What's On Your Ballot: Texas State Senator

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Welcome to the first of a series of educational posts about the functions of government. It is our intention that this series fill a need for voters to be educated about the various offices, initiatives, amendments or any of the other various items that may be found on their local ballots on election day.

In Texas, we have the Executive Branch, which is the Governor and other statewide office holders; the Judicial Branch, which is the Texas court system, and the Legislative Branch. The Legislative Branch includes the State House of Representatives and the State Senate, and the State Senate is where we start.

Get your learn on after the jump…Wendy Davis is one of 31 Texas State Senators. Senators are elected from districts, districts which are redrawn by legislators in the legislative session following every decennial United States census. In the latest incarnation of the maps, each Senator represents just over 800,000 Texans. Senator Davis' District 10 is thought by most political observers to be the only competitive State Senate seat in Texas.In 2012, Sen. Davis won by a little more than 2 percentage points, 51% to 49%. The next most competitive seat is District 19, Democratic Senator Uresti's seat, which he won in 2012 59% to 41%. After that no challenger of either major party cracked 40% in any district. (This is due to unbridled gerrymandering, which is a topic for another post).

State Senators serve 4 year terms, compared to State Representatives that serve 2 year terms. Senator John Whitmire, representing District 15 (anchored in Houston), is the longest serving current State Senator, having held his office since 1983. In the 2013 session, 6 of the 31 Senate Seats belonged to first-term Senators. Find who serves you by clicking here.

The balance of power in the current Senate is a tenuous mix of 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, meaning that if the Democrats hold formation, they can block bills from coming to the floor of the Senate for debate under the “two-thirds rule”, a tradition, but not a technical rule, where two-thirds of the Senate must have an interest in debating a measure before it can come to the floor (click on the link for a better description of this process). This would mean that if the Republicans gained two more seats, they would have a supermajority. Gain 1 more seat, and the Republicans only need to peel off one Democrat to push through an unbalanced agenda. Should Wendy Davis elect to run for a higher statewide office, the District 10 seat would become open and would, again, be highly coveted by both parties.

The two-thirds tradition was suspended by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst in the special sessions called by Governor Perry after this most recent regular legislative session ended, which is why the omnibus abortion bill could pass in a special session when the various bills lumped together in the bill that was just signed into law could not pass in the regular session.

So the way Texas laws get made, in a very simplified rundown, is that a bill is introduced in either the House or Senate, it gets assigned to a Committee, and if it clears out of the Committee, goes back to the floor of the chamber to be debated and voted on for a second and then third reading. If it passes, it goes to the other chamber, goes through a similar process, and then if it is voted out of that chamber, returns to the original chamber with any amendments, and if approved a final time, goes to the Governor's desk to either be signed into law or vetoed. Any bill that increases taxes or raises money must originate in the Texas House of Representatives.

As the elections draw nearer and the candidates for various races emerge, this series will delve into some specific races and personalities, and I'll also examine various Constitutional Amendments and explore how Bond packages and Tax Ratification Elections occur. Know what's on your ballot and you'll be a better voter! Up next in the series: Railroad Commissioner (cause I like trains!)

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