Texas Senate changes vote procedure, eliminates open government and other committees

By Morgan Smith
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Jan. 21, 2015

With a new lieutenant governor installed for the first time in over a decade Wednesday — and over the cries of Democrats — the Texas Senate voted to break from an almost 70-year tradition intended to encourage compromise among its 31 members.

Now the approval of only 19 senators instead of 21 will be required to bring legislation to the floor for debate. The change — passed on a vote of 20-10 — has the practical effect of allowing Republicans to consider a bill without a single vote from one of the chamber’s 11 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has targeted the tradition known as the “two-thirds rule” since he first entered the Legislature in 2007.

Fighting to preserve the rule, Democrats said the change would strike a blow to the democratic process.

“I think it’s a sad day for the Senate, and one that we will look back on with regret,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

In the past, senators have used the rule to scuttle measures on voter identification, abortion and redistricting.

Ellis, along with other Democrats, urged Republicans to look beyond the rule’s effect on hot-button partisan legislation. Dropping the threshold needed to consider a bill from two-thirds to three-fifths, they said, would mean less clout for any members who held the minority view on issues like water rights, transportation policy and gambling.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, noted that the change would affect not just debate over legislation but also over whether to approve other rule changes, including whether to bar lobbyists from the floor or publicly post committee meetings.

But Republicans argued that the rule had allowed for too much abuse of procedure for political purposes, including plunging lawmakers into multiple special sessions.

The change was about “better governing,” said state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

“If anyone on this floor can stand up and say they are an independent voter and don’t always vote on party lines, you are looking at him,” he said. He added that he was “very comfortable” that partisanship would not increase because of the new rule.

Eltife put together the package of procedural changes that included the new three-fifths rule in his role as chairman of the chamber’s administration committee. He said some Republicans had pushed for a simple majority vote to bring bills to the floor, but he had fought to keep some form of a supermajority requirement in place.

The changes passed Wednesday reduce the number of standing Senate committees from 18 to 14 — nixing panels on open government, jurisprudence, economic development, and government organization. They also limit the honorary recognitions and resolutions members can make on the floor.

All but one of the chamber’s Democrats opposed dropping the new rule, and all but one of its Republicans voted in favor of it.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he supported it because too many of his bills had been killed over the years after they lacked one vote to come to the floor. State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who left the chamber quickly without speaking to reporters, abstained from the vote.