Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Legislature still needs to work fast THIS session to override Perry's expected veto of TTC moratorium

Lawmakers seek extra session to reverse late vetoes

Voters would have to approve if measure passes Legislature

March 21, 2007

By W. Gardner Selby
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

With hardly a peep from Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Texas lawmakers appear ready to ask voters to give them a new chance to override gubernatorial vetoes in brief sessions occurring after legislative sessions.

House members are slated to act today on House Joint Resolution 59, a proposed constitutional amendment originated by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston.

"I don't expect anybody to vote against it," Elkins said Tuesday.

Twenty-five state senators are sponsoring a similar proposal. Texas voters "will be voting on it in November," predicted Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, the lead sponsor.

Proposed constitutional amendments reach voters if they win approval by a two-thirds' margins of the House and Senate. They do not require a governor's sign-off.

Perry, who issued a state-record 83 vetoes after the 2001 legislative session, has not contacted Elkins or Wentworth on the matter, the legislators said.

Perry's spokesman, Robert Black, said the governor sees no need for the change, but he recognizes that it is up to lawmakers to propose constitutional amendments.

"The current system works well," Black said. "What problem are they trying to solve?"

Elkins and Wentworth stressed that they're not directing the change at Perry, whose authority as governor has come under fire on several fronts.

"People realize it's clearly a separation of powers and accountability issue," Elkins said. "It puts us (legislators) in the game."

Wentworth said: "It's just an idea whose time has come. . . . It will give every governor pause about vetoing a bill."

Elkins said he drafted the proposal, which drew no testimony pro or con at a hearing, after override sessions in other states came up during his conversations with legislators from other states at a conference. Eleven states have override sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers can override vetoes by two-thirds' votes of each body, but it's a rare event. Texas governors have issued more than 2,000 vetoes since 1856, including 153 approved by Perry since he became governor in late 2000. Some 50 vetoes have been overridden, with the first override occurring in 1859 and the latest in 1979, according to the Legislative Reference Library.

The proposed amendment attempts to address the reality that a veto cannot be overridden if legislators are not in session.

The Texas Legislature holds 140-day regular sessions every two years. Members do not gather otherwise unless called into a special session by the governor.

Under the constitution, the governor has 10 days after receiving legislation to sign or veto it. Signing the legislation passes it into law, while vetoing it returns it to the Legislature with a veto message presenting reasons for the rejection. If lawmakers are in session at the time of the veto, legislators may attempt to reverse the veto or perhaps approve a modified proposal addressing the governor's qualms.

But many measures are sent to the governor within 10 days of the session's end. The governor can cast vetoes after a session, leaving legislators unable to react because they are not in session.

The proposed tweak would authorize a special session solely to consider overrides of vetoes issued within three days of the end of a session and in the following weeks.

The session could last up to three days and cost $75,000 to $100,000 for legislative and incidental expenses. During the session, which would occur after the last day for the governor to issue vetoes, members could review vetoes of all legislation, including items vetoed from the state budget.

If the constitutional tweak advances, it might be seen as another sign of the GOP-majority Legislature rethinking gubernatorial authority.

Since the session's January start, members have questioned Perry's power to issue executive orders mandating vaccinations and fast-tracking the state's review of a utility company's request to license electricity plants. A judge nullified Perry's utility order, and lawmakers might overturn his mandate that pre-teen girls get shots against a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

This week, members prodded at the governor's power to appoint a special master over the Texas Youth Commission. And members also have aired doubts about how, or whether, the state should carry out Perry's vision of privately financing toll roads to relieve traffic congestion.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, ranks among sponsors of the override proposal.

"It's kind of a session where the Legislature seems to be expressing some independence at all levels," Duncan said. "Very healthy."; 445-3644

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