Texas

Why does the Texas Legislature only meet in regular session once every two years?

In mid-19th century Texas, the only means of transportation were on foot or horseback, and you were likely to be robbed by Wild West bandits or attacked by Indian tribes.

So it goes without saying that early Texas legislators didn’t tend to go to Austin every year to handle state affairs, and that’s one of the reasons legislative sessions were biennial rather than annual.

The 88th Texas Legislature opened Tuesday as lawmakers from across the state meet in Austin to discuss bills that will affect everything from taxes to education, health care and the state’s power grid.

“Given the size of Texas and the fact that it had so many legislators from all over the state, it was difficult to get everyone together at the same time,” said Brett Derbez, editor-in-chief of The Handbook of Texas, a guide to Texas history compiled by the non-profit Texas Historical Association. “Back in the 1800s, it was difficult and dangerous to make significant travel, so they decided to meet every two years.”

Because of this, legislative sessions in Texas are longer than in other states. A 1960 amendment to the Texas constitution limited regular sessions to 140 days and special sessions to 30 days.

“When the Lege only meets every two years, it is overwhelmed with bills and issues that need to be addressed, and this often leads to special sessions being called to sort things out,” Derbez said.

The constitution gives governors the power to call as many extraordinary sessions as they want if more time is needed.

Texas, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota are the only states that have biennial legislatures, and they all meet in odd years.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, the benefits for legislators who meet every two years include having time to build and maintain relationships with their constituencies, campaign for re-election, and use ad hoc committees to study proposed legislation. A meeting every two years can also serve as a safeguard against unnecessary or unsystematic legislation.

The downside of the non-annual meetings, according to the conference participants, is that the states cannot quickly respond to new federal laws or take timely action if appropriate laws need to be passed in the interim.

And, of course, the question of payment. Texas legislators have historically been underpaid, so most of them have other jobs. They earn $7,200 a year and $190 a day during regular and special sessions.

“The low pay is meant to keep the citizen-legislator spirit alive,” Derbez said. “This is to ensure that people have a basic job, besides being just legislators, because low wages do not allow them to live.”

However, our reader Sweeney said it makes more sense to him that lawmakers want to meet every year.

“Even though the legislators only meet once every two years, they act like they are politicians all the time,” he said. “If you’re going to take on the role of a politician, wouldn’t you get more out of that role by spending every spring in the Legislature doing business?”

  • The first legislative assembly took place in February 1846 and lasted only 87 days. The second was in 1847, starting with a succession of odd years.
  • From 1846 to 1960, regular sessions varied in duration, with the shortest being 61 days and the longest 177 days.
  • The highest number of special sessions was six in the 71st Legislative Assembly in 1989.
  • The shortest special session lasted only an hour at the 38th Legislative Assembly in 1923.
  • The session starting today in Austin will be the 88th session of the Legislature.

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