Lawmakers in Austin have just over a month to figure out the state’s budget for the next two years, plus a parade of other legislation, from reforming Child Protective Services to figuring out how to fund public schools. In all, they’ve filed more than 9,000 bills this session. Today we’re continuing our Texas Decides series, where you decide what questions we answer about the legislature. As our Statewide Editor Rachel Osier Lindley reports, that blizzard of bills got one listener curious — about where they all come from.
We all know, or have a general idea, how a bill becomes a law.
Even if you don’t, you can probably at least sing a few bars of the infamous “I’m Just a Bill” song from Schoolhouse Rock!
What there’s no fun jingle about? How a bill becomes a bill. That process is wonky and in the weeds.
First off, only a member of the Texas Legislature can file a bill. Technically, the term “author” refers the person who files legislation and shepherds it through the lawmaking process.
Sherry Greenberg’s a professor at of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. She served in the Texas House for a decade starting in 1991.
“As far as where the ideas come from ideas for writing the bills come from a lot of places,” Greenberg says. “It can be something from the member’s own experience, something from their districts, another state, a lobbyist, I remember one that came from a constituent.”
Let’s start here. We’ll get to the lobbyists and special interest groups in a second. So one day, Greenberg reads a letter from a guy she represents.
“He was a paramedic with M.S. And he contacted me about a situation with E. M.S. drivers who if they got in an accident in a car accident it could affect their it could affect their insurance as far as their personal automobile insurance,” Greenberg recalls. “And I thought this isn’t fair at all.”
She decided to author a bill to change that. That’s the idea part. When it comes to the actual wording of the bills, legislators don’t go it alone.
When it comes to writing bills, Jeff Arhcer – the executive director of the Texas Legislative council – says no one person really writes the bill.
“The originator of the idea often thinks of themselves as the writer or drafter of the bill. The member thinks of themselves they’re the author or the sponsor of the legislation so they wrote the bill. Their staff or the committee staff that you know requested changes and read every line of it and fine-tuned it through the council,” Archer says.
And so on, with every bill.
Archer says, in a given session, up to 90 percent of the bills introduced have been through his group’s hands. Texas Legislative Council’s lawyers and researchers make sure a bill contains all the language and it needs to be effective.
“Think of legislation a little bit like computer programming or a blueprint. It’s not communicating it’s doing,” Archer says. “The bill does what the member communicates.”
In Sherri Greenberg’s case, her bill passed, and that EMS driver got the change he hoped for.
Now, back to the big guys, and how they can influence what goes into a bill. One outside group with a familiar name is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. That conservative group was behind Arizona’s controversial immigration law and is a huge player in providing model legislation for state houses across the country. But there are also smaller regional and statewide interest groups, like tree-hugging Environment Texas, or the influential free-market hugging Empower Texans. And then there are business groups.
“It’s very common practice that individuals groups third party organizations have ideas and they may have representatives or senators that believe their viewpoints,” says Representative Todd Hunter, Chairman of the House Calendars Committee.
He’s been in the legislature for 18 years and has basically seen everything. For the sake of this story, let’s say there’s a “Gerbil Breeders of Texas Association.” If those gerbil breeders want less regulations, they’ll find a lawmaker who loves cuddly pet rodents.
“So they go to them with their draft ideas and then they work together with them on developing the bill. They go through the same process.
Whatever the idea, controversial or not, pro-or anti-gerbil, no group can force a lawmaker to introduce a bill. Hunter says most take up legislation on issues they already care about.
“To me it’s a general process it doesn’t matter what group is out there if they have ideas I encourage them to work the process legally and ethically.”
If the ethics of any particular industry or interest group concern you, there’s no simple way to know if they’ve inspired or even written the first draft of a bill for a lawmaker. For that, you’ll have to embrace you inner nerdy wonk and do some research.