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As New Special Session Starts, So Does Debate Over 'Blocker Bills'

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

In the Texas legislature, every rosebush has a thorn.

So-called rosebush bills, or blocker bills, have a unique role that allow senators to delay a debate on a bill, or block a bill’s movement altogether.

It’s typically a tactic used by the legislative minority, but two bills filed by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, could serve as hurdles for lawmakers in the second special session that begins Monday.

The blockers in the legislative football game are typically innocuous bills that look to “beautify” a specific park in a specific county – bills that will sail through committee and make it to the top of the legislative to-do list.

Those bills, however, occupy important real estate. They have precedence over any other bill filed, and require the Senate to secure a two-thirds vote to take up any other legislation, instead of a simple majority, which -- under the Senate's current make up -- requires some help from the other side of the aisle.

Hugh Brady is head of the University of Texas’ Legislative Lawyering Clinic, a policy wonk incubator that works directly with legislators to ensure legality in lawmaking.

Brady says blocker bills function better in the regular session, not in special sessions.

“[Last session] there was no blocker bill because the majority had a very keen interest in passing certain items,” Brady said. “In kind of a more normal special session where, perhaps, the majority’s not sure what they want to do, or they’re trying to work through the nuances of a policy, that’s when you see a blocker bill to ensure that the minority party has an opportunity to participate in deciding and shaping that final policy.”

Eltife has filed two bills for the next special session intended to be blockers. SB 10 is a bill that would establish a statewide organization for park beautification, and SJR 4, is a proposed constitutional amendment relating to appropriations for the preservation and perpetuation of certain items of historical value; allowing the legislature and state agencies to accept on behalf of the state gifts of items of historical value and contributions to purchase such items.

Both bills are identical to those filed by Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson, SB 7 and SJR 3.

The bills could exist to derail failed abortion legislation from the last session. Brady calls Eltife’s introduction of the bill “interesting” and said that he didn’t expect the legislature to drag its feet on such a contentious issue.

“I think the pro-life advocates believe the legislature has stalled long enough,” Brady said. “So I think that senators who have to face a large, pro-life voter contingent in their primaries are not going to want to be seen as stalling legislation by agreeing to let the blocker bill mechanism be used.”

Sen. Eltife said he just wants to reach consensus on the issues before the legislature.

“It makes people work together," Eltife said. "I see it more as urban versus rural on a lot of issues. Not just Republican versus Democrat. It requires us to have 21 votes, which means we have to work together on issues and, you know, I think we work better with the two-thirds rule. And, so, I filed the blocker bills.”

To have any effect, though, those bills must still be referred to and approved by a committee. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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