AUSTIN — Long before lawmakers prepared to gather at the Capitol here Tuesday for the opening of the legislative session, state Rep. Richard Pena Raymond had already filed a bill to change not only how they conduct business, but how often.
Texas is one of only four states whose legislatures convene in regular session every two years. Lawmakers in Texas meet in odd-numbered years only — as do legislators in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota — while those in the 46 other states hold legislative sessions yearly, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Raymond’s bill would require the Texas Legislature to meet in regular session in odd-numbered years and to hold a budget session in even-numbered years. The move would mean annual meetings and budgets, an idea that has been debated for decades but has long been viewed with suspicion in a place that prizes small government, low taxes and deregulation.
“As big a budget as we have, as big a state as we are, as diverse of an economy as we have, we really should be looking at annual budgets,” said Raymond, D-Laredo, a former member of the Appropriations Committee, which writes the budget. “There’s no business in the private sector that does two-year budgets. It’s a very outdated idea.”
In Texas, the biennial sessions unfold quickly — beginning at noon on the second Tuesday in January and ending in May after a 140-day run. It is a tradition dating back 137 years, when the state Constitution was ratified and required the Legislature to meet every two years.
Although the state’s population has grown in that time to almost 26 million people from about 1 million, Texas has held onto the biennial tradition. Several Republican lawmakers and conservative activists said it suited them, and the political culture, just fine.
They described Raymond’s bill — his third attempt to change the system since the 2009 session — as a long shot at best. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, and even if the bill were to pass, a constitutional amendment changing the legislative schedule to annual sessions would have to be approved by Texas voters before it could take effect.
“There’s not a single Republican who would vote for that,” said Steve Ogden, a Republican senator from Bryan who was preparing to officially retire Tuesday after 22 years in the Legislature. “I think one of the reasons that Texas does as well as it does is because the Legislature meets as infrequently as it does. In a state that believes in limited government, I think it works well for us.”
Gov. Rick Perry appeared to agree with Ogden.
“The governor believes we need to limit government in people’s lives, not expand it,” said Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. “A part-time Legislature allows lawmakers to come in and complete the business of Texans and then go out and live under the laws that they’ve passed.”
As with other state issues, the debate over biennial sessions falls along party lines. Republicans argue meeting every other year prevents the Legislature from passing frivolous bills, forces lawmakers to focus under deadline pressure and keeps part-time legislators from becoming full-time politicians.
Some Democrats and political scientists say the infrequency of the sessions increases the power of the governor and state agencies because of a lack of oversight. They also say it makes the budget process a difficult task amid ever-changing national and state economies. (This session, lawmakers will adopt a budget for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years.)
“It’s very fast-paced and tumultuous and inefficient to have a short 140-day session every other year in a state as big and as complex as Texas,” said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “You’re trying to budget and anticipate revenues and the need for expenditures 30 months out, and that’s very difficult to do.”