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A Beginner's Guide To The Texas Legislature

Gabriel C. Pérez

Lee esta historia en español.

Texas lawmakers begin the 87th legislative session Tuesday. While you may know the body's main objective is to pass laws – especially the next state budget – you might not know much else.

That's not a criticism! The legislative process can be complex, so let's go over the basics of what the Legislature is and how it works.

Why does the Legislature meet for only 140 days every other year?

When Texans were rewriting the state constitution after the Civil War, people in the Southern U.S. hated any government. So folks settling on how often Texas lawmakers would meet decided it should be as infrequent as possible. (The old joke is the framers wanted the Texas Legislature to meet two days every 140 years, but settled on 140 days every two years.)

Who makes up the state legislative body?

Just like the U.S. Congress, Texas has a House and a Senate. The House is made up of 150 members, each serving a two-year term. The House is led by the speaker, who is a regular state rep elected by House members to serve as traffic cop. The speaker picks who is on which committee, determines which committee a bill goes to and plays a role in what bills make it to the House floor for a vote. The Texas House is expected to select Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) as it's next speaker.

The Senate has 31 members, each serving a four-year term. (If it's an election after redistricting, however, everyone is up for election. Lawmakers then draw lots telling them whether they will serve two or four years.)

The Senate is currently led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was elected statewide to the position. Patrick has powers like that of House speaker: He appoints committees, controls the flow of bills in and out of those committees, and can decide what bills come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

How does a bill become a law?

The best way to understand this, really, is to watch the "I'm just a bill" video. The song is specifically about how a bill becomes a law in the U.S. Congress, but most of it applies to Texas, too.

Let's follow a bill filed in the Texas House.

  • Step 1: The bill is read in the House, and the speaker assigns it to a committee.
  • Step 2: The bill has a hearing and is passed (or it doesn't and it dies).
  • Step 3: The bill heads to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda for the House. That committee then adds it to a House agenda for debate (or it doesn't and the bill dies).
  • Step 4: The bill comes up for debate and vote on the House floor. If it passes, lawmakers must wait a day before it comes up for a final vote. (If it fails during one of those two votes, the bill dies.)
  • Step 5: The bill basically goes through that process again in the Senate. If it passes unchanged, it heads to the governor's desk. (If it doesn't pass, the bill dies. If it is changed, the House and Senate have to come up with a compromise.) 
  • Step 6: The governor signs the bill into law or vetoes it and the bill dies. (The Texas Legislature has almost no ability to override a veto.)

Damn … I need a flowchart.

What role does the governor play?

The governor has the power of the bully pulpit: He can propose laws and even a state budget, but he can't write bills. But, as mentioned earlier, the governor can veto items and the Legislature usually has no ability to override a veto.

There you go – and that just scratches the surface.

This post was originally published on Jan. 8, 2019.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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