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A Beginner's Guide To The Texas Legislature

Gabriel C. Pérez

The Texas Legislature heads back to work today. While you may know the body's main objective is to pass laws – especially the next state budget – you might not know much else.

That's not a criticism! The legislative process can be complex, so let's go over the basics of what the Legislature is and how it works.

Why does the Legislature only meet for 140 days every other year?

You can thank early Texans for this one. About 140 years ago, people in the Southern U.S. were pretty suspicious of any government, so when folks were settling on how often Texas lawmakers would meet, they decided it should be as infrequent as possible. (The old joke is the framers wanted the Texas Legislature to meet two days every 140 years, but settled on 140 days every two years.)

Who makes up the state legislative body?

Just like the U.S. Congress, Texas has a House and a Senate. The House is made up of 150 members, each serving a two-year term. The House is led by the speaker, who is a regular state rep elected by House members to serve as traffic cop. The speaker picks who is on which committee, determines which committee a bill goes to and plays a role in what bills make it to the House floor for a vote.

The Senate has 31 members, each serving a four-year term. (If it's an election after redistricting, however, everyone is up for election. Lawmakers then draw lots telling them whether they will serve two or four years.)

The Senate is currently led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was elected statewide to the position. Patrick has powers like that of House speaker: He appoints committees, controls the flow of bills in and out of those committees, and can decide what bills come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

How does a bill become a law?

The best way to understand this, really, is to watch the "I'm just a bill" video. The song is specifically about how a bill becomes a law in the U.S. Congress, but most of it applies to Texas, too.

Let's follow a bill filed in the Texas House.

  • Step 1: The bill is read in the House, and the speaker assigns it to a committee.
  • Step 2: The bill has a hearing and is passed (or it doesn't and it dies).
  • Step 3: The bill heads to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda for the House. That committee then adds it to a House agenda for debate (or it doesn't and the bill dies).
  • Step 4: The bill comes up for debate and vote on the House floor. If it passes, it must wait a day and then come up for a final vote. (If it fails during one of those two votes, the bill dies).
  • Step 5: The bill basically goes through that process again in the Senate. If it passes unchanged, it heads to the governor's desk. (If it doesn't pass, the bill dies. If it is changed, the House and Senate have to come up with a compromise.) 
  • Step 6: The governor signs it into law or vetoes it and the bill dies. (The Texas Legislature has almost no ability to override a veto).

Damn … I need a flowchart.

What role does the governor play?

The governor has the power of the bully pulpit: He can propose laws and even a state budget, but he can't write bills. But, as I mentioned earlier, the governor can veto items and the Legislature usually has no ability to override the veto.

There you go – more than you probably wanted to know about the Texas legislative session. And that just scratches the surface._

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT 90.5 FM. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and twice by the Houston Press Club as Radio Journalist of the Year. Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.