The 85th legislative session ends on May 29. Texas lawmakers have just over five weeks to figure out some of the state’s most pressing issues, plus hear and vote on dozens, possibly hundreds of bills. In all, legislators have filed more than 9,000 bills this session.
How a bill becomes a bill
We all have a general idea about how a bill becomes a law. But what many people don’t know is how a bill becomes a bill. As part of the Texas Decides project, listener Brian Forget wondered about that, too. Specifically, he wanted to know who writes the bills that bear the names of House and Senate members.
“We see the name of the representative or the senator who’s introduced the bill,” Forget says. “But how do we know who actually wrote it? What went into crafting the bill before it’s ever read out loud in the Capitol?”
Forget says knowing the background and context can tell you a lot. Is the bill trying to correct a great injustice, or help out a certain industry, or maybe a little bit of both?
Only a member of the Texas Legislature can file a bill. Technically, the term “author” refers the person who files legislation and shepherds it through the lawmaking process.
Sherri Greenberg is a professor at of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She served in the Texas House for a decade, starting in 1991. She says ideas for legislation come from many places.
“It can be something from the member’s own experience, something from their districts, another state, a lobbyist.” she says. “I remember one that came from a constituent.”
No lawmaker writes a bill alone
Let’s start there. One day, Greenberg read a letter from someone she represented.
“He was a paramedic with EMS, she says. “And he contacted me about a situation with EMS drivers who, if they got in a car accident [on the job], it could affect…their personal automobile insurance. And I thought this isn’t fair at all.”
Greenberg decided to author a bill to change that. This is the idea. When it comes to the actual wording of bills, legislators don’t go it alone.
Jeff Archer is the executive director of the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency that helps lawmakers get their bills in the right format and ready to file. Archer says no lawmaker writes a bill on his or her own.
“The originator of the idea often thinks of themselves as the writer or drafter of the bill,” Archer says. “The member thinks of themselves [as] the author or the sponsor of the legislation so they wrote the bill. Their staff or the committee staff requested changes and read every line of it and fine-tuned it through the council.”
Archer says that in a given session, up to 90 percent of the bills introduced have been through the Texas Legislative Council. The group’s lawyers and researchers make sure the bill contains all the language it needs to be effective.
“Think of legislation a little bit like computer programming or a blueprint,” he says. “It’s not communicating. It’s doing. The bill does what the member communicates.”
Greenberg’s bill passed, and that EMS driver got the change he hoped for.
Big players can and do influence what goes into bills, too. One outside group with a familiar name is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) That conservative group was behind Arizona’s controversial immigration law and is a huge player in providing model legislation for state houses across the country. There are also smaller regional and statewide interest groups, like tree-hugging Environment Texas, or the influential free-market hugging Empower Texans. And then there are business groups.
State Rep. Todd Hunter, chairman of the House Calendars Committee says a large number of outside groups attempt to influence what goes into legislation.
“It’s very common practice that individuals, groups [and] third-party organizations have ideas and they may have representatives or senators that believe their viewpoints,” Hunter says.
Hunter has been in the legislature for 18 years and has seen everything. To illustrate how groups influence legislation, let’s say there’s a ‘Gerbil Breeders of Texas Association.’ If gerbil breeders want less regulation, they will find a lawmaker who loves cuddly pet rodents.
“So they go to them with their draft ideas and then they work together with [lawmakers] on developing the bill,” Hunter says.
Whatever the idea, controversial or not, pro-or anti-gerbil, no group can force a lawmaker to introduce a bill. Hunter says most legislators take up bills on issues they already care about.
“To me it’s a general process,” he says. “it doesn’t matter what group is out there if they have ideas. I encourage them to work the process legally and ethically.”
If the ethics of any particular industry or interest group concern you, there’s no simple way to know whether a specific interest or business has inspired or even written the first draft of a bill for a lawmaker. For that, you’ll have to do some research.
A good place to start: Check who those groups endorse around election time. You can also dig into The National Conference of State Legislatures’s searchable 50-state bill tracking database.