AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The ice storm that slammed much of Texas this week also froze business at the Texas Capitol. Several key committees like the Senate’s budget review and redistricting hearings were delayed, and most legislative work was put on pause.
“The weather is moving in a little faster than anticipated, and it’s going to be a little worse than anticipated,” Senate Finance Chair Joan Huffman (R-Houston) told her committee on Monday. The committee will resume work on the budget proposal on Friday.
Several other offices on which lawmakers rely for their work, such as the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Council, also closed up shop during the freeze.
But if it seems like the news out of the State Capitol was muted even before the storm, that’s normal. The business of passing laws in Texas is intentionally sluggish — rain or shine.
The Texas Constitution requires lawmakers to wait until 60 days into the legislative session to start moving their bills through the process. This year, that is March 10 — until then, no bill will receive a committee hearing or a vote.
It’s a forced timeout that makes an already time-pressed legislature even more condensed. Some argue the first few months of the session give members the time to hear from stakeholders, meet new members, and build bridges before burning them later.
“It’s kind of a bonding experience for the folks that are coming here,” longtime Texas Capitol reporter and publisher of Quorum Report Harvey Kronberg said. “Staffs get to meet each other, procedures get refined, the biorhythm of the session is established in that first 60 days. We really do only have 140 days to do this, 90 days of activity. And that requires a level of consensus-building that doesn’t take place in the rest of the world.”
The power to carve out exceptions to this delay is in the governor’s hands. Lawmakers get a head start on bills related to items or topics that the governor designates as “emergency items.” Gov. Greg Abbott will unveil his emergency items during the State of the State address on Feb. 16.
Of course, much of the heavy lifting is complete before lawmakers ever return for the opening day of session.
“What most people forget is during that 600 days or so that we’re not in session, we also have interim studies,” Kronberg said. “And those get assigned to committees. There has been committee hearings over the last four or five months. And stakeholders, whether they’re business interests, or school districts, or school administrators, or highway departments — people have all been meeting during this period. Everybody understands that we’ve got 90 days to accomplish an amazing amount of things to take place.”
So, if it seems like things are frozen at the Capitol, it’s not just because of the ice.