Taxpayers spent over $2 million on the $190 per diems of state lawmakers through the halfway point of the session, according to a records review by The Texas Monitor.
The money spent through March 31 was public funding for a period in which lawmakers are limited to passing measures that have been designated as priority or emergency bills.
So the elected officials have kept themselves busy passing innocuous — and sometimes self-serving — resolutions recognizing constituents, donors, local teams and professional friends in honor of landmarks including birthdays, anniversaries, and championships.
The also passed measures granting the Legislature permission to take an extended weekend; several memorials recognizing people who passed away; congratulatory resolutions recognizing people’s accomplishments and; two invitations to have Gov. Abbott and Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, address a joint session.
Here’s a list of the resolutions.
The paucity of action can be a blessing, said Lon Burnam, a former lawmaker from Tarrant County who is now a fixture in Austin as an independent activist, speaking to committees on various measures.
“Not much gets passed early on, and thank God for that,” Burnam said.
The entire process of making laws is slow and blessedly deliberate he said. “And they slower they move, the less they do, and the process is better that way.“
The prevailing wisdom is that a measure of serious impact should be well on its way by now — mid April — in order to have a chance of passage in some form.
While a lot of time has been spent on meaningless resolutions, some heavyweight measures have cleared their respective chamber.
Signature issues from the Republican-led Senate moved through quickly.
For example, one of those is the so-called bathroom bill, SB 6, that would require people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on biological gender.
It was given priority status by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The bill’s author, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, called it a balance of “privacy, decency and respect to protect women, children and all people, for that matter” during a hearing. The witness list was 49 pages long, with parties submitting written statements and addressing the State Affairs committee, with those against the bill greater in numbers.
The measure passed 21-10.
The thorny issue of voter ID, and the apparently relentless pursuit of making it a reality, continues to push forward despite legal defeats.
Senate Bill 5, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, seeks to address concerns from the federal appellate court regarding a previous measure, allowing a voter with a “reasonable” hindrance to obtaining an ID to cast a ballot.
Both could be called issues, “which are taking more of a prominent role when you talk about what’s an emergency,” said Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative who is a professor of state and local government at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We’ve seen a national shift and in Texas starting in the 90s and accelerating.”
Senators also passed SB 2, authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, that would lower the threshold for a property tax increase to require an election, from eight cents to five.
The measure is backed by small business owners, real estate agents and owners, builders, several members of city councils from around the state.
Against it are judges, city managers, mayors, police chiefs, fire fighters, county auditors, and some county commissioners.
“We faced a real shootout between spenders and payers,” Bettencourt said.
The original amount that would force an election was a four-cent increase rather than a five, but given the level of criticism from cities and their interests, “we had to make an important but minor concession.”
On the House side, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, moved a measure banning texting while driving for the fourth session in a row. House Bill 62 creates a misdemeanor penalty for use of a handheld device to read, write or send an electronic message while driving.
Craddick’s previous measures regarding texting and driving have cleared the House but never the full Legislature.
Craddick’s is one of four bills clearing the House — out of a total of 29 — that would add new criminal penalties to infractions. Three deal with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, where reform is another priority item this session.
What can appear to be inaction — the pricey spend on per diems, the limited number of measures passed and the innocuous resolutions — is indeed an expensive exercise but other states rack up more costs for taxpayers, said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University
“We are a state that only meets for about five months every other year,” Jones said. “Compared to Michigan, California, New York where they have full-time legislatures, Texas is still a relatively efficient legislature.”
During the early days of session, lawmakers meet while they draft and review bills, so the time is not without a benefit, relatively speaking.
Gauging a successful session is in the eye of the beholder, Jones added.
“If you like the status quo and have an inactive session that changes the bare minimum, that’s fine. The main thing is to get the budget passed at the end of 140 days, and if that’s not done, that is not a successful session by any means.”
The Senate passed the budget bill on March 28.
The House passed its version April 7.
A conference committee will have to formed to hammer out the differences.
Bettencourt, a member of the Senate Finance Committee who served for ten years as the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, said the budget still faces differences, “more on the revenue side than the expense side.”
“This is a good halfway point for us,” he said. Both chambers have tackled some potentially troublesome measures, he said.
“And compared to what’s going on in Washington, we look great,” Bettencourt said.
The resolutions, though, may not jive with that statement.
Those fluffy tributes include recognizing the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Day at the State Capitol, congratulating Delnor Poss on his retirement as head coach of the Midland College men’s golf team, and recognizing the month beginning March 31, 2017, as Cesar Chavez Farmworker Appreciation Month.
How often do the legislators — who almost universally vote ‘yea’ on these resolutions — read what they are voting on?
Perhaps not often enough, as evidenced by a resolution introduced nearly 50 years ago.
Taking a stand on resolutions that he felt were meaningless time-wasters and never read, in 1971, Tom Moore Jr., a Democrat from Waco, drafted his own special recognition.
A resolution honoring a Boston man named Albert de Salvo was proposed by Moore, and it received unanimous approval.
“De Salvo has unselfishly served his country, his state and his community,” the tribute reads. His “singular achievements have brought about significant contributions to the fields of medicine and mental health.”
Moore’s fellow lawmakers must have been very embarrassed. They had just honored the Boston Strangler, who was serving a life sentence after confessing to a string of murders in the 60s.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-303-9420.