The Texas Legislature reconvenes Tuesday for a special session. Special is a, well, special word, one of those words whose meaning morphs depending on how you say it.
Dictionary.com boils the adjective form of special down to this primary definition: “of a distinct or particular kind of character.”
Yes, but remember how special sounded when Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, on “Saturday Night Live,” would say “Well isn’t that special” to express you’re-headed-to-hell displeasure?
At Your Texas Capitol, special means overtime, as in special session, as in either Your Texas Legislature didn’t get its work done in the 140-day bi-annual regular session or your lawmakers did so much good we couldn’t wait until the next regular session to to put them back to work.
The latter never has happened.
The Texas Legislature meets in regular session for 140 days every two years. The oldest joke at the Capitol (perhaps co-equal with the Legislature itself) is that maybe the Legislature actually is supposed to meet for two days every 140 years.
Here’s the short version of everything you need to know about special sessions of the Texas Legislature: They can only be called by the governor, who also has sole authority to set the topics. Special sessions can last up to 30 days but lawmakers can shut them down whenever they want. (In 1923, there was an hour-long special session. Topics included school finance and Prohibition.) There’s no limit on how many special sessions can be called. The record is in 1989 and 1990 when then-Gov. Bill Clements so loved lawmakers that he called them back to town six times to handle 105 topics.
One other thing: Texas legislative special sessions aren’t special to everyone. Sometimes they’re called “called” sessions. And whether special or called, it’s not all that unusual for governors to call special sessions, though this will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s first.
Rick Perry had 15 in his 14 years in office. George W. Bush somehow got through six years in office without a special session. Ann Richards had four in her one four-year term. Mark White called five in four years in office. And Clements called 11 during his eight years in office.
The Texas Legislative Reference Library has a great FAQ section with A’s to lots of Q’s that are F-ly asked. It’s an interesting collection of odds and ends about special sessions. And remember, everything can be odd until a session ends.
A special session also can be a surprise session. The Texas Constitution sets no required advance notice, though it is considered a nice courtesy, especially for lawmakers and lobbyists summering on Cape Cod — sometimes together.
At 1:30 a.m. in June 1987, Clements called a special session for 11 a.m. the next day. It lasted one day. In 2003, with Perry as governor, the first special session ended on July 28 and the second special session began the same day.
Here’s the constitutional underpinning for special sessions:
Article 3, Section 5(b)
“The Legislature shall meet every two years at such time as may be provided by law and at other times when convened by the governor.”
Article 4, Sec 8(a)
“The governor may, on extraordinary occasions, convene the Legislature at the seat of government, or at a different place, in case that should be in possession of the public enemy or in case of the prevalence of disease threat.”
There’s much to unpack there. “At a different place.” Austin prides itself on being as different as it gets. And “possession of the public enemy” is so subjective. Perhaps you believe that’s what’s going on now. Ditto for “disease threat.”
According to the legislative library, the first-ever special session convened during the 3rd Legislature on Aug. 12, 1850. The first special session for which the library has detailed online information was during the 9th Legislature in 1863, when Gov. Francis R. Lubbock called one for Feb. 2, 1863.
The regular session had been held Nov. 4, 1861, to Jan. 14, 1862. Remember, this was all during the Civil War and things were complicated. And there was no AC.
Lubbock’s special session message to lawmakers said, “The condition of public affairs, both State and Confederate, renders it necessary in my opinion that the Legislature should be convened in Extra Session.” He listed 21 topics, including commanding “the labor of adult male slaves on public works of defense” and “investing the executive with authority to close all distilleries by proclamation, empower him to do so by military force, if necessary.”
You’re thinking that latter one is why Lubbock was punished by having Lubbock named for him. You’re wrong. Lubbock was named for Texas Ranger Thomas Saltus Lubbock, the governor’s brother.
Gov. Lubbock offered a dire assessment in his message to lawmakers when they convened for the extra session. Dude could bring it.
“Since your adjournment, the war has been prosecuted by our vindictive and remorseless enemy with all the means and energy at his command,” he said. “Failing in the clash of arms and shock of battle to conquer and subdue our people, no expedient, however miserable, contemptible and despicable, has been left untried by him to induce the citizens of the Confederate States to throw off their allegiance to the government of their choice and espouse a cause they detest and abhor.”
“Yet under all these trials our citizens, with but few dishonorable exceptions, have remained true and loyal to the Confederacy,” Lubbock proudly and patriotically reported. “From the very commencement of the war, there has been a studied purpose, on the part of Mr. Lincoln’s government, to Africanize the Southern Confederacy … .”
And there was this bit of wartime hyperbole:
“As Texans, we should feel that He who ruleth in the Heavens and upon the Earth hath protected and shielded our State from the iron hell of despotism and tyranny — from the lust, avarice, murder and rapine that have followed in the footsteps of the invader and been so deeply felt by our suffering sister states.”
We don’t have gubernatorial rhetoric like that anymore — except maybe when Abbott is carping about the city of Austin. And isn’t that special?