A member of the House must be a qualified voter, at least 21 years old and a Texas resident for two years, having resided in the district which elects them for at least one year A member of the Senate must be a qualified voter, at least 25 years old and a Texas resident for five years, having resided in his/her district for at least one year. All legislators are paid $7,200 annually with a current per diem of $128. For a regular session, a legislator’s annual salary totals $17,920 including their per diem. While more diverse than 30 years ago, the Legislature is still not representative of the electorate it serves. The legislature is comprised of almost 1/3 attorneys, but business owners and other professions are represented as well. Regular sessions of the state legislature last 140 days and begins the second Tuesday of January in odd numbered years. Special sessions , which can be called by the governor while the Legislature is adjourned, last for 30 days and will deal with an agenda set exclusively by the governor. If the Legislature is unable to resolve the issues that the governor has called the special session to address, these can be called repeatedly if the governor chooses.
The budgeting cycle begins with the Legislative Budget Board’s delivery to the legislature of its recommendations for appropriations in January before the session begins. An excellent flow chart of the process can be found on p. 12 of: http://www.senate.state.tx.us/SRC/pdf/Budget101_2005.pdf The legislative oversight process includes hearings during the regular session, committee investigations and audits of programs, especially during the sunset process. The Senate influences policy not only through the legislative process, but also because the Senate confirms or rejects gubernatorial appointments. In representing constituents, legislators my hold public meetings in their districts, and conduct polls or surveys to learn their views. Following reapportionment in Congress, each state is responsible for redrawing the electoral boundaries for state-wide elected offices. The Legislative Redistricting Board , comprised of the Lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the state Attorney General, the Comptroller and the Land Commissioner, was created by Constitutional amendment in 1948.
Redistricting can be particularly difficult, not only because of time constraints, but also because of the partisan nature it typically takes. The 1876 Texas Constitution fixed the state Senate at 31 members and membership of the House was initially set at 93. Future apportionments could expand the number of representatives to 150 based on a population ratio. Baker v. Carr was the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court which determined that redistricting was not a ‘political question’ and as a result, courts could review challenges. Reynolds v. Sims articulated the Court’s opinion that legislative districts needed to be roughly equal in population size and that the principle of “one man, one vote” would be best reflected if electoral districts were more evenly divided across the population. For Texas, this would reduce the electoral influence of rural districts and increase those of urban areas.
The Texas Speaker of the House is elected from the House membership by a simple majority on the first day of the regular session. The formal powers of the speaker gives this leader considerable authority over the membership and the processes in the House. The speaker on serves as vice-chair on the Legislative Budget Board as well as being a member of the Legislative Redistricting Board.
Unlike the vice-president, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor. Like the vice-president who serves as the president of the U.S .Senate, the lieutenant governor serves as president of the Texas Senate. While this office has very little administrative power, as the president of the Senate, the lieutenant governor wields quite a bit of power. Unlike the speaker of the House who can vote if he so chooses (though often abstains unless there is a tie), the lieutenant governor cannot vote unless his vote is necessary to break a tie.
Committees are responsible for reviewing legislation, offering amendments to it, or recommending further action. Committee chairs have considerable power over the legislation that is referred to their respective committees. Standing committees are the permanent committees within the House and Senate. Standing committees also meet during interim sessions to prepare discussions and work through potential agenda items for the next legislative session. The House had 43 standing committees and the Senate had 14. Membership ranges from 5-31 members. Conference committees are temporary committees made up of five senators and five representatives, each group appointed by their respective chamber’s leader, created to remove conflicting language between House and Senate versions of the same legislation. Select committees are special committees created occasionally to study some specific policy issue. The membership of select committees are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House.
