Which Tarrant County lawmakers passed the most bills last session?

dfwnewsa | March 18, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Which Tarrant County lawmakers passed the most bills last session?

Representatives from Tarrant County authored or sponsored 96 bills eventually signed by the governor in the 88th regular session of the Texas Legislature. 

Of the 11,807 bills filed by legislators statewide, 4,550 were passed into law. Rounding up, that means about two of every five bills filed eventually became law. 

The arduous process of shepherding a bill to passage involves negotiating with several gatekeepers, from chamber leadership to the other legislators whose votes are needed to pass legislation. 

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“You’ve got to get all of those people on the same page to pass legislation, and to pass legislation in the same form in both chambers and in such a way that the governor will sign it,” TCU political science professor James Riddlesperger said. “It’s a very complex process.” 

The productivity of a legislator can’t be measured in only one way, Riddlesperger said. Because of the slim likelihood a filed bill will eventually become law, legislators may assess success in different ways. Generally speaking, Riddlesperger said, there are three types of legislators:– Leaders who want to impact legislation and are actively involved in what gets passed– People who are primarily there to vote on legislation– “Bull horns” who raise fringe issues but often fail at advancing meaningful legislation 

“All of these things are ways to measure effectiveness or importance in the Legislature, but they defy any single explanation,” Riddlesperger said. 

How does a bill become a law in Texas? 

A legislator files a bill

The bill is assigned to a committee in the House or Senate, depending on where it was filed

The committee considers and holds hearings on the proposed bills 

If the bill advances out of committee, it may be placed on the calendar to be considered by the full House and Senate

The House and Senate will consider the bill, debate and offer amendments on the House floor

If the bill passes both the House and Senate, it will be sent to the governor, who can sign it, veto it or let it become law without signing it.

Read more about how a bill becomes a law here. 

Craig Goldman, who authored or sponsored the most bills that became law, said his office has a mantra that guides legislative efforts: “What are problems that need to be solved, not only in our district but in our state?”

Goldman represented White Settlement, Benbrook, Crowley and parts of Fort Worth for 11 years. He recently chose not to run for reelection to his seat and is instead running for Congress in U.S. House District 12 to replace longtime U.S. Rep. Kay Granger. He is in a runoff election with John O’Shea after neither candidate secured more than 50% of the vote. 

“It’s extremely difficult to pass a bill,” Goldman said. “The process is truly designed to kill legislation, not pass legislation, so we work the process.” 

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Other highly productive legislators echoed Goldman’s sentiment — they focused on filing bills they believed had a chance to be passed into law. 

What are ways legislators can contribute to the passage of bills? 

Primary author: The primary author is the original author and champion of the bill. Just because a legislator is listed as the author doesn’t mean they drafted and wrote the legislation themselves, as often the language is adopted from interest groups and simply adapted by the legislator. 

Joint author: A joint author is someone who supports the bill enough to put their name on it; they are typically listed in alphabetical order and limited to just four representatives. 

Sponsor: A sponsor is a representative who carries and supports a bill that originated in the opposite chamber. For example, a member of the House of Representatives would sponsor a bill originally authored by a senator. 

Co-sponsor: Co-sponsoring a bill is another way for a representative to signal support for a bill originating from the opposite chamber. 

David Cook, who got the most bills signed by the governor in the 88th session, including co-sponsored and joint-authored legislation, was elected to his first term in 2021 representing parts of Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield. He secured the Republican nomination to represent Texas House District 99 in March and will run against Democratic challenger Ebony Turner in November. 

Despite his relatively junior seniority — he’s listed as the 113th most senior member of the House out of 150 — Cook was appointed to several consequential committees by House Speaker Dade Phelan, including the Calendars Committee, which places bills on the legislative calendar to be discussed and voted on by the full House. 

He is also vice chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which has jurisdiction over criminal penalties and revisions to the state’s penal code. 

“My service on the Calendars Committee really gave me an opportunity to speak to members, because they were coming to me and telling me about their bills,” Cook said. “So it gave me an opportunity to tell them about bills that I was carrying, as well.” 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the two legislators who authored or sponsored the fewest bills were Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, and Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth. Tinderholt campaigned to unseat Phelan as speaker and received just three votes, from himself, Schatzline and Bryan Slaton, R-Royce City, who later resigned and was expelled from the House over misconduct allegations.

Ending up on the wrong side of a leadership fight is a sure way to lose influence in the Texas House, Riddlesperger said. 

“The Speaker of the Texas House and the lieutenant governor in the Senate are the controlling officers of the Legislature,” Riddlesperger said. “Nothing can happen without going across their desks.”  

