Thu August 1, 2013
Big Roadblock in Texas Transportation Plan: Missing Legislators
The list of Texas lawmakers who are absent from the Capitol – because of important business in their districts -- is not always an issue.
But supporters of a transportation funding measure need every vote they can get to pass the plan. In the third called special session, the absentee list could be a major roadblock as lawmakers try again to muster those votes.
Texas lawmakers came back to work for a third special session Tuesday evening – only about two hours after the second one ended. Perhaps not enough time for the roughly 35 absent to arrive in Austin from their districts by the time roll call ended.
House Speaker Joe Straus read a long list of those who would get excused. He doesn’t expect the absentee list to get especially short as August gets underway.
"It is clear as you get deeper into the summer, that to have 150 members here is not going to happen," he said.
Some have sick family members, or children who are about to go back to school. “There’s a lot of reasons why members who are part-time legislators can’t be here everyday."
In the second special session, the transportation funding plan – called House Joint Resolution 2 – died a little more than 24 hours before the end of the last special session. It would have amended the state constitution to allow money from the Rainy Day Fund to help fill the state highway fund. Some lawmakers objected to some of the details of the measure.
But State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, says the content of the bill may not have been the only reason it died. "Well I think the unknown factor is 26 people were absent. So were there enough votes to pass it? Certainly there weren’t enough votes present."
A constitutional amendment must win a two-thirds vote in both chambers. That means 100 votes in the House. Maybe, Dale says, with a better turnout it could have passed. And avoided the need for another special session – which, by the way, could cost taxpayers up to $800,000.
State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is a transportation leader on the Senate side. He points out lawmakers voluntarily ran for office.
"They have a responsibility to take care of the actions that are important to the state for their people. And I’m really shocked that so many people who have been elected take off when they need to be here," he said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst agrees.
"These members have a responsibility to show up and do the work they were elected for or resign," he said.
But State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a House leader on transportation funding, says absent members are just the reality.
"The first one there was I think 24 missing. The second time there were 15. This third time there was 23. So you’re going to have between 15 and 25 members not here during a special session," Sen. Pickett said. "So even though we need that hard 100, it’s 100 out of 130. It’s not 100 out of 150. We need to take that into consideration and make sure we can appeal to more than two-thirds."
He’ll begin the debate – again – today. The House Select Committee on Transportation Funding has its first hearing at 10 a.m.