Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hamstrung House: No shortage of good criminal-justice bills but lower chamber never voted on them

Taking stock now that the Texas House has finished considering bills originating in the lower chamber and the 83rd Texas Legislature is winding to a close, a few big-picture observations jump out.

First, the Senate has been much more effective than the House at passing bills and tackling major issues, both on criminal-justice matters and generally. Most of the important bills that pass this year will be SB this or SB that. Looking narrowly at the criminal-justice arena, the Senate generated far more significant legislation this year (particularly discovery reform) than did the House. The Senate also passed the more conservative corrections budget, with the House voting to keep open two prison units the state doesn't need and authorizing funds to buy a third that's sitting empty and for which the state has no use. The Senate is full of experienced practitioners with leadership that all worked together in the past. By contrast, the House is full of newbies and on criminal-justice issues we had all new chairmen. (The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee even changed clerks in mid-session.) This year really showed how much experience matters.

As Paul Burka recently pointed out, the House appears to be flailing with little of significance accomplished this session. Short April floor calendars did the lower chamber no favors. Some days there would be just a half-dozen bills on the general state calendar despite hundreds backing up in the Calendars Committee. And major state calendars (bills prioritized by leadership) were often surprisingly short. Then they'd end the main session early and the standing committees would continue to pointlessly pump out bills late into the evening. Most of the legislation that did get a floor vote was notable primarily for its innocuousness.

Not that there weren't any important proposals available for consideration. House leadership simply never let the membership vote on numerous significant bills coming out of its criminal-justice related committees, even when they had broad support. CSHB 1608 requiring a warrant for cell-phone location data had 108 representatives signed onto it including 11 of 15 Calendars Committee members, but was snubbed with a slot on Thursday's unreachable "consolation calendar" (perhaps in retaliation for the author's bumpy relationship with the Speaker). Legislation that would have saved real money in incarceration costs like adjusting theft categories for inflation or reducing low-level drug penalties never got a vote, either. (Arkansas could get this done but we couldn't.)

Grits had earlier declared that CSHB 104 by Gonzales (rescinding the Driver Responsibility Surcharge for two years while an alternative funding source is found for trauma hospitals) would begin to "correct what's arguably the worst public-policy error by the Texas Legislature in the 21st century," but House members never voted on it. Also, the Calendars Committee denied House members the chance to vote on a key recommendation of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions to require recorded custodial interrogations for serious crimes. The House did pass a bill creating a longer-term exoneration review panel, also named after Timothy Cole, but one has to wonder why, if the leadership won't let the House vote on Tim Cole Advisory Panel recommendations from 2009?

So the House produced little of consequence on criminal justice. Also no big water bill. No "Texas solution" on Medicaid expansion. More debt for roads. Not much of significance on education. Luckily, though, before they finished Thursday night House members were allowed to pass a bill "Relating to exempting premiums for policies covering stored or in-transit baled cotton from certain taxes." It's important to prioritize the big stuff.

The Texas Senate seemed more or less ready to govern this session, but the same couldn't always be said for their compatriots on the other side of the building, where the biggest priority appeared to be avoiding controversy and long work days. (Committees often worked late, but members only once in the homestretch worked until midnight on the House floor, on the final day for passing House bills.) Because of the 2/3 rule - where 21 of 31 senators must agree before a bill can reach the floor - the body by its nature is not typically a generator of bold ideas, which more routinely come from the House side. From my observation, there's presently a lot of talent in the Texas House of Representatives and no shortage of good ideas and innovative thinking, but the leadership won't let them accomplish much that matters. I don't particularly understand why. I suppose, at root, it's simply an endorsement of the status quo.


Anonymous said...

So what else is new? Are these people getting paid for this? Our state congress operates with smoke and mirrors, in MHO. What a bunch of do-nothings, except for a very few.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know the names of the 15 Calendars Committee members? Are they all old white guys and volunteers? R's or D's or a mixture? Or appointed & paid a salary on top of a regular salary?

To learn that they thought that recording custodial interrogations wasn't important to the taxpayers should lead to thier removal alongside a federal investigation.

Who has the power to make an entire committee not have the taxpayers best interest in mind? It would appear that when we were sleeping someone legalized Bribery.

Anonymous said...

Here's the list of Calendars Committee members. Mixture of Rs and Ds and not all old white guys, fwiw.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should start with demanding that our elected officials stop with the ignorant "Honors" bills, accolades, etc. It does nothing for the State itself, and wastes OUR tax dollars when they should be voting, reading, and revising better law.