Capitol regulars have talked for weeks now about how slow this legislative session has been, with few fiery debates, no late nights and lots of unfinished business.
But with only 30 days left in the session, legislators will be looking to pick up the pace, maybe even working next Saturday.
“This is not unusual for this time in the legislative session,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, a veteran of seven sessions. “There’s plenty of time to consider and pass bills.”
Still, there’s a lot left on the to-do list: from paying for roads and water projects to passing a two-year state budget to deciding whether to expand Medicaid. Many key issues have passed the House or the Senate, but not both. Only 10 pieces of legislation have made it to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk so far. And, by law, the session ends May 27.
The biggest complaint in a session in which “Kumbaya” jokes are aplenty is the turtle-like pace of bills in the House compared with sessions past. House members are hearing about 38 percent fewer bills on the floor than they did at this point last session, according to statistics from the Legislature’s official website. As of Friday, about 400 bills were read on the floor, compared with about 650 at this point in 2011.
The Senate is moving more quickly, ahead of its pace last session. As of Friday, senators heard 107 bills on the floor, up from 88 at this point last session.
“Many of our major goals for this session — the budget, infrastructure, public education — have been passed out already,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.
He acknowledged that the absence of controversial, hot-button issues that dominated the 2011 session — voter ID, preabortion sonograms, airport security patdowns and more — has helped.
To speed its pace, the Senate this year has used work groups to resolve conflicts before they reach the floor, a method that some senators refer to as “shuttle diplomacy.” Senators divide into small groups to try to resolve disagreements, one by one. Proposals get shuttled back to the GOP and Democratic caucuses, and then are further refined to reach a compromise.
But the final weeks of the session are always fraught with potential blow-ups as deadlines loom, workdays grow longer and tempers become short.
“We may be singing ‘Kumbaya’ now, but that can change,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
In the House, Hunter, chairman of the agenda-setting Calendars Committee, said many legislators filed bills late this session, and a dearth of pre-filed bills contributed to slowing things down.
“It’s not anybody’s fault,” Hunter said.
Notably, many major pieces of proposed legislation — the kind of core responsibilities that House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he would prioritize — have already been debated, Hunter said, pointing to the 2014-15 budget, supplemental appropriations for the current budget year, several sunset bills necessary to continue operations at key state agencies, and a water bill.
Texas Monthly political editor Paul Burka wrote in a blog post this week that the speaker has bottled up controversial legislation because he doesn't want "tea party freshmen to do their thing." And one of Straus' primary critics, Michael Quinn Sullivan of the conservative organization Empower Texans, also complained about the slow pace.
“Whether it is protecting religious liberties or defending life, reforming the budget or cutting taxes, this Texas House is doing nothing. … Thanks to their legislative leadership, conservative House members are preparing to go home with no wins, no fights and not much of a record,” Sullivan wrote.
Hunter dismissed the accusations.
“Is there a plan to do this?” Hunter asked. “No. There’s not a grand design.”
Retiring Austin Rep. Mark Strama, a Democrat, said this session is going more smoothly than past meetings of the Legislature.
“People view this Legislature as being less divisive and having a more constructive working environment than the last one,” Strama said. “And while that may stifle some people’s opportunities to pursue some of the more controversial issues, my sense is that most Texans prefer the climate of this session to the climate of last session.”
With another month to go, and the House’s proclivity to work the hardest when the clock winds down, many people at the Capitol expect a flurry of late activity.
“As we get to the final 30 days, every minute on the calendar is critical,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.
CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this story said House members are hearing about 61 percent fewer bills on the floor than they did at this point last session; House members are hearing about 38 percent fewer bills. It also incorrectly attributed a statement to conservative blogger Michael Quinn Sullivan, who was quoting Texas Monthly political editor Paul Burka when he wrote that House Speaker Joe Straus has bottled up controversial legislation because he doesn't want "tea party freshmen to do their thing."