Last Thursday, most members of the Texas Senate left town to enjoy their Easter vacation, exhausted, no doubt, from the Dallas' Imam's lengthy prayer Wednesday. In their absence, Speaker Tom Craddick got off a good jab during the House session.
Craddick's merry-making began with a softball from Phil King: Mr. Speaker, does the Senate have points of order? (King just had a bill bashed by a House point of order.)
"You have to meet to have points of order," came Craddick's quick reply, to gleeful hoots and applause. Finally, solidarity in the Texas House.
Today, after its five-day Easter holiday, the Senate resumed its usual work pace, passing a less-than-impressive three bills. David Dewhurst was not present on the floor. It begs the question: is this our version of Nero fiddling while Rome burns? Is the general impression that the Senate is working at a snail's pace accurate?
Actually, it all depends on your point of reference. Senate members filed a record of 2004 bills this session, and have actually engrossed more bills (211 to 204) than they did by Day 92 of last session. They have also passed more Senate bills from committee (476 to 429)and passed more House bills than they did by Day 92 last session.
However, a look at the 74th through 78th sessions indicate that those numbers are actually an anomoly. For instance, comparing this session's activity to the 78th (that's 2003 for those of you who haven't learned military time) shows dramatic declines in activity: 51.8 percent fewer Senate bills reported from House committee this session as compared to 2003, 21.9 percent fewer Senate bills engrossed, 40 percent fewer Senate bills enrolled.
But compared to this session, the pace of the 77th Legislature (2001) was positively allegro vivo.
By this point in the session, Senate members in 2001 had passed 55 percent more Senate bills(469 over 211). They also had passed from committee nearly a third of the Senate's filed bills (684 of 1804) compared to this session's one-fourth (476 of 2004). They also enjoyed more prompt attention from House committees for their bills: the House had passed 83.5 percent more Senate bills from committee by Day 92, as compared to this session's figures.
This session as in last, Senate members have been wringing their hands over Dewhurst's glacial pace in referring bills. Members stand in line in November to get low bill numbers and in March still don't know what committee will hear the legislation. Dewhurst is criticized by members for micro-managing; most believe he doesn't refer legislation until he has personally read the bill and agonized over what committee will provide the best home environment. Trouble is, they are dead on arrival.
One school of thought suggests that Dewhurst is slow-walking legislation in order to have more leverage over the House. It could work. A log jam creates opportunities for the presiding officer. But, if that is the strategy, a lot of Senate bills will be killed by friendly fire. Suppose Senator X has a bill that just got referred to committee. He gets a hearing next week if he's lucky. That's April week three. Then our harried lawmaker has one month to shepherd the bill through the Senate floor, House commitee, House Calendars and House floor. May 20 is the last day for the House Calendar to have Senate bills on first reading. Sometime in May, Senate members will realize their pet projects are dead and when they do, they'll blame Dewhurst.
I sympathize with the view that the fewer bills passed by the Texas Legislature, the better. But consider this: More and more, I hear Senators talk about negotiating with their House counterparts to avoid a conference committee. From their point of view, it's smart law-making and they are probably right. It's just too bad the public can't take part in those discussions. When logjams happen, open government suffers.
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