A bill starts with an introduction in the House or Senate and gets referred to a committee; this action is what is called the first reading. The second reading occurs on the full floor of each house, where the bill is read again, amended perhaps, and given an up or down vote by the full body and sent to the other chamber where the process begins again. After the bill is given a preliminary pass (it could be voted down at this point and die), the bill will be considered by the entire chamber again on third reading . Although the Texas Constitution requires a bill to be read on three separate days in each house before it can have the force of law, this constitutional rule may be suspended by a four-fifths vote. If the other house approves the legislation without any amendments, the bill moves to the governor’s desk for approval, or veto . A veto, just like in Congress, is difficult to overcome though it can be overridden by a two-thirds vote. HB1, which is always the appropriations bill , presents the governor with another option, where the line-item-veto , can be used to strike appropriations. In other words, the governor can choose to disallow spending of some amount as proposed by the legislature.
In addition to the obstacle of time, there are other rules in the Senate which can lead to a bill’s demise. For example, in the Senate, the two-thirds rule, requires 20 Senators to agree that a bill should move to the full floor for debate. Tags allow individual Senators to postpone a committee hearing on any bill for at least 48 hours. Tags are similar to holds in the US Senate. Finally, there is the filibuster , which allows a Senator to speak against a bill for as long as he or she can stand and talk. The local consent calendar provides a means by which noncontroversial items can be voted upon without debate, but a single Senator or three Representatives can object and have the legislation removed from it. Finally, the mere act of voting on legislation is not without its controversy. Until a 2007 constitutional amendment, the votes in the House were made by division , which simply temporarily tallied votes as items were presented, leaving no permanent record of which member voted, or whether yes or no. This often resulted in the practice of ‘ ghost-voting ’ where absent members ’ votes were made on their behalf by colleagues who were on the floor. All votes now are recorded and become part of the legislative record of the session. In the Senate, a roll-call vote is taken.
While the legislature was designed to institutionalize conflict, decorum and civility to other members is expected. For the process to work, legislators, in spite of ideological differences, do develop working relationships with each other that include some degree of trust. Legislators rely on many sources to help them form opinions about voting. Their staff, which is responsible for evaluating the substance of legislation as well as understanding the preferences of the district will assist in informing the legislator about the implications of a vote one way or another. Of course, all legislators rely upon the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Council to provide expertise respecting economic and technical information about a bill. Interest groups are major sources of information for legislators. These provide substantial information respecting the implication of legislation on these groups constituents. Lobbyists for interest groups also provide contributions and support for legislators during campaign seasons.
Since the 1970s both the size and quality of Legislative staff has increased and improved. Partly a result of the growing population size of Texas, legislators maintain fully-staffed offices in both Austin and their districts, even during the interim years. These staff include secretaries and clerks, who are sometimes interns from universities seeking to gain experience in legislative offices. In Austin, it is more common to see a larger, full-time staff of clerks and even lawyers who help the legislator craft bills or study impact. Each chamber has a specialized unit, funded as part of the budget to assist in the analysis of legislation. In the House, the House Research Organization provides house members brief overviews of the economic implications and substantive effect of legislation on the state and potentially their districts. In the Senate, the Senate Research Center provides the same to senate members. Unfortunately, attempts at reform are often the result of scandals in Texas. Under Governor Richards, the Legislature created the Ethics Commission which is the functional equivalent to the Federal Elections Commission, and serves as the reporting body for campaign contributions and investigatory arm for campaign and elections complaints. It has regulatory authority and can fine individuals for violating the ethics law.
In 15 states, term limits for state legislators have been enacted, but in all but one the law restricting member terms has been enacted through the process of initiative and referendum. Texans do not enjoy the right of initiative and referendum at the state level—there is an application of this at the larger city (home rule) level. Research shows that neither the advocates nor opponents were completely accurate in their assessments of the impact of term limits on legislative behavior. On the up-side, term limits have permitted legislators to look beyond the narrow confines of their district and to focus on the greater needs of the state. They have also empowered the governor and legislative staffers while weakening legislative leaders.
Because of the short session in the Texas legislature, if the governor vetoes a bill after the session is over, the legislature has no recourse. This means that legislation they worked hard to craft may die and cannot be reconsidered until the next session, two years later.