The Texas Capitol’s Part-Time Civil Servants = Full-Time Lobbyists
An arcane part-time Texas state legislature is increasingly impacting how the rest of America governs — or doesn’t
The recent scrutiny of Nikki Haley’s undeclared lobbying efforts as governor in South Carolina are not an anomaly in state houses across the country. During years where Haley was poorly paid, she entered an ethical briar patch. She isn’t alone in crossing an unwritten line as a part-time state legislator earning peanuts, by securing state contracts for a company she worked for.
Ethics can be relative, given what someone recently called the ‘jungle rules’ of backroom politicking in the South. Yet there is an answer to the legal corruption. “The first and most direct answer is to make stronger ethics laws and enforcement,” says Kedric Payne, a senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. So when a state like Texas has weak ethics laws and enforcement of part-time legislators with conflicts of interest, the lines remain deliberately blurry between what is legal and what is not.
The Texas State Capitol, it was once quoted by a famous politician, “was built by giants and inhabited by pygmies.” Pygmies who are running on speed to get over 8,000+ pieces of legislation rammed through every other year. “Laws limit when they can start legislating without the governor’s say — 140 days of legislating is [effectively] 60 days every two years,” according to Professor of Political Science Dr. Brandon Rottinghause of the University of Houston.
Dr. Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University has studied the origins of the current system. “It is the basis for its political culture of low taxes, light regulation and elite control — plantation elite early on and business elite later on.” Who feels the effects of the system disproportionately? “It works to the detriment of communities of color — starkly if you think historically and still today. It is a result of those earlier forms of exclusion and mistreatment. Today Blacks and Hispanics make 60-65% of what Anglos do. Their children go to less well-funded schools and there is a lack of healthcare and other amenities. That’s the history of Texas.”
Texas is today home to 30.5 million people, second only to California, with an bi-annual slate — as of 2023 for the 88th legislature — of 8,000 bills and 11,700 resolutions to be rammed through, with a budget of $264.8 billion. All in about five months over a 24 month period. The bars and backrooms of Austin are jam packed during this period, as committees meet after hours and late into the night.
Only 15% of the bills and 34% of the resolutions passed in the most recent session. Although the federal government similarly has a low pass rate, they have full-time staff looking after the process, relatively strong ethics laws and a full-time press corps covering their every move. In Texas, the process is hamstrung by a lack of oversight and attention as bills are hastily written at the last minute by those with conflicts of interest, and reporters who don’t and often can’t report when the legislature isn’t in session. As a result, the citizens of Texas have to live with the consequences.
How does this affect Texans? “Due to the power and influence of the lobby, legislation favors specific industries to the detriment of the broader public interest,” says Dr. Jones. An example is how electricity is funded in the state. The current regulations have “been designed by the natural gas industry. If there’s shortages, they win. If there is a surplus, they win. It is a no-lose scenario for the natural gas industry.”
Consumers are left holding the bag when there are excessive windfall profits after a natural disaster like Hurricane Yuri and massive blackouts during a freeze. “You may have ten pieces of very significant legislation in a two-week period. The more arcane things slip between the cracks. That’s the goal for the lobbyists: for the legislation never to reach the public eye. The increases to people’s electric bills come nine months later, and are a done deal.”
How did we get here? Texas is one of only four states — including Montana, Nevada and North Dakota — and the only populous state that still retains its Reconstruction-era biennial part-time legislature. The founders of the Republic, says Rottinghaus, “wanted limited government, so they built structures to divide the state’s power structure in as many pieces as they could get away with.” This included a part-time legislature. “The founders wanted to give people more power and government less.”
Projecting forward two years and trying to anticipate not only issues, but budget, is quite complicated. “As the state has grown in terms of population and budget, it is hard to govern with no one minding the store.” In 1918, 44 states had this biennial system. Forty of them have given up part-time governance in the modern era and gone to full-time. Not so Texas.
What about the governor, you may ask. Isn’t he full-time? Yes and no. His role was deliberately emasculated by the founders, where the only real power he has is to hold special sessions — which he did three times recently over school vouchers — and to sue the government.
When Governor Greg Abbott was previously attorney general of Texas in 2013, he famously summed up an average day. “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” He ended up suing 27 times, and later continued the tradition as governor. In many ways, the current system advantages the executive branch: the current rules leave the governor and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) co-chaired by the lieutenant governor and the speaker, with significant budgetary discretion in the off years.
One may argue that the constant growth of Texas ensures that outside influences will perhaps change the status quo. Not necessarily so. “You are likely to continue to get an influx of relatively well-educated Anglos from other parts of the country,” says Jillson. “You’ll get a well-educated and financially comfortable influx, together with…Mexicans, latin Americans and people around the world.” That may sound like a recipe for change, but he predicts the effects will not mitigate the current system. “Texas will continue to grow its population but it will continue to be defined by a two-tier economy. One for Anglos and Asians — well educated and comfortable economically — and one for African Americans and Hispanics.”
Why is this relevant? The consequences of Texas’ outsized influence on national politics affects us all — inside and outside Texas. Culture war issues are front and center — around DEI in schools and colleges, transgender rights, abortion, Medicare and Medicaid, public education vs. charter schools, book bans etc. What happens in Texas, doesn’t stay in Texas anymore.
