The case for annual legislative sessions

A story in the Austin-American Statesman, made me think about the problems that occur when our legislature gets together every two years with a regular session that only lasts 140 days. Senator Mike Jackson is asking the Governor to veto legislation that the Senator amended because of problems with the wording. Jackson’s amendment would have changed the law so that the Texas Ethics Commission would have to dismiss complaints against candidates who said that they made good faith mistakes and corrected them 14 days. This protection again punishment was so broadly constructed that it would have prevented the Ethics Commission from punishing candidates who broke election law any time they said it was an honest mistake.

Clearly, this legislation was not read closely during the session–even by its sponsor. Legislators were so anxious to protect themselves from ethics violations that they did not leave a credible shell of the law.

It’s one of those little problems you get from the frenzy of activity at the end of each legislative session as so many bills compete for the attention of legislators with very little time. There is lots of work to do and not much time to do it. It’s the time of the year when the ratio of legislation to thinking becomes dangerously high. That is what happens when you have a legislature that meets for 140 days every two years.

Earlier this year the Texas Tribune had a story pointing out that Texas is one of the few states clinging to biennial legislative sessions. Starting this year, only Montana, North Dakota and Nevada will join Texas in only letting our legislators meet every two years. Advocates of retaining biennial sessions would tell us that we are just so much smarter than 46 other states. However, when you see the rest of the country heading in the other direction, you should at least consider the possibility that they have some good reasons.

You may not see a lot of public support for this (although some legislators will admit in private that it’s a needed reform) because it’s not popular among voter with knee-jerk aversion to longer sessions.

Very few people actually suggest that the Texas Legislature is a model of good government. In fact, I haven’t heard anyone offer up the Texas Legislature as a model for anything. For example, the “tea party” conservatives are very unhappy with Texas government despite the fact that conservatives been in control for years. Maybe it’s not the old conservatives. Maybe it’s the old biennial system.

Many people assume that shorter legislative sessions means less government. That only works part of the time and the idea that less supervision over government by elected officials will produce better government is naive. Again, if that was true people would not be insisting that state government did not have a problem with waste. The Legislature’s work must be done by May 30. There’s not much time for close examination of government programs or executive branch appointees in those 140 days.

Also, a part-time legislature generates part-time staff. A little more expertise might have nipped this problem in the bud. Who is full-time in Austin? The media and interest groups. So, if the Austin-American Statesman and Texans for Public Justice didn’t catch this…

Part-time legislators help empower full-time lobbyists. Legislative staff will tell you that they rely heavily on the information and effort provided by special interests and their lobbyists. The rush of the legislative session only facilitates lobbyists who have arguments ready and bills drafted that reflect the needs of their clients. It’s the legislators playing catch-up.

There is the notion that less time in session means less time for bad decisions. However, bad decisions generally take less time than good decisions. Conservatives and liberals have seen some of their favorite bills die for lack of attention this session. Good legislation takes time, whether you want to cut government or expand government.

Texas is one of the most rapidly changing states in the nation. The state is already saddled with a state constitution that needs to be updated. We need some way to play catch up.

Despite this, the philosophy of Texans seems to be: “Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it.”

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