By KAREN BROOKS HARPER Austin Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: 09 May 2013 11:46 PM
Updated: 09 May 2013 11:46 PM
AUSTIN — Months of work on hard-fought legislation flashed before lawmakers’ eyes on the floor of the Texas House on Thursday as the slow march toward a midnight deadline spelled the death of nearly 100 pieces of proposed legislation.
It was the last night for state representatives to pass their own bills out of the Texas House, less than three weeks before the close of the session on May 27, and the House was moving at an excruciatingly lethargic pace.
“There’s no sense of urgency,” observed House Ways and Means Vice Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, watching his colleagues stall out for the umpteenth time on a debate few people were even following. “This is the first week of the session we’ve even stayed past dinner time.”
No urgency at all, in fact, given that at 6 p.m. on debate over a bill about drones, lawmakers were flying a little helicopter around the floor of the House in homage to the bill by Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell. His was one of the few that passed in spite of the foot-dragging.
Lawmakers also spent a good 15 minutes hazing freshman Rep. Scott Turner, R-Rockwall, on the passage of his first bill, asking the former NFL cornerback whether he ever managed to beat the Dallas Cowboys.
“I think there’s a lot of delirious folks out here,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “People are tired, people are anxious. They’re wondering if we’re going to get to their bills or not.”
Freshmen say they were warned about bills dying on the deadline, but it still created what one freshman called “the sweat.”
Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, was timing the debate on the bills and figured that as long as members averaged less than seven minutes on each, they might get to his bill that seeks to protect children getting on and off school buses.
“They told me to expect the unexpected on the last night, and that it’s crazy and it’s insane,” Fallon said.
The rule on this deadline night is that the further down the calendar a bill is, the less likely to pass. When the clock hits midnight, bets are off, the chamber shuts down, and attention turns to Senate bills for the remainder of the session.
For this reason, it is exceedingly easy to kill bills because lawmakers simply have to drag out debate, call time-consuming points of order, and use otherwise time-wasting tactics to kill bills they don’t support.
Ninety minutes before midnight, the lawmakers were on Page 9 of a 20-page agenda. But it was a mystery, in a year marked by very little controversy, what exactly they were trying to avoid.
In recent years, bills that dealt with hot topics like abortion and immigration would pop up toward the end of the calendar, guaranteeing the death of bills behind it. This time around, Otto said, there was nothing particularly bad that lawmakers seemed to want to stop.
“It’s just been a more natural slow pace to the whole session,” Otto said.
Consensus seemed to be that people were just tired and unwilling to pass in a hurry anything they didn’t view as a priority.
The delays, known on the floor as “chubbing,” are par for the course, however, and take down plenty of innocent bills each year, even those with leadership support.
Among them were some bills by Dallas GOP Rep. Kenneth Sheets, as well as Dallas Republican Rep. Dan Branch’s bill that would tie a higher percentage of state funding to college completion rates. The outcomes-based funding bill would act as an incentive for universities, which receive a dwindling amount of state funding.
Universities say the money would go toward programs to improve completion rates such as better advising. Gov. Rick Perry and Branch are in agreement on outcome-based funding as part of Perry’s push to make college more accessible and affordable and to encourage more students to graduate in a timely fashion.
That bill was in danger, as it was just a few pages from the end of the calendar.
Dead last was a bill prohibiting municipal knife bans, a proposal by Stickland, who has made a name for himself on the House floor by being unafraid to oppose bills by powerful members and, as a result, has made some enemies.
“Obviously it was pretty intentional,” said Stickland, who is in his first term. “I didn’t come down here to make a ton of friends. I came down here to fight for what I believe in. Obviously, I’ve done that, so I kind of wear it as a badge of honor.”