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Texas Legislature 101: Understanding the state government and how it passes laws

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Posted at 8:29 AM, Jan 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-11 09:29:17-05

The first time Shera Eichler entered the Texas Capitol to work as a legislative aide in 2002, she was nervous. She didn’t have much experience at the Capitol, apart from a visit through a school field trip.

But she was quickly promoted about a month later to chief of staff for a Republican state representative due to a vacancy.

Now, Eichler, a government affairs consultant, knows the legislative process well, having worked for that representative for about 18 years. She credits it to her willingness to ask questions and to having seasoned mentors.

“It is not unusual to ask the questions,” she said. “There are so many new faces every session and so many people learning.”

Lawmakers start convening today to represent the voters who elected them into office, and there are many ways for Texans to learn and get involved as representatives and senators vote on everything from abortion policy to public education funding.

Here’s a rundown of how the Texas Legislature works and how you can participate in it.

What is the Texas Legislature?

The Texas Legislature is made up of the 150-member Texas House of Representatives, known as the lower chamber, and the 31-member Texas Senate, known as the upper chamber. Each member represents a geographic district. These political districts were redrawn in 2021. Find your districts here and your lawmakers here.

After the 2022 elections, Republicans hold 86 of the seats in the House and 19 of the seats in the Senate.

Every odd-numbered year, the state Legislature gathers to pass a two-year state budget and other laws from January to May. This is known as a regular legislative session.

The governor can also call for lawmakers to convene for up to 30 days outside of this time frame during a special session in which lawmakers can pass laws only on issues outlined by the governor. In 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott called three special sessions to address voting legislation, COVID-19 relief funds and redistricting, among other things.

How does a bill become a law in Texas?

Lawmakers have been filing bills since Nov. 14, and more than 1,600 bills have been filed already. Lawmakers can continue filing any bills during the first 60 calendar days of the legislative session. After that point, only bills related to local matters or emergency items and appropriations can be filed, unless four-fifths of lawmakers are present in a chamber vote to suspend the rule.

While thousands of bills are filed — more than 7,000 bills were filed in the two most recent regular sessions — only around a thousand will pass.

“The system is designed to kill legislation, not pass legislation,” said Kathy Green, the director of state and federal strategy for AARP Texas who has 30 years of experience working in the Legislature, in state agencies and with interest groups.

First, a bill must be referred to a committee in the chamber where it was introduced by the speaker of the House or the lieutenant governor in the Senate. The committee chair then decides which legislation will be considered when the committee meets.

If a committee takes up a bill, a public hearing with opportunity for public testimony is held. The committee can then choose to report, or advance, a bill to the rest of the chamber or to not take action on the legislation.

Most bills are referred to a committee, but many are never considered or are left pending in a committee, according to the state’s handbook on the legislative process.

“Step No. 1 in advocacy is to lobby to get the bill scheduled for a hearing and not to overlook that important step,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has served in the Texas Senate since 1987 and claims a record of passing the most bills.

To get a bill a hearing, Zaffirini said people should work with the staff of the authors or sponsors of a bill and the staff of the committee it was referred to.

Once a bill has been reported out of a committee, it must be scheduled for debate on the floor of the chamber, among other members.

After debate on a bill, the majority of lawmakers in a chamber has to approve the bill twice in order for it to pass. While the Senate usually takes both votes on the same day, the House normally doesn’t.

After a bill is passed in the chamber it originated in, it is referred to the other chamber, where the bill must go through the same process. And if it is passed, the two chambers must agree on any changes they made to the legislation before it is sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Further complicating this process: Lawmakers must meet certain deadlines to act on bills and move them forward. This means drawn-out debates on bills or amendments can be a strategic move to kill a bill before certain midnight deadlines.

“Amendments [are] really the way that you can get in under the hood of a piece of legislation, and really try to modify it for the better [or] try to modify it for the worst if you’re trying to defeat it [by] creat[ing] like a poison pill in the legislation,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy director for MOVE Texas, an organization that focuses on voting rights, climate justice and criminal legal reform.

A poison pill would be an amendment that changes a bill’s intent, makes it ineffective or less palatable for lawmakers to pass.

Amendments can also be used to revive bills that have failed to move forward if the bills address similar issues and the amendments are accepted by the bill author, Green said. Lawmakers can also challenge and derail bills if a rule wasn’t followed through a point of order — also called a POO. The minority priority often uses this tactic to kill a bill when they lack the votes.

Resolutions, such as joint resolutions calling to put an amendment to the Texas Constitution on the ballot for voters, follow slightly different legislative processes. You can read more details about resolutions and the lawmaking process in the state’s handbook.

The state budget bill is developed through a two-year process that is led by the Legislative Budget Board, which is co-chaired by the speaker and lieutenant governor, and includes input from state agencies, the governor’s office and the comptroller. While lawmakers pass hundreds of new laws every legislative session, the budget bill — which pays for state agencies, public education, health care, roads and more — is the only piece of legislation lawmakers have to pass. You can read more about that process here.

Who are the power players? 

