Politics
3:29 pm
Mon May 30, 2011

Texplainer: How Does a Special Session Work?

Hey, Texplainer: How does a Legislative special session work?

Consider a special session the legislative overtime in Texas. If both the House and Senate reach a stalemate on key issues or if the governor decides the legislative show must go on, he or she can call for a special session. 

Really, it's got the same setup as a regular session. The only difference is the time — legislators only have 30 days to come to conclusion. So, for lawmakers, time is of the essence in a special session. And, unlike the predictability of a regular session, the governor can call a special session at any time, without any warning.

But he doesn't have to call one, unless there's no state budget. If the House and Senate don't pass a budget, a special session is mandatory — a government can't run without money. But, many times, special sessions are called for issues like school finance, state agency reform, or redistricting. Some of the odder selections in a governor's call include a cadaver tissue law reform in '61 and a call for a state amendment in '82 that asked for advancement in food and fiber marketing. 

Whatever the subject matter, the governor determines the agenda in his “call.” This lets the Senate and the House know what's on the table for the session. The governor must describe in “general ways” the nature of each item for the session, meaning he could ask for certain reform, but he doesn't ask for a specific bill number to be debated. And the call can be as abbreviated or long-winded as the governor prefers, meaning nothing's off limits.

For instance, last session Gov. Perry only had three items on his call. Compare that to the 71st session in 1989, when Gov. Bill Clements proposed 59 items, or in 1919, when Gov. William Hobby proclaimed 240 items for consideration, then 207 in the following special session after that.

That's right — if the governor's not satisfied at the end of the 30 days, he can call another session. So, theoretically, if Perry wanted lawmakers to really earn their $7,200 salary, he could keep them in the Capitol until the next regular session. In '89, Gov. Clements kept the houses in for a whopping six special sessions, spanning just under a year.

According to Legislative Research Library records, there have been 114 special sessions since 1850, and as we near May 30, you can bet that lawmakers hope it stays that way. But Perry's called eight special sessions in his 11 years as governor, so lawmakers probably shouldn't be holding their breath. 

Bottom line: Special sessions give lawmakers another chance to make the governor's grade. 

Got a question for Texplainer? Email us at texplainer@texastribune.org.