Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is reaping a systemic failure in the Senate that he helped sow. And he made up for it this week with a public relations campaign of daily topical news conferences.
The Texas Senate once roared like a lion in the early days of every legislative session, priding itself on swift passage of numerous bills. Senate reporters often spent the end of the session lining the back walls of the House to watch bills from the Senate get debated. Angry senators would storm the House, demanding to know what had come of their bills. But this year, the Senate passed its first bill – an emergency transporation item – just this week.
The Texas Constitution forbids lawmakers from passing bills in the first 60 calendar days of a legislative session unless designated as an emergency by the governor. That provision can be set aside, however, if 25 senators vote to do so. Up through the regular session of 2003, voting to suspend the Constitution bill by bill was routine on uncontroversial bills. And with about 1,400 bills passed each session, few are controversial.
In the days of senatorial harmony, the state Constitution was routinely set aside to pass bills in the early days of the session. That came to the grinding halt in the special sessions of 2003 when the two-thirds rule – sometimes called the rose garden rule – was set aside to pass a congressional redistricting plan favorable to Republicans. The rule blocked debate on a bill unless affirmed by two-thirds of the senators present in the chamber. Democratic senators broke the quorum by fleeing to New Mexico, but ultimately returned to Austin and surrendered to the inevitable.
Suddenly, doing away with the two-thirds rule became a Republican cause, promoted quite often by Dan Patrick.
With the Democrats feeling far less congenial, the Constitution was not suspended in the 2005 session for quick movement of then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s agenda. Apparently, it was done once in the 2007 session, but never again since. If there was any hope of restoring the Senate’s suspension vote harmony, it disappeared when Patrick pushed the Senate to junk the two-thirds rule in favor of a three-fifths rule that would allow Republicans to run over Democrats on controversial or partisan legislation. Without the support of the Senate Democrats, there is no way to get the 25 votes needed to suspend the Constitution for speedy passage of non-controversial Senate bills early in the session.
The Senate before 2003 had been a legislative workhorse. Afterward, in most sessions, senators started leaving town at the end of the day on Wednesday. During the 2013 session, the full Senate did even meet on a Thursday until March 21. This year, senators gathered on their first Thursday to canvass the vote for governor and lieutenant governor, and they haven’t met on Thursday since.
The Senate on Wednesday passed the first bill of the session, a proposed constitutional amendment to shift from $2.5 billion to $5 billion a year of motor vehicle sales taxes to road construction and maintenance. The measure was able to move forward because transportation funding had been designated as an emergency by Governor Greg Abbott. That didn’t stop Patrick for taking credit, though: “I may be new, but I’m quick.”
In the 2003 session, the Senate passed its first emergency bill on February 11, the fifteenth day it was in session. The state Constitution was suspended for the first time to take up legislation on February 26, 2003. By this kind of reckoning, the Senate already is a month behind the kind of pace that was set under former lieutenant governors Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock and Rick Perry.
So unable to show the Senate moving quickly in this session, Patrick has resorted to an old feed-the-beast scheme of presidential campaigns: Control the daily free media as much as possible with topical news conferences to drive the agenda in the public eye.
Monday – Patrick and the Senate’s 20 Republicans held a news conference to complain about federal healthcare regulations and to demand federal wavers to give Texas greater flexibility in managing Medicaid.
Tuesday – Patrick and a bipartisan group of senators gathered the media for a newser on a $4.6 billion property tax relief plan that would increase the homestead exemption and make it float with the average price of houses in Texas. They called it relief because it might not actually cut a homeowner’s existing tax bill, just keep it from increasing as much.
Wednesday – Patrick along with Senators Jane Nelson, a Republican, and Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat, unveiled proposed constitutional amendments to sidestep the state constitutional spending cap. Money spent on debt reduction and property tax relief would not count against the spending cap, thus freeing up other money for state expenditures.
Patrick and Nelson portrayed SJR3 and SJR4 as ways to gain access to about $4 billion that cannot be spent without a vote to bust the constitutional spending cap. “We could pass legislation that is contingent on this passing,” Patrick said. But neither amendment would take effect until September 1, 2017, meaning they would have not affect on the budget that currently is being written. This sleight of hand maneuver might help the 85th Legislature, but not the 84th.
This whole game of spin the media daily won’t really be necessary by the end of next week when the Legislature passes the 60th Day. However, the fact is Dan Patrick has not realized his dreams of a fast-moving Senate swiftly sending bills on their way to the House. This is the bitter root grown from the seeds of discord sewed by Dewhurst and Patrick over the two-thirds rule. As the Bible says in Galatians 6:7 “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”