Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Texas Legislative Round Up

The Texas legislature only convenes every two years. However, when they get together, they always make it interesting.

In 2005, the newly minted Republican leadership decided that they were going to take up redistricting. Because of legislative dysfunction, the redistricting following the 2000 census had needed to be resolved by the courts, and legislative leaders realized in 2005 that a legal loophole would permit them to do it again in a way that would benefit the Republican Party in the state. Democrats, understandably unhappy at that possibility, decided that they would try to prevent it by depriving the state Senate of a quorum. Knowing that as long as they remained in the state the president of the Senate could have them arrested and brought to the chamber, these enterprising Senate Democrats on two occasions made for the border, holing up in hotels in New Mexico and Oklahoma in an effort to prevent the legislation from being heard. While the Democrats ultimately gave up, and redistricting passed, their effort reached its zenith when a rumor spread that the Texas Rangers (the law enforcement team, not the baseball club) would be sent into Oklahoma to bring the prodigal senators home. The Democratic governor of Oklahoma made clear that Texas law enforcement officers did not have jurisdiction in his state.

In 2007, some Republicans and most Democrats had tired of the autocratic leadership of House Speaker Tom Craddick, and an attempted coup resulted. Near the end of the session, a member attempted to make a motion that would put the Speaker's continued leadership to a vote. Speaker Craddick's handpicked parliamentarian advised that the motion was out of order, and the Speaker attempted to proceed with business as the chamber descended into chaos. A friend who was present told The Oracle that he saw two fist fights nearly break out on the House floor.

Then, there's 2009. Before the session had even started, the palace coup became successful, and Speaker Craddick was replaced by a neophyte from San Antonio, Joe Strauss. On the Senate side, Republicans infuriated Democrats by suspending a rule that generally requires a supermajority for a vote to be taken in given situations so that they could pass a Voter ID bill. This resulted in protests all session long, as Democrats and their fellow travellers expressed horror that voters might be required to show that they are who they say they are.

With the end of the session in sight, House Democrats saw a poison pill that would allow them to kill Voter ID. Hundreds of noncontroversial bills remained that ordinarily would be quickly passed one after the other by voice votes. However, the Democrats insisted on debating each one. Under House rules, debate could continue for up to 10 minutes before a bill would die, so in each case the Democrats broke off debate after 9+ minutes and allowed the bill to pass. This "four corner" strategy, referred to as "chubbing," was successful, and Voter ID died. Scores of other bills that would have passed also died, including the Department of Insurance "Sunset Bill." Without passage of that bill, the Department of Insurance will cease to exist later this year. The governor's legal advisers are now convening to determine if a special session is necessary.

Occasionally it is suggested that the legislature should follow the example of most other states and meet annually. But, one might ask, could the state handle that much fun?


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