Monday, April 20, 2009

"I think that the governor should not have absolute power. "

Override bill earns a hearing


By Enrique Rangel
The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN - Like the chairmen of other legislative panels, state Sen. Robert Duncan has the final say on the fate of all bills that land on his Senate State Affairs Committee for screening.

So the Lubbock Republican has agreed to hold a hearing for some legislation that didn't go anywhere in the 2007 session mainly because he was against it: Two bills that would allow the Texas Legislature to return for a special session to override governor's vetoes after the regular session ends.

That's all Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, say they needed - a hearing. "There is broad support for my bill and I think that in the Senate it will pass as easily as it did in the House," said Elkins, whose House Joint Resolution 29 overwhelmingly passed in the House recently.
Wentworth's bill, Senate Joint Resolution 14, is similar to Elkins and the two bills - which are expected to eventually merge - are now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

If the proposed legislation clears the Senate, as Elkins and Wentworth expect, in November Texas voters would have the final say on whether state lawmakers can return to Austin after the 140-day regular session ends just to override governor's vetoes. Texas voters have historically approved most constitutional amendments. If the Senate and Texas voters approve the proposed legislation, the lawmakers could call a special session starting in 2011. Currently, only the governor can call one. What changed this year

Duncan said last year that he didn't like Elkins' bill in 2007 because "in my view this diminishes the checks and balances system that we have."

Moreover, neither Gov. Rick Perry nor any of his predecessors have abused the veto power, Duncan stressed.

However, he said in a recent interview that he agreed to give the bills a hearing because Elkins' proposal specifies that the lawmakers can return for a special session only if there is a major outcry about a governor's veto.

Elkins said the House took care of Duncan's concern the day his bill passed thanks to an amendment by Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. And as examples of a major outcry, Elkins cited the $152 million for health insurance funding for community colleges that Perry vetoed after the 2007 session ended and an eminent domain bill of Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, that the governor also axed two years ago.

In the end, facing tremendous pressure, after four of months of negotiations between Perry and legislative leaders - including Duncan - both sides reached a compromise and the funding for the entire community college system was restored. But the experience left many people emotionally drained, particularly the presidents of the state's 50 community colleges. However, the veto of Woolley's bill stood.

"If my bill had been law, we would have come back for a special session and override those vetoes," Elkins said.

He and Wentworth said that the legislation they filed is not a reflection on Perry.
"This is not about Gov. Perry or any other governor," Wentworth stressed. "It is about the separation of powers." Based on the 131-16 vote Elkins' bill received in the House, most lawmakers agree with such assessment.

"I've been here 24 or 25 years and I don't believe that I even participated in an override of a governor's veto," said Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who voted for Elkins' bill. "Because of the separation of powers, the protection that we have in the Constitution, I think that the governor should not have absolute power. The framers intended for an override to take place.

"Unfortunately, most or all legislation, especially complicated or important legislation passes at the end of the session when there is no way that the Legislature can override because the governor doesn't veto until after the Legislature is gone," Smithee explained.

But Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, one of the 16 House members who voted against Elkins' bill and even blasted the previous bill on the House floor in the 2007 session, said the majority of his colleagues are wrong.

"The founders of our Constitution said 'we want the power divided up three ways' and that is why we have the judicial, executive and legislative branches," Swinford said. "I do not believe in eroding what the constitutional founders did.

"I think it's worked wonderful over the years," Swinford added. "I would not have voted for that when it was (Democratic Gov.) Ann Richards, I wouldn't vote for it when it is the next Democratic governor whenever that happens and I wouldn't vote for it on this governor."
Perry's office is not pleased with Elkins' and Wentworth's bills either.

"We think the system works well the way it is and we think that the legislators ought to concentrate on passing good bills," said press secretary Allison Castle.

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