With the Texas Legislature set to reconvene on January 1, 2011, Austin is once again gearing up for the capitol dome to be illuminated in bright orange for a fast-paced 140 days. This simple beacon lets all of us know that the Legislature is back in session, which only happens every two years. And this eighty-second session of the state Legislature will bring more than just the standard governmental drama–our state senators and representatives will be tackling some mega issues, including how to balance the budget shortfall, the reauthorization of some major state agencies, such as the Texas department of Transportation and the Texas commission on environmental Quality, and, of course, redistricting.
We are going to step back in time and review some of the basics of how the bills of the land get started and ultimately become laws. After we re-learn the process, we will discuss some ways we can support bills or how we can work most efficiently and effectively to stop bills before they become law.
If we go back to our formative years and Saturday mornings, we have already been taught (in a very engaging way!) the process by which a bill becomes law. So, travel backs in time with me and hum a few bars of “I’m Just a Bill” of Schoolhouse Rock! Fame as we break down the steps that the “sad little scrap of paper” had to travel through in order to become a law.
1. Folks back home decided they wanted a law passed
2. Those folks called their local Congressman
3. The local Congressman and the folks write the Bill
4. The Congressman introduces it to Congress
5. The Congressmen discuss and debate the Bill in Committee
6. The lucky Bills move out of Committee into the House of Representatives. The unlucky Bills die in Committee
7. If the House of Representatives vote “yes,” then the Bill moves to the Senate and the whole thing starts all over again.
8. If the Senate votes “yes,” then the Bill is sent to the President for signature. If the President vetoes it, the Bill is sent back to Congress to be voted on again.
So, we remember from history class that our laws are derived from the passage of bills, but where do bills come from? Think of bills as a paper representation of ideas. These ideas can and do originate from many sources, such as the senators and representatives that we elect, but also any U.S. citizen or organization can propose an idea that they would like to see enacted into law.
Either chamber (the House or the Senate) can introduce a bill, but for simplicity, we are going to assume the bill is introduced in the House. Keep in mind that the bill must pass both chambers before it goes to the governor for a final endorsement or veto.
In the House, we will see a flurry of activity starting in January and leading into March as there is no restriction on the number of bills that can be introduced during the first 60 days of this regular session. With 150 state representatives and 31 state senators this makes for a lot of ideas, so the state Legislature found a way to add structure to the process of reviewing each bill: committees. Legislative committees provide a forum for reviewing proposed legislation, breaking it down by topic area. There are more than 40 committees in the House and 18 Senate committees each with various responsibilities and oversight of different governmental agencies and processes – everything from agriculture and Livestock, to insurance and public education.
To get to a vote on the House floor, a bill has to pass out of committee, which means that it receives a scheduled hearing in an open, public setting. This is where you come in– it’s through the committee process where everyday folks can have the ear of our elected officials. By testifying on a bill, you can tell the members who control its fate what you like about the bill, what you don’t like about it and even how you would change it to make it better.
Once out of committee, the bill goes to the House floor, where it needs a majority vote to pass the House. During the time between committee approval and the floor vote is when
You can also become involved by calling your representatives to let them know how you would like them to vote. Make enough calls and they will listen.
Once a bill clears the House, it arrives in the Senate and the same committee process and floor vote repeats itself. Ultimately, it’s the second chamber’s decision whether to send or not to send the bill to the governor. Once passed by the Legislature, the governor can either sign or veto the bill. if the bill gets signed, it becomes law, typically going into effect the following September. If vetoed, the Legislature can take another look at a bill in the following session.
So now that we understand the process, flip to the L side, where we discuss the various ways to find out who your elected officials are, what bills are up for consideration, and finally, some tried and true practices to make sure your voice is heard.