Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 107: The Senate, or how to ignore the rules while following them

Today is the 107th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House reconvenes at 10, the Senate at 11. Several good pieces of legislation passed both bodies yesterday, but contentious bills under consideration today will undoubtedly slow the process and make for a late evening for lawmakers. LQ's analysis of the day in House is HERE, this is what's going on in the Senate:

The Texas constitution requires bills to be "read" in each chamber on three separate days, but the Senate notoriously disregards this requirement: After first reading bills are sent to committee then, if the committee approves, they are sent back to the whole Senate and placed on one of several "calendars," lists of different kinds of bills to be considered on second reading. The senate has a rule requiring bills to be considered in the order they are voted out of committee, however Senators may place their bills on the "intent calendar," a list of bills to be considered out of order if 2/3 of the Senate agrees to set aside that rule. After the 2/3 vote the bill is then debated, potentially amended (within certain limits) and then voted on again.

Then, and this is where things get interesting, the Senate routinely votes to set aside the constitutional requirement to read bills on three separate days and goes ahead and takes the vote on third reading the same day. So that's four votes (bring up out of order, vote on second reading, vote to set aside three day requirement, vote on third reading) in quick succession, all on the same bill.

Yesterday the Senate passed on second and third reading SB 205 by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), making it the first anti-bullying bill of the session to get out of the chamber it originated in. The bill specifies requirements for the anti-bullying portions of the student codes of conduct that school districts are required to create(read LQ's original analysis of SB 205).

SB 205 was on the intent calendar, so it needed the support of 2/3 of the Senators to pass the first of the four votes. All of the Senators except Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) voted to bring the bill up out of order. There was no debate on SB 205 and no Senator wished to amend it so the vote to pass it on second reading was taken and it passed, 30 to 1 with only Nelson voting against. That's 2 votes down, 2 to go.

Next the Senate voted to set aside the constitutional requirement to read bills on three separate days. Both Birdwell and Nelson voted against setting aside the rule as did Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio). Wentworth, however, has a long history of consistently voting against bypassing the three day reading requirement. It's easy to understand why. While capitol insiders view the Senate's routine ignoring of a constitutional requirement as a matter of course, just the way business is done; outsiders are often shocked to hear that the constitution could just be ignored. Wentworth explains it this way:
"Because in my judgment no circumstance exists in this case to justify the extraordinary act of suspending a requirement of the Texas Constitution. The suspension of this Constitutional Rule has the direct and immediate effect of denying the people of Texas knowledge and notice of the passage of this measure until it has already been finally passed on third reading. Were we to have followed the requirement of the Texas Constitution, third reading and a vote on [SB 205] would have occurred on the next legislative day, allowing for Texans to have learned through news reports of our second reading vote exactly what we had tentatively passed. Third reading and a vote on the next legislative day would also have allowed our professional staff an opportunity overnight to make sure any amendments passed on second reading are technically correct."
Wentworth's objection to setting aside a portion of the constitution should not be read as opposition to the bill or indifference to the victims of bullying.

After the vote to dispense with the three day rule (vote 3 of 4) SB 205 passed on 3rd reading, 29 to 2 with both Birdwell and Nelson voting "nay." The bill now goes to the House where it will likely be sent to the House Committee on Public Education, which two weeks ago approved HB 1942, the big anti-bullying compromise bill that contains provisions similar to those in SB 205 (read LQ's analysis of HB 1942).

The Senate is expected to take up the state appropriations bill (HB 1) either today or tomorrow, including it's requirement, added via amendment by Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center), that state universities which have a LGBT resource center equally fund a "Center for Family and Traditional Values." The American Independent has an interesting analysis of the Christian amendment, stating that since almost all LGBT resource centers, including those at Texas A&M and UT Austin, are funded by student fees, not state funds, the mandate to equally fund family and traditional values centers would not apply. A spokesperson for the UT Austin Gender and Sexuality Center confirms that their funding comes from student fees.

SB 723, the anti-trans-marriage bill, still sits, like an unexploded ordinance, on the Senate's schedule but is unlikely to be voted on this week.

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