Legislators currently, in addition to the lens they wear as de facto lobbyists for one issue, “have to guess what the problems will be and prioritize the money.” They end up looking backward, not looking forward. “This is hard to do, as the state changes a lot in six months, much less two years,” according to Rottinghaus.
In the current system, “Texas can only legislate so much, so the efforts to move [the needle at] the policy level have to be directed elsewhere. A lot of lobbying efforts will go to big national issues. In the last 20 years national politics have become Texas politics,” says Rottinghaus. “It has certainly changed policy in a fundamental way. Lobbyists go to D.C., they learn techniques and issues that work, and bring those back to Texas to navigate the next session. That lobbying from D.C. is cross-pollination to Texas.”
“Texas can only legislate so much, so the efforts to move [the needle at] the policy level have to be directed elsewhere. A lot of lobbying efforts will go to big national issues. In the last 20 years national politics have become Texas politics,” says Rottinghaus. “It has certainly changed policy in a fundamental way. Lobbyists go to D.C., they learn techniques and issues that work, and bring those back to Texas to navigate the next session. That lobbying from D.C. is cross-pollination to Texas.”
The result? More national politics enter Texas politics — at all three levels: legislative, executive and judicial.
The impact is felt by the public in a number of important ways, including the rejection of legislation: higher high school graduation standards, Medicare and food stamp expansion, proper oversight of the foster care and child protective services and accountability on the part of the electrical grid and natural gas industries.
There is also less oversight of the political process by the media, which often functions as the most important check and balance to legal — and illegal — corruption. Reporters can’t be assigned the political beat year-round, much less biennially. Dr. Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University, put it this way: “The capitol beat is a temporary one, episodic. That expertise only relied upon between January and May in odd numbered years. Fewer full-time capitol reporters. Less coverage of politics and…less sunlight.” The result is hardly anyone anymore with more than ten years of beat experience and institutional memory.
Legislators are paid a paltry sum of $7,500 a year, unchanged since 1975. The deliberate underfunding is just that, deliberate — you have to be already wealthy to apply. Jones puts it this way: “Legislators effectively don’t get paid for all intents and purposes.” This deliberate under incentivization of professional politicians and public servants was deliberate. Only a privileged few could afford the role, and it incentivizes those who do, to pander to the interests that pay their real salary.
The effects of biennial, part-time legislating are substantial. Compromise across the aisle is virtually impossible in such a compressed time frame. Both Democratic and Republican legislators are often essentially high-paid lobbyists moonlighting as part-time legislators. The professionalism of the job, and oversight, are at risk when 24 months of politicking have to be done in about four months. Jones summed up the effect: “lobbyists become very powerful in this situation, because there is so much going on in a condensed amount of time. The best resourced and those with a long-term time horizon and experience are able to do a lot.” They are the only ones who can decipher a Byzantine system running on overdrive. “As a result, individual representatives and legislators are depending on lobbyists to understand and propose legislation.”
In 2023, for example, when the 88th session was held, issues around school vouchers, school safety funding and elections bills remained unresolved — for another two years. The session did, however, pass legislation that essentially allows Texas police to arrest migrants crossing the border, setting it up for yet another bout of saber rattling with the federal government — which the government has recently won.
”The problem is, with a two year cycle they can’t be forward looking. They are always fixing problems in the past,” says Rottinghaus. This leaves no time for innovation or compromise across the aisle. The resulting model leaves a lot of power to the judicial branch, which is elected and full-time, and somewhat to the governor.
Of course, advocates of the current system would argue it works just fine — the state is growing by leaps and bounds and its lack of state income tax and regressive taxation scheme allow in companies like SpaceX and Amazon.
Dr. Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University has heard it all before. “They would say their interest in light regulation and low taxes is what has set up the future development of Texas.” There are downsides, however, to that explosive growth. “If that’s true economically, what is missing is that Texas has underfunded education in the course of its history and dramatically restricted access to healthcare and support that exists in many other states to people of limited means.”
So what will change? Nothing. Voters have repeatedly voted down five times a full-time legislature. Full-time, as many understand it, means more taxes and more regulation. Which goes against the grain of why so many love living here. If voters were asked, to the contrary, if they opposed electing legislators with conflicts of interest, the result might be different. The way it stands, however, supports the status quo.
Dr. Jones feels “there’s really very little pressure on this to change. It would require a constitutional amendment, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and a majority vote in a popular referendum.” In today’s climate, that will not happen. “From the Republican side, the idea of more government and more tax dollars to support politicians is a tough sell. On the Democratic side, they are also creatures of the current system. They make their living as de facto lobbyists.”
Kedric Payne of the Campaign Legal Center offers a logical solution. “It is harder to see how a state would have more money to pay for more full-time legislators. First you need to solidify ethics rules and take away anything that destroys the public’s trust in government.” Jillson concurs. “If they did meet annually for most of the year and was professionalized in terms of its staff and expectations, procedures and rules with sanctions, then there would be an ability to monitor and hold people accountable that is not there now.”
If, as famously quoted, ‘as Texas goes, so goes the nation,’ then the state’s ethical norms and indifference to professional governance will likely set the tone nationally for years to come.