Legislative Update: Week 2

            If you are frustrated by the fact that the Legislature has been in session for two weeks and still hasn’t done anything, you are looking at this situation from the wrong perspective.

Looking ahead …

            After their Inauguration hangover wears off, legislators will return to business on Tuesday for another short work week. The Senate Finance committee will start discussing their initial version of the budget, but it should be at least another week or two (or three, if we’re lucky) before House committees are assigned by the Speaker. That will be the next landmark event of the early session, along with the Governor’s State of the State Address, the traditional signpost for the “end of the beginning” of a session.

Senate committee assignments

            As we mentioned last week, committee assignments have historically been released in a manner that limits the ability of unhappy lawmakers to complain in person to the Speaker or Lite Guv, and this session is no different. We joked with someone earlier in the week that the Lite Guv would probably drop them from his plane as it lifted off and headed to D.C. for the Inauguration, and based on the timing of the actual release, we may have been correct.

            Senate committee assignments were publicly released on Wednesday and can be viewed online by committee or by senator. With only three new additions to the upper chamber, there was never going to be much change, and as a result, only one Senate committee chair changed hands from last session. Of most interest for our purposes is the make-up of the Criminal Justice Committee, which has been expanded from seven to nine members (new members noted by *):

Chair:              John Whitmire (D-Houston)
Vice-chair:      Joan Huffman (R-Houston)
                        Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury)*
                        Konni Burton (R-Colleyville)
                        Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe)
                        Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston)*
                        Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola)*
                        Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio)
                        Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)

Missing from this list is Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), who has been on the committee since he came to the Senate in 2003. He was replaced by Sen. Birdwell (who was also promoted to chair the Nominations Committee), Sen. Garcia (a civil lawyer and former Harris County Commissioner), and freshman Sen. Bryan Hughes (a plaintiff’s lawyer who served on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in 2013). It’s hard to know how these new members are going to affect the voting patterns of the other returning committee members, but having two extra votes to corral makes it that much harder to pass or defeat bills in which you are interested. 

What’s so important about committees?

            Let’s do some math. Based on historical data, these general rules of thumb should hold true again this session:

  • Approximately 7,000 substantive bills will be filed and referred to a committee
  • Roughly half of all those bills will never be set for a hearing in that committee (= dead)
  • Of the remaining 50-ish percent of bills set for a committee hearing, half of them will not move out of that committee (= dead)
  • Of the remaining 25-or-so percent of all filed bills that are approved by a committee, 85 percent of them will be approved by that chamber, pass the other chamber, and end up on the governor’s desk

            Stated another way, only ~20 percent of the bills filed last session ever reached the governor’s desk for final passage into law, but if a bill was approved by a committee, it had a very high likelihood of becoming law. THAT is why committee work is so important, and THAT is why any prosecutor who has a local legislator on a committee that could affect your business can have out outsized influence on the fate of that legislation.

            So, with that in mind: If you have a senator on the Senate Finance or Senate Criminal Justice Committees, now