt. Governor fills this position only as a result of the rules of the Senate which can be changed at any time by a majority vote. There is some talk that if Dan Patrick, incoming Lt. Governor-elect, gets too heavy handed, there are those who would propose relegating him to the ceremonial role of Lt. Governor and hand the power of a presiding officer to some senator representing the majority party in the Senate.

One big fight which for a while seemed to be brewing was a fight over whether or not to abolish the two-thirds rule which has been prevalent in the Senate for almost 100 years.  This rule simply provides that some nominal bill is placed at the head of the calendar and any other bill must survive a motion to take it up out of the regular order which requires a 2/3 vote.  In the past the Senate has departed from this tradition, but only one or two times.  Lately, the observers in Austin feel that the incoming Lt. Governor has backed off from his position about abolishing this rule.  Although I once believed the two-thirds rule to be somewhat un-democratic, after serving in the Senate for a few years, I deemed it a good and workable provision in that it requires rational and cooperative conduct among the members of that body.

Education is always one of the hot issues in the Legislature because of it being a big-money issue.  The Legislature will be particularly focused on it this session in lieu of the court decision finding the Texas system of funding public education unconstitutional.  While the Legislature will meet for the first time in recent years with a surplus, the surplus will not be near enough to cure the funding problems of public education.

Water and highways will be two other huge issues.  In order to keep the pledge of no new taxes, recent legislators have conned the people into voting for a constitutional amendment allowing the state to go in debt for highways.  We currently owe about $29 billion for bonds issued for highways in Texas.  Although a recent constitutional amendment, Proposition One, has passed which would provide about a $1.5 billion dollars be placed into the highway fund from the Rainy Day Fund, it is not nearly enough money to even keep up with maintenance of the Texas highway system, let alone provide money for new projects.

This will keep the Legislature in somewhat of a bind in view of a public dissatisfaction with construction of toll roads--not the least of which is the fact that Texas law currently gives the right of eminent domain (taking your property whether you want to sell it or not) to foreign corporations to build profitable toll roads throughout Texas.

Legislation about guns is always a headline grabber in the state Legislature.  The big battle this session will be whether or not there can be open carry of guns.  Most police forces oppose the measure.  The NRA and other gun groups are somewhat less than united behind the measure--but it would be surprising if the measure did not pass the gun-conscious Texas Legislature.

For those of us who are political junkies, the coming legislative session will offer interesting reading in the newspaper and sometimes even amusing scenarios.  There have been over 1,500 bills introduced and more to come. Some bills are serious and need consideration.  Others are frivolous, and many are introduced merely for publicity.  Representative Four Price from West Texas has introduced 31 measures, most of which do little or nothing for the state.  A good example of bad legislation is Price's resolution to create a commemorative Ronald Reagan Day in Texas.

There are numerous ways the average Texas citizen can keep informed of what is happening in the Legislature.  All of us should take full advantage of these resources.  Just remember.  While the Legislature is in session what you don't know can certainly hurt you.

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