Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pyrrhic Victory

I believe it was a major strategic mistake for Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth) to filibuster SB 1811 and force the First Called Session.

A Regular Session of the Texas Legislature is designed to kill bills: A Called Session is designed to pass bills. In a Regular Session, approximately 6,000 bills compete for scarce committee and calendar time: In a Called Session, the only bills eligible for consideration are those determined to be within the Call of the Governor. In a Regular Session, the Senate has a blocker bill and requires two-thirds or 21 votes to pass most legislation: In a Called Session, there will be no blocker bill in the Senate and it will only require a majority or 16 votes to pass legislation.

The Democrats are hoping that the public will become engaged and enraged in a Called Session regarding the $4 billion in proposed cuts to public education. However, the Republican leadership intends to pass SB 1811 quickly before the opposition can fully mobilize.

The Republican leadership will then be free to pass other conservative issues that failed in the Regular Session. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst listed 9 issues that he would like to see on the Call in a letter to the Governor yesterday:
  • SB 1811 relating to school finance;
  • SB 23 relating to Medicaid cost savings;
  • SB 8 relating to the quality and efficiency of health care;
  • HB 5 relating to a health care compact;
  • HB 12 relating to sanctuary cities;
  • HB 272 relating to TWIA;
  • HB 400 relating to efficiencies in the operation of public schools;
  • HB 1937 relating to TSA groping; and
  • Congressional redistricting.
Without the two-thirds rule in the Senate and the logjam of bills in both the House and Senate, the floor time and votes will now be there to pass all of these bills -- and others such as campus carry -- if the Republican leadership so desires. Sen. Davis passionately believed that she was making a principled stand Sunday night and successfully killed SB 1811. However, it portends a Pyrrhic victory for the Democrats.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

House and Senate Conferees Agree on Budget

The HB 1 Conference Committee just met and approved the budget for FY 2012/13. The Conference Committee Report will now go to the full House and Senate, where it will need to be approved by a majority vote in each body. This is anticipated to take place Saturday.

SB 1811 is the remaining must pass bill for the biennial budget. It is currently in conference between the House and Senate as they negotiate how to allocate the $4 billion in cuts to public education. The procedural deadline for the SB 1811 CCR to be filed is midnight Saturday. Practically, however, it also needs to occur tomorrow or it will be vulnerable to a filibuster in the Senate.

HB 1 and SB 1811 provide a balanced budget for the FY 2012/13 biennium. To eliminate the deficit in the current biennium ending August 31, HB 4 must still pass. HB 4 passed the Senate last night, and it now goes back to the House for concurrence or conference. HB 275 appropriating $3.2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to pay the deficit for the current FY 2010/11 deficit has already passed both bodies and is headed to the Governor for signature.

Senator Ogden said that the Texas budget this session is the hardest matter he has ever worked on. However, he stated that if each of the above four bills passes and becomes law, Texas will have a balanced budget for the next two years and will have covered its current biennial deficit. And, most importantly to this observer in the Gallery, we will have avoided a Special Session!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The End is Near (For Real, This Time)

Eight days remain in the 82nd Regular Session. Midnight Tuesday is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House on second reading; midnight Wednesday is the deadline in both the House and the Senate for all bills to pass.

The 82nd Texas Legislature convened on January 11 with two dominant issues on the agenda: the budget and redistricting.

At this point, it is likely, although not certain, the budget will pass. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Speaker Straus have announced an agreement in principle on the budget. In the next three days both the House and Senate are scheduled to pass the remaining bills necessary to finalize the budget. A budget conferee told me there was an 80% chance everything will get done; last week, the conferee said the odds would have been 30%.

House and Senate redistricting plans have passed, and the legislature is cautiously optimistic that Gov. Perry will allow the plans to become law without his signature. Time has run out for a congressional redistricting map to pass, although it is expected that a plan will be laid out this week.

Gov. Perry's aides are telling legislators that a special session on congressional redistricting alone will not be called. Instead the federal courts will be allowed to draw the map. In the summer of 2003, Gov. Perry called three special sessions so that the legislature could draw congressional maps and replace a court drawn plan. The difference between the summer of 2003 and 2011? The Presidency. Team Perry wants everything wrapped up and the legislature gone by May 30; thereby eliminating legislative distractions this summer as Gov. Perry continues to blossom into a very viable possibility for the Republican presidential nomination.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Only Question is the Call for the Special Session

There will be a special session of the Texas legislature this summer, most likely beginning July 11. There is no longer time to pass a congressional redistricting plan. If the Governor does not call the legislature back, then the federal courts will draw the congressional maps and apportion the four new seats. It is inconceivable to me that the Governor will not call the legislature back, given that he called three special sessions in 2003 for congressional redistricting.

House and Senate conferees continue to negotiate HB 1 and attempt to avoid a special session. Wednesday will be a critical day as the House takes up the fiscal matters bills. Unless these bills pass, the call or agenda for the special session will include all or part of the budget along with congressional redistricting.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Semana de los Muertos

The eighteenth week of the Regular Session is always an interesting one. At midnight tonight, House bills that have not been reported from committee are no longer eligible for further consideration. By 10 p.m. tomorrow night, the final House calendar for Thursday must be set. Midnight on Thursday is the last day a non-local House bill can pass the House on Second Reading. If a non-local House bill is not set on the calendar by Thursday, or if it does not pass the House by midnight Thursday, it is dead.

In addition to procedural deadlines, chubbing also takes its toll on House bills this week. Chubbing is a legislative delay tactic in which legislators talk at length on every bill on the calendar in order to kill most of the calendar or a bill further down the calendar.

Finally, the Texas House reached a boiling point last Saturday. In one of the most raucous House sessions since 2003, the Republicans employed the nuclear option and called the previous question on a tort reform bill that the Democrats were successfully delaying on procedural grounds. Once the previous question was called, no further debate or amendment was permitted and the bill passed.

For all of these reasons this will be the week of dead bills in the Texas House -- Semana de los Muertos.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Demise of Senate 2/3rds Rule

The Texas Senate operates under rules and traditions that require 2/3rds of the Senators present to vote in favor of any bill coming to the floor for debate. Partisanship by both sides has put increasing strain on the 2/3rds tradition. Last session and this one an exception was made to the 2/3rds rule for the Voter ID bill, which only requires a majority vote. Tomorrow the 2/3rds tradition will shatter.

Senate rules state that bills will be taken up in the order they are reported from committee. At the beginning of each session, the Senate passes a "blocker" bill out of committee but never brings it to the floor. Therefore, every other Senate bill considered during the session is not in the regular order of business, and the Senate must suspend the rules with a 2/3rds vote to consider the bill.

Senate Rule 5.10 states that calendar Wednesday and Thursday are House bill days. Under the rule, House bills are taken up before Senate bills. HB 1, the budget, is the first House bill in the order and therefore the Senate does not need to suspend the rules to consider it. A simple majority of 16 Senators can vote to bring up the bill.

The Senate failed to suspend on the budget this evening by a party line 19 - 12 vote. Tomorrow, on House bill day, it will bring the budget back up and only need a simple majority or 16 votes to pass it to Third Reading. This is good news if you want to avoid a summer special session. It's bad news if you believe in the 2/3rds tradition of the Senate, because tomorrow partisanship by both sides will effectively end it.