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What's Special about a Special Session?

With our May 30th end of session fast approaching, there is growing talk of a Special Session. I have not experienced one of these so I have been reading our rules and talking with my colleagues to 1) see how likely it might be and 2) better understand how these work.

The big issue, as I am sure you know, is developing our budget for 2012-2013. The House passed its version April 3rd and the Senate passed its version May 4th. Our conference committees have been meeting and getting closer to a resolution each day. We are considering SB1811 tomorrow which could add several billion to help close the funding gap. Plus, the Comptroller reported this week that there would be $1.2 billion in additional revenue for the upcoming budget. Yet there are hard choices to be made and both the House and Senate members have to approve the budget negotiated by our conferees. If this does not happen, a Special Session is a virtual certainty.

There is also a likelihood that redistricting might be the subject of a Special Session. The House has passed a House map and the Senate is nearing completion of its map. In addition to each chamber needing to vote on each other's plans, we need to pass a Congressional map, including the establishment of four new seats for Texas. While there is time to do this, the attention given to the budget makes it a bit of a challenge.

Only one person has the authority to determine if we have a special session -- our Governor, Rick Perry. According to Article 3, sec. 5(a) of the Texas Constitution, "The Legislature shall meet every two years at such time as may be provided by law and at other times when convened by the Governor." And our Governor has sole discretion of that we are called to do in that session. Article 3, sec 40 states, "…there shall be no legislation upon subjects other than those designated in the proclamation by the Governor calling such session, or presented to them by the Governor, and no such session shall be of longer duration than 30 days."

Following the last session there was a three-day special session so the thirty-day timeframe can be much shorter. However, when House Democrats fled to Ardmore Oklahoma, and later the Senate Democrats went to Santa Fe, New Mexico to prevent quorum during the last redistricting process, three special sessions were called and work continued into October. While we hope that won't be the case this year, we legislators understand our duty is to complete our work. So that days ahead will be long, and we hope, productive.

If we do return to a Special Session, one key rule provides an advantage to completing our budget after the end of the regular Session. Looking again to our state Constitution, Article 3 Sec. 49 (a) requires the comptroller to provide a detailed accounting of the State's financial condition and projected revenues prior to the start of each Regular Session. Our most recent estimates were published in December.

However, the same section goes on to say, "Supplemental statements shall be submitted at any Special Session of the Legislature, and at such other times as may be necessary to show probable changes." Since the Texas economy has improved recently, some insiders were advocating for a Special Session so more revenue might be available. This is evidenced by this week's announcement of $1.2 billion in new revenue but I wonder how much more would now be identified.

A final wrinkle: each time we meet we have the opportunity to adopt a new set of rules of procedures (Article 3, Sec.11). It is therefore possible that the Senate might not choose to retain its 2/3rds rule for the Special Session. This would greatly change the dynamics and empower the Republican majority. In fact, it is one of the factors that leads me to believe that we may well avoid the need for a Special Session altogether. We'll know soon enough.

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