Texas Legislature

Lege Lingo: A Glossary For The Texas Legislature's Special Session

Over the next couple of days, the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature will get rolling. On Friday, Texas Senate committees will hear testimony on the state's two proposed "bathroom bills," which would regulate which restrooms Texans are allowed to use, and several anti-abortion bills. On Saturday, the upper chamber will discuss public school teachers' bonuses and several other bills.

This weekend's debates are just the beginning. The state's legislators are attempting to tackle the nearly two dozen priorities laid out by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The special session's expiration date is Aug. 17, so a solid month of in-fighting among Texas Republicans is all but guaranteed.

But the legislature speaks a language of its own. To follow the thrusts and parry requires knowledge of some terms that don't make much sense outside the legislature. Here's a glossary to help cut through some of the clutter.

The subject of tagging has already come up this week, and it has nothing to do with a rogue member of the uberconservative Texas Freedom Caucus spray-painting "Taxation is Theft" on the office walls. No, tagging is the longstanding practice that allows any Texas state senator to "tag" a proposed bill and delay any committee discussion on that bill for at least 48 hours.

On Tuesday, Republicans in the senate voted to waive the rule allowing tagging for the first time since the rule was adopted in 1939, stymieing Democrats who'd tagged Abbott's must-pass sunset legislation in an attempt to slow down the pace of the session.

“This is much bigger than any one senator’s desire to have more time to consider a bill, however,” Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said in a statement. “This rule serves the public, which has a right to stay informed and participate in the legislative process. That is almost impossible when we suspend all of our rules to hear a bill that has just been introduced.”

On Thursday, the Senate voted to waive the rule again, in order to make sure it could schedule committee hearings throughout Friday and the weekend. Now that precedent has been shattered, expect Republicans to waive the tagging rule early and often throughout the special session.

Sunset and sine die
In the aftermath of Abbott's call for the special session, a rallying cry sprang up from the state's Democrats and moderate Republicans: "sunset and sine die." Abbott identified sunset legislation, which needs to be passed in order to keep several essential state agencies — like the Texas Medical Board — open for the next two years, as must pass before the legislature could take up any of his other priorities.

The sunset and sine die crowd wants the legislature to pass the sunset bill and go home. (Sine die is the official name for the close of a Texas Legislative session.) Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House, is opposed to any bathroom legislation and has made moves early in the session to indicate that he will not put up with the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, passing Abbott's priorities as quickly as possible.

While the upper chamber passed its sunset bill during an overnight vote early Thursday, the House version of the bill will not be heard in committee until next week because Straus has adjourned his body until Monday afternoon.

The speaker, who compared Abbott's special session priorities to a "pile of manure" during a speech to the Texas Association of School Boards last month, told reporters Thursday that he doesn't feel pressure from the Senate.

"Never," Straus said. "I work for the House and for the constituents in Northeast Bexar County, and what the Senate does, the Senate does."

While Straus' ability to send everyone home after the sunset bill passes is a long shot, his willingness to slow down the special session action is going to cause big problems for Patrick and others, who view the extra month as an opportunity to push conservative priorities that ran out of time during the regular session.

As the end of the session approaches with the various deadlines it brings, the specter of chubbing will come into view. Chubbing occurs when members of the legislature use all the procedural moves available to slow down a bill that would otherwise pass, so that it isn't voted on before a a deadline.

One of the most famous examples of chubbing occurred in 2013, when Texas House members slowed down the passage of the state's stringent anti-abortion law, HB 2, for hours with procedural motions and speeches, making it possible for former Sen. Wendy Davis to successfully filibuster the bill on the state Senate floor on the last day of that year's first special session. Of course, the bill passed anyway when Gov. Rick Perry simply called another special session to pass it.
Quorum busting
In 2003, 11 Democrats in the Texas Senate famously fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in order to deny the House a quorum as Republicans attempted to pass controversial redistricting legislation. They remained out of state for 46 days, successfully killing a special session. Eventually, state Sen. John Whitmire broke with his colleagues and returned to Austin, saying at the time that he couldn't stay out of state indefinitely without an exit strategy. He gave the senate the 21-member quorum it needed to pass legislation.

While Democrats haven't made plans to ditch the state this year, Arlington state Rep. Tony Tinderholt fears that they will after the sunset bill passes. In the first week of the special session, he filed a resolution that would fine lawmakers who leave the state during the special session.

After allowing Tinderholt to explain his resolution on the House floor Tuesday, Straus deferred ruling on the potential for fines.

Second special session
Yes, it's a thing. If Abbott isn't happy with the results of the first special session, he can call legislators back for a second special session. And a third and a fourth if he so chooses. As recently as 2013, Perry called three consecutive special sessions, and former Gov. Bill Clements called six special sessions between the 1989 and 1991 scheduled sessions. If Straus calls it a day for the House after the sunset bill passes or slows things down too much, Abbott's willingness to bring legislators back to Austin again will be tested.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young