The legislative session is run primarily by a handful of powerful figures in Texas politics: the governor, the lieutenant governor, the House speaker and the chairs of the Legislature’s committees.

Only the governor can call a special session, but their power is otherwise rather limited in the Texas Legislature.

The governor outlines emergency items, or priorities. During the first 60 calendar days of a legislative session, lawmakers can pass only legislation related to the governor’s emergency items.

The governor can also sign or veto bills, including line items in the state budget passed by lawmakers. Lawmakers can override a veto with two-thirds votes from the members present in each chamber, but they rarely do, Green said.

“That's where a lot of his power comes in,” she said. “He has that ability to decide whether that bill actually becomes law or not.”

If a governor takes no action on a bill, it still becomes law. The governor may leave a bill unsigned as a symbolic act or to distance themselves from the legislation, said Sherri Greenberg, a professor of practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a former Democratic state representative.

It’s the lieutenant governor, the second-highest statewide elected official in the state, who is regarded as the most powerful person in the Texas Legislature, Green said, because they oversee the Texas Senate. In addition to referring bills to committees, the lieutenant governor has wide discretion over who to name to a committee and the deciding word if there’s a tie or procedural question.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has held the office since 2015, has also gained power in the Senate by lowering the threshold of votes needed to bypass a Senate tradition and bring a bill to the floor for debate. Historically, the Senate has placed a “blocker bill” at the top of its daily agenda, preventing the Senate from passing any other bills unless two-thirds of senators agreed to “suspend the regular order of business” and skip over the blocker bill.

The tradition lends the minority power by requiring bipartisanship to advance a bill, but Patrick has swayed senators to vote to lower that threshold during his tenure. Essentially, this means Republicans in the Senate can advance a bill without the support of a single Democrat.

The speaker of the House plays a similar role as the lieutenant governor but must be elected by their colleagues. Still, the speaker in the Texas Legislature usually holds more power than the speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives because state representatives tend to follow the speaker’s lead, said Brendan Steinhauser, a political strategist who has done legislative or political work since 2002 and works with conservative groups such as the Young Americans for Liberty.

“People realize how much power the speaker has in terms of their bills getting killed,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, who was elected as speaker of the House in 2021, is expected to be re-elected by his colleagues, according to Greenberg and Capitol onlookers.

The chairs of some committees are also particularly influential. For example, the House Calendars Committee, as well as the Senate Administration, House Appropriation and the Senate Finance committees can play key roles in whether bills are heard on the floor of the chamber or are funded.

“So it’s a matter of not only lobbying the committee that is considering the bill and the members who will vote for the bill, but also the members of the finance committee and the members who will vote for the budget because funding is critical,” Zaffirini said.

The State Affairs Committee in both chambers is also powerful because it has broad jurisdiction to receive bills on almost any topic.

Historically, the speaker of the House has appointed committee chairs from both parties, but some Republicans and conservative groups have recently pushed back against that practice.

What’s the pace of the Texas Legislature?

The first three months of the legislative session are usually slow. After lawmakers gavel in on Tuesday, new members will be sworn in, a speaker of the House will be elected and each chamber will adopt its rules.

Usually by late January, the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor will name lawmakers to committees, which will begin holding hearings for bills, Green said. And in early February, the governor usually outlines his emergency items during his State of the State speech.

This is a good time to make your voice heard by contacting your lawmakers’ offices or participating in public testimony, according to longtime advocates.

In April and May, the pace quickens as lawmakers rush to meet deadlines. During this time, the work days at the Capitol get longer, and lawmakers may work through the weekend to negotiate and pass legislation.

Here are some key dates for the upcoming session:

  • Jan. 10 is the first day of the legislative session.
  • March 11 is the 60th day and the unrestricted bill filing deadline.
  • May 29 is sine die or the last day of the legislative session.
  • June 18 is the last day the governor can sign or veto bills.
  • Aug. 27 is the day most bills will go into effect if they didn’t pass with more than two-thirds of votes. Bills that had two-thirds support can go into effect earlier.

How can I keep up with bills and meetings?

The Texas Legislature Online: Through the Legislature’s website, you can find the bills that have been filed in this legislative session or in past sessions and see their progress. You can create a personal list of bills to easily view and set up email alerts for updates on legislation. And you can get email alerts for when notices of a committee hearing are posted. You can also use the website to find links to broadcasts of floor or committee meetings in each chamber and other resources, such as a glossary of legislative terms.

The Bill Status Hotline: During the legislative session, you can call 877-824-7038 in Texas to get “up-to-the-minute” information about a bill’s status, the legislative process, help getting a copy of the bill and contact information for a lawmaker’s office, according to the Legislative Reference Library. But hotline staff cannot interpret a bill or transfer your call to a lawmaker’s office. The Legislative Reference Library also has an FAQ on the Legislature and other resources, including a daily collection of news stories related to the state Legislature.

