How Does A Special Session Work?

With the special session of the legislature set to begin Tuesday, what awaits members of the House and Senate? How are items on the agenda chosen? And what will it cost taxpayers to send lawmakers back to Austin for 30 days?

By Krystina MartinezJuly 17, 2017 11:31 am, , , ,

From KERA:

Every two years, Texas lawmakers meet for 140 days. This is the regular legislative session. A special session is best described in two words: legislative overtime. 

Why is a special session called?

“It can really be called for any reason at any time,” says Kevin Stewart, the author of the “Texas Legislative Law Handbook.” “It can be called if there were items that didn’t get passed, but it can also be called for emergencies. If there’s something important going on in the state or nationally and the legislature needs to address it, then the governor has the power to call them in.” 

To call a special session, the governor has to issue an official proclamation with any items he or she wants the legislature to address. The governor can pick the number of topics they want to tackle, and there’s no limitThe record was in 1919 – then-governor William P. Hobby had 253 topics on his call.

What gets heard in a special session?

Gov. Greg Abbott only has 20 items on his call. His first priority for lawmakers is so-called sunset legislation, which would keep state agencies like the Texas Medical Board running.

Once lawmakers work through the sunset issue, they can move on to the 19 other issues, which includes bills on property tax reform, local ordinances and transgender public restroom use.

Lawmakers can file bills too – but they’re limited to items on the governor’s call. Anything within that is fair game. Stewart says that gives the governor a lot of power.

“Let’s say [the governor] needs a vote on a particular issue, he may say ‘look, you’re not going to get another swing at this for a year and a half, unless I open up the call on this other issue that you want,” says Stewart. “So he can balance those interests and use the call strategically.”

How does the special session operate?

The legislature has just 30 days to tackle everything on the governor’s call. Bills still go through the same process as in the regular legislative session – they go through the various committees and need to pass in both chambers to become law. 

The special session can end early though, without tackling every item on the governor’s call. Both chambers can vote to adjourn, or they can break quorum. Two-thirds of the members have to show up to get anything done. However, the governor can call as many special sessions as he or she would like.

How much does a special session cost?

Estimates vary. The price tag starts at about $800,000 for a 30-day session. That amount covers per diem for state lawmakers. Think of per diem like overtime pay for state lawmakers, which covers things like food or housing. Utilities, security, printing and staffing can push the cost up to $1.2 million. Again though, all of this depends on how long the special session lasts and if all lawmakers take their per diems.

Where does the money come from? 

Taxpayers foot the bill, but Stewart says it’s already covered in the state budget, specifically Article 10.

“[The cost] doesn’t come from some other program,” says Stewart. “Its money that’s sitting there, waiting to be spent.”