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State lawmakers working on priorities even during off-years

Even though the halls of the Texas Capitol are not filled with state lawmakers like they were just months ago, the work continues for members of both the Texas House and Senate in the off-year. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Even though the halls of the Texas Capitol are not filled with state lawmakers like they were just months ago, the work continues for members of both the Texas House and Senate in the off-year. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
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Even as the ruckus of gavels and bells reverberating within the walls of both chambers within the Texas Capitol quickly transforms into eerie silence of empty desks after the legislative session ends, state lawmakers are still hard at work looking ahead to what their priorities for the next session will be.

In Texas, the legislative session takes place in odd-numbered years. Yet once the calendar turned to 2022, one state leader had everyone thinking about the next session already.

Last week, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, caused quite a stir in the Texas politics Twittersphere when he posted a picture of a countdown clock signaling we are only one year away from the next legislative session.

State lawmakers and politics reporters across the state worn down by the regular session and three additional months of extra lawmaking periods in the form of special sessions let out a collective sigh - or maybe even had a collective meltdown - at the thought of returning to the grind of the state legislature so soon after the stressful year.

However, this tweet was also a reminder that state lawmakers are still on the job even if they don't have to report to either the Texas House or Senate chamber.

Phelan said the off-year gives state representatives and senators a great chance to evaluate their priorities when they come back to the Capitol's pink dome come January 2023.

"It gives everyone an opportunity, when session is over - one - to get back to business back home, to your family. Also, what are your goals in 2023? What didn't you accomplish, for instance, in this 87th session," Phelan said. "For some members, [planning for next session] starts immediately. Some members want to get right back into it. They want to talk about healthcare solutions that didn't quite make it across the finish line, criminal justice reforms that didn't quite make it across the finish line, they want to talk about next year's budget."

This time between legislative sessions is known as the interim.

During this time, committees from both chambers will hold public hearings to gauge what legislative priorities are important to Texans.

"[There's] a lot of opportunity to meet. I would assume that's going to start in March soon after the primaries, but it's an opportunity to take a deep dive into issues without the clock ticking behind you that is session," Phelan said. "At the end of that, they'll produce a report for all of us to read and go through. Basically, it's their homework. It's their finding. It's their term paper, so to speak, so as we go into 2023, we'll have a better understanding of what legislation may look like."

Not only does this provide state lawmakers the chance to consider new priorities, but it also gives them opportunities to fine-tune bills that did not get enough support, so they can make the changes to the language needed to get the necessary support for passage next session.

As Phelan noted, the primary election is in March, and every state representative is up for election every two years.

This means the leadership in both chambers - Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the president of the state senate - will also get a better understanding of the policies that will likely be up for discussion in the new regular session.

"Truthfully, as soon as the primaries are over, and you get a better idea of who's returning as a member, then you can get a pathway forward of who might want to carry this legislation dealing with infrastructure, or dealing with mental health. It's really up to the members to decide how they want to work in the interim, and what they want to work on," Phelan said. "They'll meet, they'll bring in experts, they'll bring in stakeholders, they'll bring in the public, they'll have testimony."

With the primary and general elections still coming up, state lawmakers won't have their undivided attention on policies for the next session until after they've been elected.

Incumbents are having to spend a good portion of their time campaigning before even knowing for sure they'll be able to actually legislate the new policies they have set out.

"It's very difficult, depending on how difficult your primary may be. You may have two opponents, three opponents. You may be looking at a runoff, which puts you another two months after the primary, and here you are in April still campaigning going into the summer time. Absolutely it does. And then you can have a general election that, as soon as Labor Day is around, it's off to the races again. It's difficult," Phelan said.

Adding to the challenge of campaigning is the fact there's even less time between sessions than normal.

After Democrats in the Texas House broke quorum - keeping the chamber below the minimum number of members required to take any action, like passing bills in committee or on the floor - in order to try and sink the election security bill they argued would lead to voter suppression, Gov. Greg Abbott called three month-long special sessions to get lawmakers to pass his priorities they were not able to before.

"Of course, this one is going to be abbreviated because we had all of these special sessions. We didn't have 140 days this cycle. So far, we had 227. Those extra 87 days ate into what I call the interim," Phelan said.

These special sessions have an effect on the next regular session.

Because state lawmakers were able to pass a number of top priorities, the agenda for the regular session may not be so loaded.

"Some of the bills that were on the call that we did pass would have been big bills that we would have taken up in 2023. We just took care of them in 2021," Phelan said.

However, there could be negative effects on the 2023 session as a result of the extra lawmaking periods.

After Texas House Democrats initially broke quorum by walking off the floor of the chamber in the closing days of the regular session in May to kill the election bill, they again delayed the bill's passage by flying out of the state to Washington, D.C., in the opening days of the first regular session.

The bill would eventually become law, as did the new political maps, a more extensive critical race theory ban, and a prohibition of transgender students from playing the school sport of the gender with which they identify.

The quorum break and passage of the hardline conservative bills were all characterized by contentious debates and partisan heel-digging, which caused friction between the two parties.

However, it is believed these special sessions - and the heated discussions that came with them - led to dozens of state representatives either retiring or running for a different office.

This means there will be several new members of the Texas House who did not have to work during these tense times. Phelan said this makes him optimistic this could limit the amount of bad blood that carries over into the next legislative session.

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"Absolutely it takes its toll. The good news is there could be as many as 40 new House members. So, almost a third of the Texas House of Representatives did not go through this very contentious summer and are coming in with a fresh perspective," Phelan said. "I would just ask all my colleagues - Republican and Democrat - to go into the next session, try to put this behind us, try to work together as best we can on legislation we can work together on. There will be more partisan legislation. There always is. We know that."

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