The Austin Chronicle

Homeless Bills Get Shelter

By Richard Whittaker, May 28, 2009, 2:45pm, Newsdesk

This is the time of year when people stop talking about heavily amended bills as Christmas Trees and start calling them vehicles. Last night, the Senate slogged away until 4.30am, finding suitable bills to attach, amend, and save as much legislation as possible. So far, it looks like a lot of bills are off life-support.

On the big items, CHIP expansion has apparently survived by being attached to the newborn screening bill, while Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency reform has been bolted on to emergency disaster response (that sound you hear is a deep sigh of relief from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry, as they each get a legislative agenda item saved.)

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, had a big grin this morning, because the process had saved some bills that really seemed dead. "Solar is alive," he said: After some wrangling, the solar incentives in SB 545 by Sen. Troy Fraser made it in to the net metering proposals in HB 1243.

Not everyone is looking for vehicles. "It's in reverse for me," said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "I have a little bill that's become a vehicle."

House Bill 1218, her electronic medical record sharing pilot program, is now also SB 7, the omnibus CHIP/Medicaid reform bill. That will be a great relief to SB 7 sponsor Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who was telling the House media desk last week that she was despairing that her "single-number bills" were dying.

For lobbyists and the media, this makes bill-tracking by number tougher: Which puts them right where legislators have been all session. "We don't remember bill numbers around here," said Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin. "I just give everything nicknames." House Bill 2740, her bill to regulate non-traditional youth camps, disappeared. But some orphans got adopted, like her victim notification bill and her "Barton Springs annexation bill."

The bill stack is enormous. Last night, the Senate sent back 210 bills, 99 with amendments for consideration: This morning, another 200-plus bills arrives, with over 140 amended. Getting all those bills out of the House door is an enormous job, but it can't start yet. Nothing becomes eligible for discussion until 9pm tonight, and over 250 can't hit the floor until tomorrow. The current plan is to get conference committees for bills that will need it ready to go as fast as possible. "Otherwise, there's really not a lot for us to do today," said House Democratic Caucus Leader Jim Dunnam.

Germaneness now becomes the name of the game: If one bill becomes the vehicle for another that is not related enough, they both die on a point of order. Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, had to run over the the Senate last night to salvage HB 2086, his organized crime bill passed. He had to get one amendment knocked off as not germane so another amendment (the omnibus gang bill authored by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas) survived.

Dunnam said he has met with his caucus leader counterparts in both chambers (Larry Taylor and Bob Deuell for Republicans in House and Senate respectively, Leticia Van de Putte for Senate Dems) on germaneness complaints, and "we're going to try to be lenient on that." It's not a carte blanche agreement: Everyone understands, he said, that nothing too controversial like, say, voter ID tacked on to a bill about notaries public, will get a free ride.

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