Understanding the System, the Deadlines, and the Deception
The Texas Legislature convenes for only 140 days every odd-numbered year, but all of that time is not spent working on passing legislation. The Texas Constitution outlines calendar deadlines dictating when bills can be filed, when they can be discussed and voted on in committee, and finally, when they can head to the floor to be discussed and voted on by the entire body of the House or Senate.
Why It’s Important:
It’s important to understand how these deadlines work because all too often they are used to torpedo legislation. A legislator can stall on a bill while it is in committee so that it never reaches a vote on the floor before the entire House or Senate.
This is a common and sadly effective method to kill a bill without lawmakers having to go on the record with a vote for or against legislation. Legislators too often use the calendar deadlines as a convenient excuse, letting legislation “die on the vine,” so they don’t have to explain to their constituents why they are not voting as they promised they would on the campaign trail.
Savvy political activists and concerned voters need to understand the calendar system so they can hold their legislators accountable and not get hoodwinked with a “time ran out” excuse.
A Simple Explanation for a Not-So-Simple Process:
We have provided a very basic outline for the legislative process including the important deadlines.
STEP ONE: BILL IS FILED.
60 Day Rule: During the first sixty days of each legislative session, bills may be filed and heard in committee, but typically not heard or debated on the floor before the entire legislative body. For this 85th Session of the Texas Legislature, the sixty days ended March 10, 2017.
Two Exceptions to the 60 Day Rule:
First, legislators may suspend the “regular order of business.” By a four-fifths vote, legislators can suspend this regular order of business and move faster. This was often done in the past, but has fallen out of practice over the past decade. Unless the regular order of business is suspended, the first sixty days are reserved for filing bills and holding committee hearings.
Second, when the governor deems certain issues “Emergency Items,” bills related to those items are not subject to the 60-day waiting period. Those bills are allowed to be heard by the full House and Senate as soon as they pass out of their respective committees.
To date, Governor Greg Abbott has declared four emergency items for the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature: Child Protective Services reform, ethics reform regarding the finances of elected officials, an Article V Convention of the States, and a ban on sanctuary cities.
The Texas Senate has already passed all four emergency items, while the Texas House has only partially addressed CPS reform.
STEP TWO: BILL IS ASSIGNED TO A COMMITTEE.
When a bill is first introduced on the House or Senate floor (first reading) the caption of the bill is read, after which the bill is immediately referred to a related committee. For example, legislation that would affect the care of foster children is typically assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. While the bill is in its assigned committee being debated and voted on, it is considered in between first and second reading. If the bill is passed in committee, it moves to the next step.
STEP THREE: BILL IS SCHEDULED FOR A VOTE.
It is particularly important for concerned citizens to pay close attention to this step. Many bills die because they languish waiting to be scheduled for a floor vote despite receiving support in a committee.
In the Texas House, once a bill passes out of its assigned issue-specific committee, it heads to the Calendars Committee which decides the order in which bills will be heard by the entire body of the House. Because bills must go through the Calendars Committee, this committee effectively serves as a gatekeeper with the power to kill legislation before it reaches the floor. If and when the Calendars Committee does approve a bill, it is scheduled for debate and vote on the floor.
For the Texas Senate, once a bill passes out of its assigned committee, it heads to the intent calendar before the full body of the Senate. The intent calendar essentially serves as a “hopper” from which Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick can choose which bills to bring to the floor of the Senate. In order for the lieutenant governor to take up a bill from the intent calendar, 60% (19) of the 31 senators must vote to open debate on the bill.
STEP FOUR: THE BILL IS DEBATED, AMENDED, AND VOTED ON.
Once the bill comes to the floor for a vote, the bill’s caption is read again before the full House or Senate, the bill’s author makes an introductory presentation about the bill, and the bill is opened for debate, amendments, and eventually a vote. This is known as the bill’s “second reading.” If the bill is passed, it moves to the next step.
Below are a few important Texas House deadlines for citizens to be aware of as they urge their elected officials to act on particular legislation:
- 122nd Day (May 11, 2017): The last day House bills can be heard on second reading on the House floor.
- 130th Day (May 19, 2017): The last day “local” bills – legislation impacting only a certain area of the state – can be heard on second reading in the House.
- 134th Day (May 23, 2017): The last day Senate Bills can be heard on the House floor on second reading.
Once the bill passes second reading, it must be read again and voted on again at “third reading.” In the House this is typically done on the following legislative day, allowing members an opportunity to review any amendments that were adopted during second reading and propose additional clean-up amendments during the third reading debate. The Senate, on the other hand, often votes to waive the constitutional rule requiring that bills be read on three separate days. If the motion to waive the rule is approved, the the bill’s caption is read again for a third time and the bill is voted on again. If the rule is not waived, then the bill will typically be read again and voted on the next legislative day.
STEP FIVE: THE BILL MOVES TO THE OTHER CHAMBER AND REPEATS THE PROCESS.
Once a bill moves from the House to the Senate or the Senate to the House, it begins the process again at first reading in that other chamber. While in the other chamber, a bill may be amended or even totally rewritten. If the bill is passed on third reading in the other chamber, then it is returned to the original chamber which can vote to either approve of the changes that have been made, or reject the changes and request the appointment of a conference committee. If the original chamber approves of the changes, then the bill is sent to the governor.
However, if a conference committee is requested, then members from each chamber may be appointed to work out the differences between the two chambers. If the conferees are able to agree on a final version of the bill, then the conference committee’s report will be submitted back to each chamber for a final vote. If the conference committee report is approved by both chambers, then that final version of the bill will be sent to the governor.
STEP SIX: THE BILL IS SENT TO THE GOVERNOR’S DESK WHERE IT MAY BE SIGNED, VETOED, OR IN SOME CASES, BECOME LAW WITHOUT BEING SIGNED.
Once a bill is approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it will be transmitted to the Governor. There, the Governor will have a period of time to decide whether he wants to sign the bill, veto the bill, or allow the bill to become law without his signature. If he chooses to veto the bill while the legislature is still in session, then the bill is transmitted back to the House and Senate where the veto can be overridden by a vote of two-thirds of the members in each chamber.
KNOWLEDGE FOR THE WIN.
The legislative process shouldn’t be cloaked and mysterious to citizens. Legislators shouldn’t use deadlines and jargon to shirk the promises they made to voters. Grassroots activists armed with knowledge about calendar deadlines can more expertly navigate and impact the activity in Austin. Watching the clock and urging action is critical to any plan to achieve victory.
Our How It Works series pulls back the curtain on the inter-workings of state government by identifying who’s involved, defining what they do, and explaining the motivations behind their actions.