Amendments — The Legislative Wild Card

Amendments — The Legislative Wild Card

150 150 Jim Murphy

Making changes to bills happens throughout the legislative process. Once the bill is drafted or introduced, these become formalized and follow specific structures. They vary in type and timing and in their impact on the proposed bill. Some are helpful and others, be design, can be devastating.

The committee substitute stage provides a the greatest opportunity for changes before a bill is voted out from the assigned committee. We often get a lot of input once a bill is drafted and will can even more input at the hearings. We will make changes that are reasonable and improve the bill and its prospects for passage. For example on HB1268, which would get more students into college and save the state and our families college costs, schools objected to dual credit being applied to PE classes. That made sense so we revised our bill, exempted PE classes, and secured more support. We all try to solicit stakeholder input but, when groups are overlooked, the committee substitute allows for broad modifications.

The most challenging amendments are the ones that come on the floor during debate. We review bills before floor session, read research reports and recommendations, and formulate our positions. We might be for or against a bill as is or want to amend it so we can support it. It is indeed challenging when the ten-page bill I like is changed to eliminate one section and a new one is added. We work to understand the impact and lean on our colleagues to help in re-evaluating the bill. A friend on the committee, or a topic expert, is a tremendous asset as these decisions occur in real time. And the challenge of having a substantial amendment made to the bill one is laying out for debate is even greater. We have to decide to accept or fight the amendment and that occurs immediately.

Very major bills, like the budget and redistricting, have rules that require amendments to be pre-filed so we have time to evaluate them. But most bills have no such protections so almost anything goes. An amendment might limit the a proposed tax break for all businesses to “businesses with revenues of less than $5 million.” Moreover, while discussing that change, a member might file an amendment to that amendment adding “and with no more than 25 employees.” If these each pass, all of a sudden, the broad tax cut is now not so broad so we have to decide that if we want to pass the bill as amended. There can be any number of proposed changes. Debate on a single bill can go on for a few minutes or up to 14 hours.

One type of amendment is to bracket a bill and restrict the effect of a bill to Houston by limiting it the “cities with a population of 1.9 million or more.” Or an amendment might soften the requirements of a bill by changing a term of “shall” to “may.” But the greatest changes are when an entire bill is added into another as an amendment. It might not make any changes to the base bill but instead use it as a vehicle to pass a bill that might be stuck somewhere along the process.

It is important to note at all amendments are approved by the House. Nothing changes without the consent of the membership. Even when an author “accepts” an amendment, we are asked if anyone objects and, if they do, a vote is held. If a member requests, or it is in final passage, we will have a “record vote” and there are hundreds of these each session. Amendments in Texas, unlike in Washington, have the be germane to the bill so not any amendment can be proposed.

There are two final stages where bills can be amended. Senate bills that have passed and sent to the House can be amended in the House and vice versa. When this happens, the bill is returned to the originating chamber where the members are asked if they “concur with the House (or Senate) changes.” If the answer is yes, the bill if off to the governor. If it is no, then each chamber appoints a five person conference committee to negotiate a final version of the bill. This is the last stage of the amendment process as the bills might have started out as the same but passed in very different forms. After a final bill has been agreed to by the conferees, then it returns to each chamber for a yes or no vote. And thankfully, no amendments can be made to a bill reported from a conference committee.

So if you like a bill, or don’t like a bill, by all means, tell your legislator. But please be sure and remind them to “keep an eye on those amendments.”