Kevin Eltife

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Senate adopted a three-fifths rule, lowering the number of senators required to bring a bill to the floor for debate, after a heated discussion Wednesday. The procedural shift will effectively prevent Senate Democrats from blocking debates and votes on even moderately well-supported Republican legislation.

Until Wednesday, a two-thirds rule, which had been in place in the Texas Senate since 1947, required 21 of 31 senators’ votes to bring a bill to the floor. Under the new three-fifths rule, presented by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), only 19 senators’ votes will be required.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who opposed the rule change, said the three-fifths rule will determine which bills are given full consideration during the session.

“This is one of the most important things we will do as a body because it lays out the road map of what we will and will not accomplish,” Ellis said. 

Although Eltife argued that the resolution was not a partisan issue, the vote to change the rule split largely along party lines. Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the new rule.

 “It’s not just about Democrat versus Republican issues,” Eltife said. “It’s about better governing.”

Eltife said that while he has historically supported a two-thirds rule, he thinks the switch to a three-fifths rule will make the legislative process more efficient.

“Unfortunately, what I have seen happening over the past 10 years is we are experiencing an increased number of ways to get around the two-thirds rule, including special orders and special sessions,” Eltife said.

The Texas Senate was called into a well-publicized special session in 2013, when former state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered against Senate Bill 5, a restrictive abortion bill. The bill, which resulted in the closure of more than 30 abortion clinics in Texas, became a lightning rod that brought thousands of pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion protesters to the Capitol.

Ashley Alcantara, communications representative for the University Democrats, said the two-thirds rule allowed Davis, whose party made up a minority in the Senate, to voice her opinion on the bill. If the three-fifths rule had been enacted during the 2013 Senate session, Davis would not have had the opportunity to filibuster.

“I think it’s important that, even though Democrats are minority, they are still able to influence bills like that,” Alcantara said.

 College Republicans at Texas declined to comment on the rule change.

 Opponents of the three-fifths rule, such as Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso), said he thinks the rule change will stifle the voices of minorities and the senators who represent them. Rodríguez said he and other Senate Democrats represent nearly 60 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics in Texas.

“These senators will be unable, as a result of this change, to prevent a bad bill from coming to the floor,” Rodríguez said.

In addition to the three-fifths rule change, the Senate voted to restrict access to the Senate floor to state officials, permitted guests and authorized members of the press. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he was pleased with the decision in a statement released by his office.

“Today’s action will make the Texas Senate even better, and it will help us deliver a conservative agenda a majority of voters elected us to pass,” Patrick said.

Rick Perry has been governor of Texas longer than Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia. When Perry was first sworn in, most UT seniors were 10 or 11 years old. The nation had just survived Bush v. Gore, if you can remember that far back. 

“Gov. Perry has always said that Texas voters are the best determiners of how long they want an individual to serve in office,” Josh Havens, deputy press secretary in the governor’s office, said in an email.

A majority of the members of the Texas Senate, however, appear to disagree. Specifically, they don’t want to allow some statewide Texas officeholders, including governors, to be eligible to seek election for three consecutive terms.

On March 19, the Senators voted 27-4 to pass Senate Joint Resolution 13, legislation which, if the House passes a similar measure, proposes to Texas voters a constitutional amendment limiting some statewide elected officials, including governors, to two consecutive terms in office.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who sponsored the bill, said in an email response, “I have always believed term limits are good public policy. With term limits you have more open seats, which brings more debate and fresh ideas to the political process. I believe someone should serve in office for a limited amount of time and return to the private sector or seek a different public office. The majority of states have term limits on their governor and lieutenant governor offices. I did not file the bill due to any of our current statewide officials. I filed it because I believe it is in the best interest of our state.” He addressed Gov. Perry’s position about voters making decisions, writing, “In my opinion it is important to let the voters have a say on term limits. The Legislature is not ordering term limits; we are allowing the voters of Texas to decide if they want term limits.”

If voters choose to add the proposed term limit amendment to the Texas Constitution, however, Perry won’t face immediate ouster or even any barrier to running for another term. Instead, the Senate resolution calls for the governor to be “grandfathered” into the term-limits so only future terms he pursues would be counted against his two-term limit.

That means that under the proposed amendment, Perry would be allowed to seek two additional terms. That’s right: Perry, Texas governor for a total of five terms spanning two decades. That’s not counting the two additional years that Perry, previously lieutenant governor, spent as governor after George W. Bush left Texas for the White House in 2000.

Eltife denies he authored the legislation to target Perry. “No way, shape or form it has anything to do with Rick Perry. I just think government is better served with term limits,” Eltife said in an interview published in the San Antonio Express News. The same article quotes Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who referenced the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms elected to the Oval Office. Jones says that political longevity inspired the U.S. Congress to pass the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, limiting subsequent U.S. presidents to two terms. “Just as FDR’s unprecedented tenure in office helped generate support for a two-term limit for the U.S. president, Perry’s equally unprecedented tenure has bolstered the efforts of term limits advocates in Texas,” Jones told the Express News.

Twenty-two years of Perry is scary. The state has already suffered enough. Perhaps not compared to the rest of the nation in terms of the economy — thanks largely to a local oil and gas boom that coincided with the global recession — but consider the missed opportunities that resulted from Perry’s grandstanding for political points to Texans’ health care, higher education and road safety. Fewer women and low-income Texans have health coverage because of his decisions. Texas public university students have good reason to wonder if their regents, whom he appointed to oversee their respective schools, got those jobs because they would be good at them or because they were good at donating to Perry’s campaigns. Texans take their lives into their hands every time they drive on state roads, which they must share with those who text behind the wheel, thanks to the governor’s veto of a ban on texting while driving. When we think about it, a single term more for Perry is one too many.