Both Tinderholt and Schatzline did not respond to a request for comment. 

Democrats occupy the minority in Texas Legislature, use obstruction and relationships to push priorities 

Democrats in the Texas legislature are solidly in the minority, preventing any opportunity to hold consequential leadership positions that set the agenda for the legislative session. 

Despite this, there is a long tradition of Republican leadership appointing Democrats to committee leadership positions, allowing them to have some influence over what legislation clears the first hurdle on its way to being passed into law. This issue was a key point of disagreement in Tinderholt’s run for speaker. 

Tarrant County’s most productive Democratic representative, Chris Turner, D-Arlington, is vice chair of the Redistricting Committee and served as chair of the House Democratic Caucus from 2017 through 2022. 

Turner said his leadership positions yield mixed results for his efficacy as a legislator. However, serving as the chair or vice chair of consequential committees allows Democrats to push their priorities more effectively to the House floor. 

Being a member of the minority party requires Democrats to work with Republicans on issues they can reach agreement on, Turner said. 

“I think it makes for good representation, to seek out those issues areas that are not inherently partisan, not inherently ideological, or divisive,” Turner said. 

Conflicts between Republicans and Democrats in the Texas Legislature can be easier to bridge than conflicts between colleagues in the same party, Riddlesperger said.

“We have shifting coalitions that cross party lines and it’s been that way since the beginning of the legislative history of Texas,” Riddlesperger said.

Another way Democrats advance their priorities is by allowing Republican legislators to carry bills, giving them a better chance to advance through the House and Senate chambers, State Rep. Nicole Collier D-Fort Worth, said. Collier passed the fewest number of authored or sponsored legislation among Democratic reps, but jointly authored 11 pieces of legislation that were eventually signed by the governor. 

“I don’t care how it gets passed. It’s the legislation that matters and the legislation was passed,” Collier said.

Another tool Democrats use is obstruction. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, who passed the fewest pieces of legislation last year, said he was on the wrong side of a leadership fight. 

However, Romero said he worked as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus Whip, where he was able to draw votes away from bills he believed would have negative consequences for immigrants seeking asylum at the border. 

“That’s one of the ways that we’re able to at least slow the clock down,” Romero said. “The hard part is when you do that, you don’t just kill Republican bills, you kill a lot of Democratic bills as well.”

Obstruction is an important tool for Democrats, Turner said, noting he’s seen it effectively kill bills related to voting, abortion rights and vouchers. 

“It’s on us to up the ante and raise the stakes in an effort to raise awareness in the general public about what is going on,” Turner said. 

Legislators say productivity both hampered, improved by short session 

National headlines heralded this session of the U.S. Congress as the least productive in decades. 

Tarrant County’s delegation to the U.S. Congress did not sponsor any bills that were eventually signed by the president. Only two legislators co-sponsored more than one piece of legislation that were eventually signed by the president: Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, and Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas. 

Productivity within the Texas Legislature is much higher. That’s partly because legislators must pass a budget every two years, where the U.S. House of Representatives often teeters on the edge of failing to fund the government. 

“I would argue that the budget is not only the signature accomplishment, but it’s really mostly the only accomplishment of a legislative session,” Riddlesperger said. “We tell the people of the state what we care about by where we put our money.”

Productivity is both encouraged and restricted by Texas’ legislative session, which is just six months every other year. 

“You have to get the work done, because the last thing you ever want to do is come back for a special session,” Goldman said. 

However, the small amount of time lawmakers spend in Austin can prevent legislators from budgeting effectively and often ensures ideas from the minority party fall to the wayside, Romero said. House representatives and senators only come into work 140 days out of 730 days.

“Think about that,” Romero said. “That’s like showing up on a Monday and leaving at lunch on a Tuesday.” 

The short session can lock up the Legislature’s ability to address complicated issues like health care and gun control, Turner said. However, the shortened session, in part, enabled opponents of Gov. Greg Abbott’s education savings account to prevent voucher legislation from passing. 

In response, Abbott called legislators back to multiple special sessions, undercutting the effectiveness of obstructing legislators. In the end, however, opponents of vouchers succeeded while also grinding other legislative priorities to a halt, mirroring the much more politically divided Congress. 

Government is supposed to be fairly slow, Riddlesperger said. If Congress and the Texas Legislature are more politically divided than ever before, it makes sense that the pace of passing legislation would also slow. 

“They’re incapable of dealing with the issues that confront us because we can’t even agree on what the issues are,” Riddlesperger said. “Maybe that just means the constitutional system is working, as frustrating as it is for all of us.” 

Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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