BY ADAM RUSSELL
The balance of power shifted further toward Republicans and other majority interests in the Texas Senate Wednesday when members adopted new rules for the 84th Legislative Session.
After a cursory discussion, senators voted to change a long-standing rule that allowed 11 members to prevent bills from reaching the Senate floor.
The longstanding “two-thirds rule,” or “blocker bill rule,” required at least 21 of 31 senators support a bill before it could be brought to the floor for a vote. The change to three fifths would require 19 of 31 votes.
It would mean 13 Senators would have to band together to create the same legislative hurdle for a bill.
There are 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Each session the Senate sets rules, that will direct legislative conduct throughout the session for everything from how many guests are allowed on the floor and vote requirements to the dress code.
Southern Methodist University Political Science professor Cal Jillson called the change a “big deal” for Democrats and also rural Republicans, who could be “rolled” by Republicans and legislators representing urban interests, respectively.
“The rules determine what you can and can’t do and while there’s an argument that legislatures should be majority rule to keep a minority from obstructing the will of the majority, there is some value in defenses for the minority,” he said.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who chairs the Senate Administration Committee, which presents the Senate rules each session, said the Senate has operated in a “dysfunctional” manner for some time and that he believes the rule changes will help the body function better.
Eltife said the two-thirds rule has become a campaign topic during GOP Primaries
Democrats raised concerns and questions about the rules change. They worried about how minority interests would be diminished
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, asked Eltife if he worried about rural water rights and rural school districts, given the majority urban makeup of the Senate.
Eltife said he was “comfortable” with the rule change as a rural member.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he believes the rule change would usher in a level of vitriol similar to Washington D.C. and that it would be detrimental to various interests in the Senate.
“This will do irreparable harm to this body,” West said. “I wager at some point you will find yourself on the wrong end of this rule.”
Jillson said the Senate typically runs more harmoniously than the House because of the smaller number of legislators and the protections allowed by rules, including the two-thirds requirement. The rules made it so that bi-partisan support for a bill was required, but this change could embolden Republicans and leadership.
He said the new rules would not change the tenor in the Senate and that he believes the two-thirds rule was only effective in disrupting the chamber’s business and put power into the governor’s hands because he can call a special session and set its agenda.
“This puts power back into the Senate and lets us take care of business,” he said.
The resolution also reduced the number of Senate committees, which could put Democrats at a further disadvantage, Jillson said. Jillson said it reduces the number of Democrats to be considered for power positions on committees, which control the flow of bills.
Jillson said the reduction would lend well to Patrick’s GOP primary promise that Democrats would not receive chairmanships under his leadership.
Eltife said members were spread too thin on so many committees and that at times it meant quorums were not present and that ill-prepared committee members were moving bad legislation for consideration on the floor.
The Senate also voted to limit resolutions and floor guests for each member.
Eltife said it is important to recognize constituents but that the large number of resolutions reduces the honor and slows action on the floor.