TYLER, TX (KLTV) - The 85th legislative session began in Austin this week. Texas is just one of four remaining states whose legislature meets once every two years. That means legislators have just 140 days to plan for the whole 730.
"We have a 19th century constitution in a 21st century environment," TJC Dept. Chair of Government and History Geoffrey Willbanks said. "They wanted to limit government, to where power was not at the state level."
He says that's certainly not a bad thing, but it makes it tough for the state to adjust to modern governing. During that time window, budgets, bills and all essential state business must get done.
"There are some key issues that don't get resolved in that 140 days," he said.
If a key issue doesn't get resolved, Willbanks says it's the governor, not the legislature, who can call a special session. Bills that don't make it through to the governor's desk before a session ends die on the bicameral floors.
Another procedure unique to Texas is the power of the Lt. Governor. In many states, the Lt. Governor oversees the State Senate. But in Texas, Willbanks says most political scientists consider the Texas Lt. Governor to be more powerful than the Governor.
"You have an executive officer in the legislature," Willbanks said. The Lt. Governor establishes the special and standing committees for each legislative session, appoints members to the committees and assigns which legislation goes where. The office oversees the State Senate, but also holds power in the executive branch.
Texas legislators are not full-time state employees. They make a yearly average of $16,160 when per diem rates and salaries are combined. Willbanks says this makes it tough for average citizens to seek office in Austin.
"Can the average citizen afford to go to Austin for five or six months every two years?" he said. "Some other states that have full-time legislators have a more diverse population of legislators … we tend to have a lot of attorneys, [whose ages are] a little higher," than the demographics the legislators represent.
"We also have a predominantly male population in the legislature," Willbanks said. "It's way off from the current population of the state of Texas. That doesn't mean that's fatal to good government, but if your theory of representation says you should have representatives that reflect the demographics of your population, then we're not quite meeting that."
Willbanks says in Texas, just like most other states, the toughest part of legislating is creating statewide laws for people with completely different lifestyles. He says the difference in needs between urban, suburban and rural voters is present in the legislature, and will be present there for many more years.