Staff blog: Texas Legislative Session - The Basics and What to Expect in 2021
Blog post written by Sara Nichols, Program Director of Keep Texas Beautiful.
It's February 2021. This year has already seen the inauguration of a new President and new administration in Washington, and, perhaps a bit more quietly, the beginning of a new legislative session in Texas. The Texas Legislature meets every other year, in odd years, and is tasked with a number of important charges that help keep the state going.
We all know how challenging 2020 was, and the pandemic has made gathering in person for necessary meetings and events a lot more complicated. In this blog, we'll talk a little bit about the legislative process in Texas (as it typically is), what to expect in this 87th Legislative Session and how to get involved in the legislative process.
The Texas Legislature is a bicameral body, made up of 31 senators in the Senate and 150 representatives in the House of Representatives. The Senate is presided over by Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor, who has served since 2015 and was re-elected by the people of Texas in 2018. The House is presided over by the newly elected (by House of Representatives) Speaker of the House, Dan Phelan. Texas has a weak governor system, with much of the power distributed between the different bodies and few governor-appointed positions.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
A bill is a legislative document that is intended to create, amend, or repeal a law. The legislative session typically begins "early" in November, with bill filing, and the bill filing deadline is 60 calendar days after the beginning of the regular session. In this session, bills must be filed by March 12, 2021. Bills should be authored by a Senator or Representative, but the nature and wording of the bills can be influenced by a number of entities, including organizations like KTB and other nonprofits, as well as concerned citizens, state agencies, and the governor.
Once a bill is written and introduced in either the House or the Senate, it can be referred to a committee that is familiar with the subject of the bill. Note that throughout this process, a bill can "die" at any point and not move forward to the next step. Many bills take three or four sessions until they actually make it entirely through the legislative process, so patience is key for that particular interest. You can see a list of committees, including their members and future meetings, on the Texas Legislature Online website here. Also, when a bill is heard in committee, citizens on behalf of themselves or on behalf of an organization can register to testify for, on, or against that bill.
If a bill is favored by the committee, it will be placed on either a House or Senate calendar to be heard on the House or Senate floor. Once a bill is heard on the House or Senate floor and is approved favorable, it has made it out of that body of the legislature and will move on to the other body. Once it passes through both chambers, it can either be signed or vetoed by the Governor. The Governor can also allow the bill to roll into law without any action.
This was a super simplified version of the process, but if you're interested in learning more about how a bill becomes a law, feel free to peruse this great resource from the Texas Legislative Council.
Getting Involved at the Local Level
Now let's talk a little bit about how to get involved in the legislative process! Your voice and opinion are very important to your elected officials, and they want to hear from you. The first thing to do is figure out who represents you in our state government. You find that out by using a website like this one to input your address. Once you figure out who represents you, use the Texas Legislature Online (TLO) website to research what committees they sit on, what bills they've authored in the past, and what bills they've introduced this legislative session. Something that is very important to remember throughout the legislative session - and beyond - is to tell your story to your decision-makers. Let them know how the legislation will affect you - will it be good or bad for you personally? For your business or organization?
Another important thing to remember is that the Capitol building is (almost) always open. Of course, this looks a little bit different this legislative session, as we are still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, KTB and other organizations host legislative days at the Capitol - providing members and supporters opportunities to meet with their elected officials. And you typically don't have to wait for an organized legislative day to take these meetings - you can show up at the Capitol whenever is convenient for you and drop off educational materials or meet with your legislator or their staff. This session, however, we are hearing that a lot of folks are going to be open to virtual meetings - making it even easier to voice your concerns without traveling down to Austin. You can find the best contact information for your elected officials and their staff through the TLO and find out how they are accommodating safety concerns for this session.
Of course, something important to remember is that there are plenty of decisions made locally by your City Council members and other local elected officials. Get to know them as well as you can so that they know where you are coming from when you ask for their support or understanding down the road. It's also a great idea to invite both your local and state elected officials to events. Invite them to tour your recycling center or to the ribbon cutting for your new community garden.
What to Expect This Legislative Session
We've talked a little about this so far, but as crazy as every legislative session is, this one might actually be crazier. Earlier this week, Governor Abbott revealed his "emergency items" that will be front and center through this legislative session. And as the COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the Texas economy, passing a budget (the one thing the Texas legislature must do every session) will be as tricky as ever. And, as per usual for the Texas Lege, local control and preemption will probably be a recurring theme throughout many conversations.
The Texas Legislature Online (TLO) is by far one of the best resources for you to get to know and explore. Here, you can track bills, set up bill alerts, watch committee meetings, watch the Senate and House proceedings, figure out how your representatives have voted in the past, read bill text, and so much more. Additionally, we recently hosted a webinar on this very topic with Maia Corbitt, the Director of Advocacy and Mission Giving, Garver Black Hilyard Family Foundation and President, Texans for Clean Water. Check out the recording here. Other helpful resources and links can be found below.
Texas Ethics Commission: ethics.state.tx.us/dfs/loblistsREG.htm
Texas Tribune Elected Officials Directory: texastribune.org/directory/
Texas Municipal League Legislative Update: tml.org/legis_updates
Texas Legislative Resources: ktb.org/legislature