8.20.18 – The Dallas Morning News
In mid-19th century Texas, the only ways to travel were on foot or by horse, and you were likely to get robbed by Wild West bandits or attacked by Native American tribes.
David Swinney, a Dallas Morning News subscriber from Kentucky who has lived in Texas for 40 years, asked Curious Texas why the Legislature has met every two years instead of annually since it was established in 1845.
“Given the size of Texas and that there were so many legislators from all over the state, it was hard to get everyone together at once,” said Brett Derbes, managing editor of the Handbook of Texas, a guide of Texas history put together by the nonprofit Texas State Historical Association. “Back in the 1800s, it was difficult and dangerous for the significant travel, so they decided to meet every two years.”
Because of this, Texas has longer legislative sessions than other states. A 1960 revision to the Texas constitution limited regular sessions to 140 days and special sessions to 30 days.
“When the ‘Lege’ meets only every two years, it gets packed full of bills and issues to deal with, and that often leads to special sessions being called to get everything done,” Derbes said.
The constitution gives governors the power to call as many special sessions as they want if more time is needed. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session because lawmakers didn’t pass urgent legislation that would keep open several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors.
Texas, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota are the only states with biennial legislatures, all convening on odd years.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, advantages to lawmakers meeting every two years include having time to create and sustain relations with their constituents, campaign for re-election and use interim commissions to study proposed legislation. Meeting every two years can also act a safeguard against unnecessary or knee-jerk legislation.
And of course, there’s the issue of pay. Texas legislators have historically not been paid much, so most have other jobs. They earn $7,200 per year and $190 per day during regular and special sessions.
“The low salary is to preserve the spirit of being a citizen-legislator,” Derbes said. “It is to keep people having a primary job beyond just being a legislator, because the low salary is not sustainable to live off of.”
“Even though legislators only meet every other year, they act like they are politicians all the time,” he said. “If you’re going to take on the role of being a politician, wouldn’t you get more value out of that role by spending every spring at the Legislature taking care of business?”
Other Texas Legislature facts
- The First Legislature was in February 1846 and lasted only 87 days. The Second was in 1847, starting the run of odd years.
- From 1846 to 1960, regular sessions varied in length — the shortest was 61 days and the longest was 177.
- The highest number of special sessions was six, in the 71st Legislature in 1989.
- The shortest special session lasted only an hour, in the 38th Legislature in 1923.
- The session that starts in January will be the 86th Legislature.
NCSL data cited. NCSL resources on annual vs. biennial legislative sessions.