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The whole “two thirds” thing is more flexible than you might think

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth is mad as heck about some Senate rules shenanigans, according to the Statesman’s Jason Embry.

Wentworth, R-San Antonio, thinks that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst abused his authority in the recently completed legislative session, and he wants senators to change their rules in 2011 to prevent it from happening again.

To back up for a second, I wrote a story for the Statesman last week about the fact that most of the bills that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed this year received few dissenting votes as they moved through the Legislature. As part of that story, I talked to Wentworth, who unsuccessfully pushed a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to come back into a brief special session and override some of Perry’s vetoes.

Wentworth said that the measure had support from 26 of the 31 senators but Dewhurst would not recognize him to bring it up for a vote. And this part was not in that story — Wentworth said senators should change their rules in the next session to prevent that from happening again.

“If I have anything to say about it, we’re going to change the rules come January 2011,” Wentworth said. “We’re going to say, if you put a file in writing with the secretary of the Senate, 21 signatures that senators want to debate a bill, then the president of the Senate should recognize that senator the next day of the session.”

He added, “We’re not going to put up with this any longer. There are a number of senators that I’ve already spoken to that agree with me. It only takes 16 senators to adopt rules.”

Wentworth said Dewhurst told him that Gov. Rick Perry talked to him 20 times about stopping the legislation. And he said former Sen. Ken Armbrister, who works for Perry, “cajoled and threatened” six senators into opposing the measure, giving Dewhurst the cover he needed to not bring up the bill. (Asked about all this, Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons said only that the bill did not have the votes necessary to be called up).

Wentworth said there is an unwritten understanding between senators and the lieutenant governor that if 21 senators are willing to debate a bill, Dewhurst will recognize the appropriate senator to bring it up.

“The lieutenant governor should not abuse that power that we give him,” Wentworth said. “He should not have given his word to Perry that he would kill that bill.”

Just so we’re all clear, Wentworth was perfectly happy to scrap the existing two-thirds rule to bring voter ID to the floor. I’d have more sympathy for him if it weren’t for that. Live by the end-around, die by the end-around, you know? In any event, Burka thinks this is a bad idea on principle, and he thinks he has a better one.

If Wentworth’s plan goes through, it will change the nature of the lieutenant governor’s office. The proposal grants 21 senators the ability to force the lieutenant governor to recognize one of their number to bring legislation to the floor. By denying the light gov the discretion of when and whether to recognize members, Wentworth would weaken the office and rob the legislative branch of a counterweight to the executive.

If one of the arguments against Wentworth’s proposal is that it ties the hands of the lieutenant governor, another argument is that his idea is doomed to failure. All the lieutenant governor has to do is to take a look at the list, pick out one or two members to lobby, get them to remove their names, and –poof! — there won’t be twenty-one signatures any more.

I think that there is an easy solution to the problem of the Legislature’s inability to override the governor’s vetoes: start sooner. Quit wasting time early in the session. Get legislation to the governor’s desk early enough that he has to take action while the session is still going on. The Legislature could do what Congress does. After the November elections, each house should caucus in December. The speaker and the lieutenant governor will have a month to meet with members and get their committee preferences. At the caucus, the presiding officer-apparent announces the appointments for the upcoming session. And the Legislature can began holding committee hearings in January. The accelerated schedule will get bills to the governor’s desk in a timely manner so that he has to take action before the session ends, giving the Legislature a chance to override his vetoes.

In theory, Burka’s solution makes a lot of sense, and should be the norm in years where the Speaker is predetermined. As he admits, that wouldn’t have helped this time around, and may not help in 2011 – the most likely scenario is a House that’s nearly as evenly divided as it is now, with a 75-75 split a distinct possibility – or 2013, the first post-redistricting session, either. Other than that, it’s a great idea.

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One Comment

  1. David says:

    Wentworth is the typical blowhard who believes he is the only person who is ever right. He always votes against suspending the 3 day posting rule until late in the session when he needs to pass his bills.
    He lives off of lobbyists and friendly donors and leases fancy cars while never paying a dime of his own money. He also represents part of southwest Austin and yet has never done anything to help with our traffic concerns.

    Perhaps it is time for the citizens of District 25 to retire this RINO hypocrite.