Hey, Texplainer: Why does a state as big as Texas have a part-time Legislature?

Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Michael Lewis. Send us your questions about Texas politics and policy by emailing texplainer@texastribune.org or visiting texastribune.org/texplainer.

Hey, Texplainer: Why does a state as big as Texas only have a part-time Legislature that makes $ 7,200 a year?

The answer, like the question, hinges on Texas’ size.

Back in the 19th century, it was much harder for people to traverse the state — including lawmakers trying to make it to the Capitol for a legislative session, said Brett Derbes, the managing editor for the Handbook of Texas, a project outlining Texas’ history that was created and is sponsored by the Texas State Historical Organization. So they enshrined biennial meetings into the state Constitution.

The Constitution also outlines how much money each lawmaker makes per year. Changing either would require a constitutional amendment — and that doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon.

Meeting for only five months every other year (barring a special session called by the governor) has its downsides, Derbes said.

“This system creates a logjam of bills and often requires special sessions of the Legislature,” Derbes said.

There’s little appetite in the Capitol for the idea of lawmakers meeting more often — even outside of a full session. Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, has filed several measures to have the Legislature convene in off years to discuss the state’s budget (currently, the budget passed during a regular legislative session has to last a full two years before being addressed again). None has gotten far.

Raymond said there doesn’t seem to be much support for meeting more frequently.

Anybody that will talk to you off the record will say it’s a good idea,” Raymond said. “Members will say it makes sense [to discuss the budget in off years], but then they won’t want to say it publicly because they’ll think you want to have annual sessions.”

Lawmakers’ salaries are also set in the spirit of a part-time Legislature, Derbes said. The Constitution currently gives them an annual salary of $ 7,200, “unless a greater amount is recommended by the Texas Ethics Commission and approved by voters of this State.”

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the legislative salary was last adjusted in 1975 — prior to that, lawmakers earned $ 4,800 annually. Changing that number again would require another constitutional amendment.

In addition to their annual salary, lawmakers also earn $ 190 per day — $ 5,600 total over the course of a 140-day regular session — in per diem pay meant to cover their expenses in Austin. That pay has varied over the years; it’s capped by IRS allowances and set by the Texas Ethics Commission, the agency that also regulates the behavior of campaigns, candidates and public officials.

The last per diem increase was in February 2015, when the commission approved raising the rate from $ 150. In October 2016, a proposal was put to the commission to increase the per diem rate to $ 217. It was rejected.

“The low pay rate is an attempt to preserve the spirit of the ‘citizen legislator’ and promote limited government,” Derbes said.

The bottom line: Making the Legislature meet more frequently or increasing lawmakers’ annual salary would require a constitutional amendment — and there’s long been little desire in the Capitol to do either.

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