Texas Legislature 101: How bills become laws

Interested in what goes on in the Texas Legislature but don’t know where to start? Feeling a little bit rusty and need to remember what a Point of Order is? Look no further than Texas 2036’s brief run-through of what a legislative session may entail and how to pass — or kill — a bill!

Let’s start with the basics.
  • A legislative session is 140 days, starting at the beginning of odd-numbered years.
  • Session is the only time laws and a budget can be passed.
  • There are 181 members of the Texas Legislature, with 31 Senators and 150 Representatives.
  • For the 88th Legislature, there are 86 Republican Representatives, 64 Democrat Representatives, 19 Senate Republicans and 12 Senate Democrats.
  • The House of Representatives selects a Speaker of the House from among their own body to head the chamber.
  • The head of the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor, is independently elected and is not a Senator.
  • Representatives serve two-year terms and Senators serve four-year terms, except after redistricting when some Senators will serve two-year terms.
Who are the “Big Three”?

The “Big Three” are the heads of each chamber, plus the Governor: For the 88th Legislature, they are Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. They set the tone and priorities for each session. The Lieutenant Governor and Speaker have the ability to reserve the first 20-30 bills in each chamber for their priority bills.

How do you pass a bill?

Every bill has an author or sponsor. An author originally drafted the bill, whereas a sponsor agreed to champion the bill in the opposite chamber. There are four types of authors:

  • Primary Author: The original author and champion of the bill.
  • Additional Primary Author: In the Senate, members who want to show support of a bill enough to put their name on the bill are listed in alphabetical order after the primary author. This happens before the bill is filed, and there’s no limit for the number of additional authors.
  • Joint Author: In the House, members who want to show support of a bill enough to put their name on the bill are listed in alphabetical order after the primary author. This happens after the bill is filed, and is limited to four Representatives.
  • Co-authors: These supporters can sign on at any time, and there is no limit to the number of co-authors.

There are also sponsors, joint sponsors and co-sponsors for the bill in the second chamber.

In order to pass a bill, every bill must be read three times in the presence of its chamber of origin, then another three times in the other chamber.

The process begins by referring the bill to a committee, as determined by the Lieutenant Governor or Speaker, depending on the chamber. When a bill is referred to a committee, it is considered “read” for the first time.

We’ll get into the second and third readings below.

What about committees?

There are 15 Senate standing committees and 34 House standing committees. Standing committees exist year round and only have members from one chamber. Joint committees have both Senators and Representatives.

There may also be select committees, which exist for a specific purpose and are not renewed on a permanent basis.

Chairs of committees are selected by the Lieutenant Governor or Speaker.

While a bill is in committee, existing language can be swapped with what’s known as a committee substitute. To help strengthen a bill, the author of the bill can change its language at this stage before others have a chance to amend it.

After a bill is voted out of committee, it is then sent to a calendars committee in the House or it becomes eligible to be heard on the Senate floor. Attached to the bill now is a committee report. These reports include:

  • The committee’s recommendations, and the yay and nay votes on the bill;
  • The text of the bill as reported out by the committee;
  • A fiscal note or other impact statement;
  • Any proposed amendments;
  • An analysis of the bill; and,
  • A witness list of non-members who showed their support or opposition to the bill.

Fiscal notes detail how much a bill may cost the state and are put together by the Legislative Budget Board.

While a bill is heard in committee, advocates may show their support or disapproval of a bill in several ways: they can “drop a card,” which is a process to formally register your support or opposition to the bill without testimony. They can also provide oral testimony, where you state your case in a limited amount of time in front of the entire committee. Or, they can provide written testimony — requirements for how many copies you need to leave and in what style vary from committee to committee.

Once a bill is out of committee, it goes to one of the committees that coordinate the various floor calendars. In the House, that means either the Calendars Committee or Local and Consent Calendars Committee. The House Local and Consent Calendar are for bills for which the impact is limited just to the author’s district or area and bills expected to be approved on a unanimous vote. A bill can be placed on this calendar only if it received a unanimous vote in committee. If the bill has either a large impact or will not garner unanimous consent, it is sent to House Calendars, which deals with bills that have been submitted for full debate on the House floor.

The House Calendars Committee decides if and when a bill will be heard on the House floor. A bill’s second reading happens the first time it is heard on the House floor after it has left committee. The Daily House Calendar handles bills placed for second reading, and is broken into five parts:

  • Emergency
  • Major State
  • Constitutional Amendments
  • General State
  • Resolutions

Then there is a Supplemental Calendar that has:

  • Bills ready for third reading (after their passage on second reading)
  • Bills unable to be heard on their originally scheduled day
  • Intentionally postponed bills

Members can propose amendments to the bill during second or third reading. They may also try to prevent your bill from moving forward by trying to find a point of order, which means the bill in some way violates House rules. You can read more about points of order here.

In the Senate, the process is a bit trickier. The Senate traditionally passes what is called a “blocker bill” every regular session, which is a bill quickly passed out of committee that is intended to sit at the top of the calendar but is not recognized for floor debate. It thus “blocks” the Senate’s regular order of business. To get around this, 5/9ths of the Senate — which is 18 members — must agree for a bill to be heard “out of the regular order of business.” The practical intent is to ensure that a supermajority of Senators must agree to hear all bills during the regular session and that the Lieutenant Governor has absolute discretion over which bills can proceed to debate on the floor.

To have a bill heard, the authoring or sponsoring Senator must inform the Secretary of the Senate that they want their bill placed on the Intent Calendar. The Intent Calendar has no rules on the order in which bills are heard. Instead, that is left to the Lieutenant Governor, who decides when to recognize a Senator to introduce their bill. Again, they must also have 18 Senators who agree to hear the bill, as well. A bill must be on the Intent Calendar for two consecutive days to become eligible to be brought to the floor. After that, a simple majority is all that’s needed to pass. The Senate also has a Local and Uncontested Calendar, which goes through Senate Administration.

You’ve gotten a bill out of one chamber. What’s next?

The bill needs to be sponsored by a member of the other chamber and go through the whole process again. If a bill goes through both chambers, but the second chamber changes the bill, the original bill author decides whether to accept the changes. If they do, great! It goes to the Governor. If not, a Conference Committee is created, generally with three Representatives and three Senators. Their task is to reconcile the two versions of the bill and submit a final version for passage by both chambers. If they are successful, then it’s off to the Governor!

What is the Governor’s role?

Once the Governor receives a bill, there are three options:

  • Sign the bill
  • Veto the bill
  • Allow the bill to pass without a signature

The Governor has 10 days to act from receiving the bill or 20 days after Sine Die (the phrase for the last day of Session), if it was within the last 10 days of session. A two-thirds majority in each chamber can overrule a veto, but the Legislature must be in session to override. As a result, bills passed in the last days of the legislative session — if vetoed — can be nearly impossible to override. A bill becomes a law the 91st day after final adjournment unless otherwise specified. Constitutional amendments go to the voters for their approval in the following November election.

Congratulations! You passed your bill. If it had a fiscal note, hopefully the money needed to implement your bill was also included in the budget.

Want to know how much Texas has on hand to spend going into the current session? Check out our spending limits blog.