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Our "Part-Time" Legislature Limits the Growth of Government

 

By Russell Withers, General Counsel.    Sep. 28, 2019

 

 

State Representative Lyle Larson (R-Dist. 122) recently argued in the San Antonio Express-News that the Texas Legislature’s schedule of meeting for only one regular session every two years is outdated and should be changed. Rep. Larson proposes meeting for a regular session of 70 days every year, from March through May. That is not actually a change from the current system in terms of the number of days that the legislature would be in session over a two year period, with both the current system and the new proposal proposal limiting the legislature to 140 regular session days over a two year period. It's an interesting proposal worth discussing. 

 

Responses on social media were mixed. A great example is this take from State Representative Vikki Goodwin:

 

 

Compare Rep. Goodwin's enthusiasm to the response from Aaron Reitz, a Republican challenger for the seat Goodwin currently holds:

 

 

While Rep. Larson's proposal is to meet more often, and not for more total days, his proposal fuels a debate about the schedule of state legislatures and how that schedule affects the growth of state government.

 

The current system works. Although the Texas Legislature only meets for five months every two years, the Governor can call a special session at any time, so that can be used to address true emergencies. Furthermore, a five month session in one year, followed by a 19 month interim allows a great deal of deliberation and thoughtful planning. Interim committee charges are used to hold hearings relating to state needs, and those hearings turn into final reports that are used to craft legislation that has been vetted and discussed at length in a bipartisan manner. Despite not being officially "in session," the Texas Legislature generally works all year, every year. 

 

What is compelling in this debate is the conservative argument that meeting only every two years works to limit the growth of state government. While volume of legislation is not a perfect test for the growth of government (not all legislation grows government), the activity and effort involved in passing thousands of pieces of legislation serves as a decent proxy for the sake of argument.

 

Comparing the Texas Legislature and its part-time nature to other states reveals that our part-time legislature does limit and slow the growth of government, at least relative to other similarly situated states (in terms of population and economy).

 

The two obvious comparisons are California and New York, both of which have legislatures that meet every year and are categorized by the National Conference of State Legislatures as two of only four states with a “full-time, well paid, large staff” legislature.

 

Given that the Texas Legislature holds one regular session every two years, the basic comparison is to look at these states and compare how many bills they pass into law over the same two-year periods. Going back ten years, that comparison is illustrated in the following graph:

 

In total, the Texas Legislature passed 6,395 bills over five legislative sessions between 2009 and 2018. During that same period, the California State Legislature passed 10,223 bills and the New York State Assembly passed 10,827 bills, meaning that those two full-time legislatures passed nearly 60 percent and slightly over 69 percent more bills than Texas over the same period, respectively. It appears to be a safe assertion to state that the nature of Texas's legislative schedule effectively limits government growth relative to other similarly situated states.

 

In terms of the proposed change, it is difficult to say what the result of annual meetings of the Texas Legislature would mean in terms of government activity. The nature of a Legislature that meets for only five months every two years is such that Texas legislators, lobbyists, and stakeholders have an 18-month window in which to put together their legislative agendas. When session begins in January of odd-numbered years, thousands of agendas are pushed by interested parties of all kinds that have to work together in order to get their bills passed. That creates an atmosphere in which—major partisan issues aside—parties in the Capitol generally work together. That atmosphere could change in unexpected ways if the Legislature began meeting every year. 

 

The current system does slow the growth of government relative to other similar states, and it works pretty well, all things considered. 

 

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