How Texas passes new laws

The Texas Legislature could pass as many as 1,000 new laws this session, with lawmakers working their way through a system designed to kill bills, not pass them.

The idea of limited government and a citizen Legislature underscores the way the Lone Star State makes its laws. Legislators are paid little, meet for just 140 days every other year, and their only constitutional requirement is to pass a budget.

The 31 members of the Texas Senate and the 150 members of the Texas House file thousands of bills each session and pass only about 20 percent of them through a procedure in which lawmakers are given several chances to spike the bills altogether.

"The system is designed to create a thousand ways to kill a bill, and only one or two ways to pass it," said Harvey Kronberg, a longtime political observer in Austin and the founder of Quorum Report. "It's designed to kill legislation both publicly and privately."

Now that the bill-filing deadline has passed and legislators are working to pass bills in earnest, the public will hear more about the minutiae of committees, readings, points of order, calendars and amendments.

The process for passing bills is generally the same for both the House and the Senate. Here is how it works:

Bill writing

Lawmakers work with advocates, lawyers, lobbyists and constituents for weeks, months and sometimes years to write bills.

For omnibus bills, teams of lawmakers and experts sometimes spend years crafting legislation. All of them rely on one lawmaker to "carry" the bill through the process, though a bill can have upward of 100 co-sponsors if it is popular.

"The most successful people in passing bills start six months before the legislative session," Kronberg said. "They bring the interested parties together to find compromise language so that by the time they get here and the assassins are out, they at least have a first line of defense. But we start with 5,000 bills and might pass 1,000, so the winnowing process is obviously easier than the passing process."

Bill filing

After a bill has been written, it is sent to Legislative Council, where a team of legal experts and writers vet it to make sure it does not violate the Texas Constitution or include language that could get Texas into a lawsuit, and to otherwise ensure the language in the bill conforms to style.

A bill must have an enacting clause, for example, saying when it would go into effect. Lege Council, as it is called, has to sign off on a bill before it can be filed.

Bills are given numbers based on the order in which they are filed, except for the first 10, which are reserved for priority legislation. HB 1 and SB 1 (House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1), for example, are the budget bills. HB 5 refers to the House's public education testing bill. HB 4 relates to the state water plan.

Bill referral

After a bill is filed, it is undergoes what is known as a "first reading" and is then referred to a committee. The House speaker and the lieutenant governor have the final say on which bills go where, and often it depends on whose bill it is and who the committee chairman or -woman is.

The members of the committees—as few as five, as many as 27—are considered when referring important pieces of legislation. Generally, bills are referred based on their topic: transportation bills go to the Transportation Committee, revenue bills go to Ways and Means, health bills go the Health and Human Services committees.

Committees

Committee heads schedule bills for hearings, where most of the bills will die. The committee is another vetting process for legal issues and unintended consequences, and offers a place to strengthen the priority bills and hear public input.

A hearing does not guarantee passage, but a bill cannot pass a committee without a public hearing. Meetings are open to the public and subject to public meetings notices. Committee schedules are posted online: www.legis.state.tx.us.

The bill needs a simple majority of a quorum of members voting on the bill in a public meeting before it can move on to the next step.

House calendars

After a bill survives committee, it goes through one more process before it can get a debate on the House or Senate floor. This is another place bills die, and where the Senate and House differ slightly.

In the House, the bill goes to the Calendars committee. The chairman of Calendars, currently Republican Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, is considered one of the most powerful people in the House because he or she can simply choose not to call a bill up for a vote—even if it has made it through the committee process.

But Calendars chairmen and -women are expected to wield their power fairly, and while they do follow priorities and an agenda, an abusive chair who only calls up bills he or she wants to pass is usually rebuked by the chamber, the speaker or the members.

The Calendars committee may also take a vote and schedule a bill for a floor vote.

Senate 'two-thirds' rule

In the Senate, there is no Calendars committee, but a rule requires a bill to have the support of a two-thirds majority of the senators present on the floor before it can be called up for a vote.

This leads to much behind-the-scenes work both to kill bills and to bring them up for a vote. Once a bill passes a Senate Committee, it goes on the "intent calendar," where it stays until the lieutenant governor calls it up.

Bills almost never die on the Senate floor. In the House, it happens all the time. A bill cannot become a law until it passes both the House and the Senate.

Floor debate and vote

Once a bill gets to the floor, the author lays out the bill and the debate begins. For the controversial ones, or the bills that have far-reaching effects, debates can last hours. A school testing bill, for example, passed after nine hours of debate on the House floor.

"You have 150 people, each representing a different part of Texas, and there is no place in the world where you could bring together this diverse a group of people," said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. "You lock them in a room for what will probably be 12 hours just today as we debate the budget, in a room the size of a basketball gymnasium, and force them to talk about all the things your grandmother told you was not to be discussed in polite company—politics, religion, sex, all of that comes into the debate on the floor.

"And people are surprised that the system can seem dysfunctional? The miracle is that anything ever gets done at all."

Debate is where lawmakers can kill a bill with either simple "no" votes or through a "point of order," typically a clerical mistake or something in the bill that does not follow the letter of the law.

If the House Parliamentarian upholds the "point of order," always pointed out by a bill's opponent, the bill suffers a setback from which it may or may not recover.

The more popular way to kill a bill on the floor is to vote it down. The floor is also where lawmakers can attach amendments to the bill, with or without permission of the bill's author, by winning over the majority of the chamber.

When the House or Senate pass the bill, it is known as "second reading." A day later, the chamber must vote on it again in "third reading." At this point, a two-thirds majority must be willing to change it or kill it, and very few bills are changed or killed on third reading.

After a bill passes third reading, it is sent to the other chamber—House bills pass and go to the Senate; Senate bills pass and are sent to the House. Bills require a simple majority vote to pass. Constitutional amendments need a two-thirds majority, and then a vote of the people in the next general election.

Passage and conference

Once a bill passes its own chamber and is sent to the other side of the Capitol Rotunda, the process starts over again.

If the Senate makes changes to a House bill, or the House makes changes to a Senate bill, the lieutenant governor and House speaker assign a conference committee with members of both chambers to work out the differences. If they cannot come to an agreement, the bill dies.

If they can, the compromise is then presented to each chamber for a vote. If the chambers do not like the changes, the bill dies. If they approve the changes, the bill is (finally) sent to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

The governor

The last way for a bill to die is a veto, and Perry sometimes vetoes dozens of bills that have fought their way through the session. Bills that have more than two-thirds support of the House and Senate can override the veto, but those with just a simple majority cannot.

The Texas governor does not have line-item veto.

But presuming Perry does not want to kill all the hard work the lawmaker just went through, and is going to let the bill pass, there are two things that will happen.

  1. Perry will "sign" the bill, in a ceremony with supporters and television cameras and photographers, with a fancy pen, typically in a strategic location.

  2. Perry will just let the bill become law without his signature.


All bills that reach the governor's desk become law unless he vetoes them, regardless of whether they get a bill signing and photo op. His signature is strictly ceremonial.