Texas stays with limited legislative sessions
Image via WikipediaNY Times:
Come January, as Texas lawmakers begin work to pass bills and tackle the yawning budget gap, they will go up against a simple but implacable barrier: time.Annual full time sessions have done such wonders for California that is is a surprise that more states are not going back to the Texas model. Even state employees and agencies dread the arrival of the legislature in Texas.
Texas is one of a dwindling number of states whose legislatures hold scheduled meetings only every two years. Just three other, far less-populous states — Montana, Nevada and North Dakota — still have biennial legislative sessions.
For Texas legislators, the challenge will come into stark relief when they must plug a budget gap that could top $20 billion for the fiscal years 2012-13; the state’s general revenue funds budget for the current biennium, by comparison, is estimated at $87 billion. They must make major financial decisions and plan budgets that will stand for the next two years at a time when the economy is difficult to predict.
It is partly because of the challenges associated with biennial budgeting that most states moved to annual sessions.
“It’s just something that doesn’t work well,” said State Representative Richard Peña Raymond, Democrat of Laredo, who wants to change the state’s Constitution to force the Legislature to meet yearly. If biennial budgeting was a good idea, Mr. Raymond added, “other governments would be doing it — cities, counties, schools. And they don’t.”
During the 19th century, when traveling was difficult and state legislatures generally fell into disrepute, many states gravitated toward a biennial system. As recently as 1940, only four states had legislatures that met every year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research group. But as state budgets became more complicated and the federal government pushed more responsibilities onto the states, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, most legislatures switched to annual sessions, according to Brian Weberg, an official with the legislatures conference. The legislative branch of state government correspondingly became more powerful.
But not all of the states with annual legislative sessions have switched to annual budgeting. According to the legislatures conference, as of 2010, 20 states — down from 44 in 1940 — plan their budgets every two years.
One consequence in Texas is the need for emergency supplemental appropriations bills toward the beginning of most sessions, said Mr. Raymond, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers are also often tempted to raid, and increase, fees intended for specific programs in order to balance the general budget, he said.
Another consequence of a biennial, time-limited system is a logjam of bills at the end of the session. (A counterargument is that longer sessions can lead to too many frivolous bills.)
“The citizens of Texas inherently don’t trust government,” said Kip Averitt, who until recently served as a Republican state senator from Waco. He added, “I don’t think the public perceives it as a problem.”
Voters are concerned that they will think up new things to spend money on and new laws to control our lives. Giving them only a short time to come up with a two year budget makes it that much harder for them to mess with us.
I think the chances are remote that voters would approve annual sessions much less full time legislators.