The Texas Tribune: You can also keep up with critical news of the Legislature through the Texas Tribune’s coverage. Here are some of the ways you can follow our work:

  • Watch our livestream of the Texas House and Senate. We will be livestreaming every minute from the House and Senate chambers here. We may also sometimes stream committee hearings on pages for specific stories.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters. For summaries of the most important Texas news from us and other news outlets, you can sign up for The Brief, our free daily newsletter, or for The Briefly Weekly. You can also sign up for breaking news alerts or weekly RSS newsletters compiling all our stories on topics such as the Texas Legislature, education and health care.
  • Join our texting line. We send a text about once a week on the most essential updates on the Texas Legislature, including on how to participate. You can also send us your questions about the legislative process or the topics that matter the most to you. Text “hello” to 512-967-6919 or sign up online here.
  • Listen to our podcasts. The Brief podcast provides a quick, daily rundown of Texas news, and our reporters and editors discuss Texas politics on our weekly podcast, TribCast.

Can I really help lead to change in the Legislature?

Even though most legislation dies and one party currently holds control of the Legislature, political strategists, advocates and lawmakers all say addressing issues is still possible in the Legislature.

“The Legislature teaches you that strange things happen,” said Birnel of MOVE Texas. “In part because of the volume of bills and the short amount of time they all have to make it through, a lot of legislation dies, even things that are priorities, so to speak, of the majority party, and good amendments make it through.”

For example, Texans can now track their mail-in ballots online thanks to a bill passed in 2021, even amid dissent among lawmakers on other voting legislation, Birnel said.

Often, passing legislation requires determination.

“Persistence is the name of the game,'' Zaffirini said, pointing to the 2017 passage of legislation she championed that banned texting while driving in the state. While the House bill passed in 2017, Zaffirini first filed legislation on the policy in 2009. “Times change, people change, situations change. When I first filed my anti-texting bill, I couldn’t even get a hearing, and finally I passed it in the Senate.”

Once you pass a bill, it can become easier to pass other related bills and create more change, said Luke Metzger, the executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas.

“It’s easy to get frustrated and then just cynical about the process,” he said. “What’s kept me going for 20-plus years of working on this has just been working for that incremental progress because that makes a difference. Even small changes can have meaningful impacts on people’s lives.”

So how can I participate in the Legislature?

Contact your lawmakers: You don’t have to be an expert to meet or talk with a legislator’s office. Everyday Texans can also share their concerns and personal stories, which can be the most effective advocacy, Green said.

“If you’ve got stories about those actual things that affect your daily life, talk to your legislator about that,” she said. “They need to hear the stories; they need to understand what people back in their districts are facing.”

But it helps to be prepared with knowledge of the legislation, including its impact and possible costs, and about the lawmaker you’re contacting, Zaffirini said. For example, don’t lobby a legislator to support a bill if they’ve authored it or if the legislation has already passed in their chamber, she said.

The sooner you contact your lawmakers’ offices, the more likely you’re able to meet with someone and build relationships that can help later in the process. Meeting with the staff of a lawmaker can be just as important or more important than meeting with a legislator.

“Staff is very important in the process because staff makes the recommendations regarding the bill,” Zaffirini said. “So by working with a staff, [voters] prepare the staff to be persuasive with a member.”

You can also email lawmakers’ offices, which typically include staff members dedicated to reading through correspondence, Eichler said.

Testify at a public hearing: You can register through kiosks at the Capitol or online while using the Capitol Wi-Fi. In the Senate, you may have to fill out a card in person during the hearing to testify. You can find more tips on how to testify here.

It is more impactful to succinctly speak about your experience than it is to read written testimony or just cite facts, Metzger said. But you can also submit written testimony or have someone else testify on your behalf.

It can take time for legislation to come up for discussion in a committee hearing, especially if a hearing is scheduled for after a chamber meets for floor debate, so it helps to be prepared to be at the Capitol for a while or to ask the staff of a bill’s author or a committee when the legislation could be heard.

“Planning is critical, and typically plan to spend the day and stay overnight if necessary,” Zaffirini said. It can also help to communicate with staff if you need to leave by a certain time, she said.

Join an advocacy group: If you find an organization that is working on issues that matter to you, they can help you navigate and stay engaged in the legislative process, Birnel said. For example, Birnel said MOVE Texas plans to bring young people to the Capitol for lobby days. Organizations can also share your insights and concerns when they work with lawmakers to craft or advocate for legislation and amendments.

But it doesn’t take a well-funded organization, Eichler said.

“Maybe there's a group of parents or a group of your neighbors that share the same common concerns, where you can all meet with the legislator together or send a letter together,” she said.

Raise awareness in your community: Even if you can’t make it to the Capitol, contacting your lawmaker or raising awareness in your community could also help move the needle on an issue, Metzger said.

“Often, what you do in the district is far more important than what happens in the building because the legislators ultimately respond to their constituents and have to represent the constituents,” he said.

You can also write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or talk to the news media. And these days, you can easily share your story on social media and tag lawmakers, Birnel said.

Disclosure: AARP Texas, MOVE Texas and University of Texas at Austin - LBJ School of Public Affairs have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/10/texas-legislature-2023-bills-laws-governor-speaker-lieutenant-governor/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

"Texas Legislature 101: Understanding the state government and how it passes laws" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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