The Texas Legislature is in full swing. And, while lawmakers typically wait until the waning weeks of the session to get anything done, we're answering some of your questions about what goes on under the granite dome for our TXDecides project.
Today's question, submitted by Charles Douglas III:
What is a typical ratio between the number of bills proposed versus the number of bills voted on during a legislative session?
Conversation edited for clarity:
Senior Editor Ben Philpott: All right, so I'm not going to be able to give you the number of actual bills voted on. What I can tell you is those bills that were passed versus those that were not passed. And maybe, of course, didn't get a committee hearing or didn't get to the floor of either the House or Senate. That ratio is generally about 20, 22 percent. So let's just take the last legislative session, 2015, for example. There were 6,200 bills, House and Senate bills, filed.
Morning Edition Host Jennifer Stayton: Sixty-two hundred? OK, we'll get to that number in a second.
BP: The number that passed was 1,300. About 20, 21 percent of those bills that were filed were passed. Now I'm only talking about substantive bills; I'm not talking about resolutions, concurrent resolutions. Those also have to be filed; those also have to be voted on. But let's just say that the pass-fail rate on those are much, much higher because there's no debate.
JS: And those would be bills like maybe naming a park or something, where there's not a lot of debate and they don't really change legislation or practice?
BP: Right, or declaring Buda, Texas, the Hot Dog Capital of the World, whether they even sell hot dogs in Buda. You know, somebody just makes that up and puts it on the floor for a vote.
JS: OK, so first of all so 6,200 bills were proposed in the 2015 legislative session. That seems like a lot of bills.
BP: It's par for the course. Maybe it was a little heavy from other sessions, but looking back through other recent sessions, we had 7,400 bills filed in 2009. This session, the filing deadline has passed so we have the numbers here for this session: 6,500 bills were were filed in this session.
JS: So, we know from past numbers that roughly 20, 21, 22 percent of those that are proposed will actually get voted into law. Are people reading all of those 6,200 bills? I mean that's a lot. But what happens to all of them?
BP: Well, for the first part of that question I would say that the majority of these bills are going to be local and consent bills.
JS: What does that mean?
BP: These are bills that -- they're not filed any differently; they're still just in the House bill or a Senate bill -- but as they're going through the process -- like they're going through a committee hearing. Lawmakers determine this is a bill that is really very specifically targeted at that member's district or a municipality within that member's district. It is a local bill. It is a bill that really only affects one part of the state. So that's the local part.
The other part of that is consent. Essentially, lawmakers are saying, yes, it's a local bill and we do not believe it is something that anyone is opposed to. This is something where we believe the lawmakers will just consent to let this go through. ... It's really fascinating to watch them pass these bills. They pass them like they're all speed readers.
I'm a little older than maybe some of our listeners, but do you remember the FedEx commercials with the fastest-talking man? That is actually how they pass these bills in the Senate. They even pass it to an empty chamber. They have a local and consent calendar. You have somebody at the dias gaveling through the bills.
Everyone has turned in a sheet of paper that says, "I will consent to let all these bills pass." And they just call the roll to an empty chamber -- 30 ayes, no no's. Boom. Pass that bill, onto the next.
JS: So they don't really read the whole bill out loud though, speed reading, do they?
BP: No. Although in the House it's a little different. In the House they actually do take time, because you can you can stop and kill a bill if you ask questions about it for 10 minutes -- local and consent bill, again. So if there is something that you do have a problem with, in the House you can come up and say, "Hold on, I want to ask some questions to the author." This is often used especially toward the end of the session as kind of a bargaining chip or even just plain revenge. "You didn't let my bill out of your committee; when your local parks bill comes up on the floor, I'm going to talk it to death. I'm going to talk 10 minutes and kill this bill."
JS: Does this ratio, about 22 percent based on recent past legislative sessions, tell us anything about the Legislature or how it works? I mean, I know Texas state government is set up to not do a whole lot right, created as a part-time Legislature? So what sounds like a pretty low percentage may be exactly what the designers had in mind.
BP: Right. And in fact if you talk to lawmakers, especially those who maybe have filed a big- to medium-sized idea for the very first time, they will tell you, "You know, this is the first time I filed this bill I'm hoping to get a committee hearing. I'm hoping to start to gain momentum through the next interim and then maybe in the second legislative session or even third legislative session. I hope to get enough backing to get it passed." Lawmakers are fairly realistic. They realize that just filing a bill doesn't mean a whole lot, and that it might take a couple of sessions to get it passed.
JS: So some of those 6,200 are appearing for a second, third, fourth, fifth time?
BP: And some of them are things that lawmakers will always file even if they know that they're not even going to get a committee hearing. There was one lawmaker out of Fort Worth -- who is not a legislator anymore -- every session he would file income tax legislation to bring in a state income tax. Never went anywhere. But he filed it every year.
Our own former state lawmaker Elliott Naishtat, one of his big bills every legislative session was on legalizing marijuana, and he filed it every time. He finally actually got a hearing on it, I believe, his last session there at the Legislature. But, you know, that is something that if you kind of read the tea leaves now is probably not going to pass the state of Texas, is not going to be signed by the governor. But it's something that is filed every single time.
JS: All right, so, Ben, if the numbers hold up from recent past legislative sessions, we're looking at about 1,300 to 1,400 bills that will actually be passed. But we're also looking at a calendar that says we've got about two months left in the legislative session. How long is it going to take to pass those bills?
BP: Yes, so far zero bills have been passed. I mean, some have passed out of the Senate; some have passed into the House. None of [them are at] the governor's desk. So really ... it's the last month of the legislative session. In fact, you might even see a quarter to a third of these bills get passed during the last two weeks that you can pass bills, which is a deadline that happens actually earlier than the session ends, and we can get into that in another one.
JS: We will. One more quick question, though, given that sort of crunch timetable at the end: Are lawmakers reading these bills? Are they familiar with them by the time they're getting to the vote?
BP: I would say that there are lawmakers on every single one of these bills where they have read them -- maybe not every single one, but if you're a rural county and you're really into the agriculture bills, you have read those agriculture bills, and you will come up and ask questions about them. Now when an urban bill comes up, something on like a transportation system within you know buses or something, you might sit that out you might have not read that bill. But if it's in your area, I do believe that the lawmakers for those bills that are important to their constituents, they're ready to ask just not maybe all 181 at the on every single bill.
JS: KUT Senior Editor Ben Philpott keeping us updated on what's happening at the Texas Capitol during this legislative session. Ben, thanks as always for your time and insight.
BP: Thank you.