Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Roadblock in the Senate isn’t the roads bill; it’s the Senate rules

THE GOOD NEWS is that House and Senate committees both approved legislation last week calling for a constitutional referendum to let the governor appoint the director of the state Education Department. The bad news is that while the House will vote on that legislation, perhaps as early as this week, the Senate won’t. Ever.

The same is true for all but about a dozen of the 60 statewide bills currently on the Senate calendar.

The problem with the fact that the Senate has spent the first four weeks of this session not debating a roads bill is not that the Senate has spent four weeks not debating a roads bill. It’s that the Senate has spent four weeks not debating anything.

The reason for this — like the reason the Senate won’t debate the plan to let voters decide who’s responsible for our schools or just about anything else that any senator opposes — is the Senate’s anti-majoritarian rules and practices, which allow a single senator to pretty much shut the place down.

On Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler complained that day after day, the Senate doesn’t debate the roads bill, and day after day it also doesn’t debate education, ethics or immigrants, all of which are “blocked, blocked, blocked … by this bill.”

Senate majority leader says he’s lost patience on roads bill

“We need to move this roadblock,” he said. “We’re at a standstill.”

Mr. Peeler, who is much brighter than you might imagine for someone with such a strong affinity for giant plastic cows, knew very well why the Senate wasn’t debating other bills while first an ad hoc committee and now the Senate Finance Committee debated plans to overhaul the Transportation Commission, raise the tax on gasoline and cut other taxes, but he wanted President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman to explain it for the folks watching on streaming video. Which he did.

If we take up another bill, Mr. Leatherman responded, we’ll never be able to get back to the roads bill.

Seriously.

And as crazy as that sounds, here’s what’s even crazier: It is not crazy. It is quite likely true.

If a single senator objects to a bill, that bill is never debated unless a super-majority of senators votes to put it in a priority debate slot. Even then, it only gets debated after all the higher-priority bills are debated.

Few bills make it to a priority position, because there are few positions, and voting to prioritize a bill senators simply don’t oppose steals a slot needed for a bill they really want. And then there are the games: Senators who are adamantly opposed to, say, the third bill on the priority list will filibuster the first two bills in order to prevent the Senate from ever getting to that third one.

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Hence Mr. Leatherman’s concern about skipping to another bill while the committees work through the roads bill: Enough senators are opposed to what they perceive as the majority position that if given the chance, they would filibuster whatever bill supplanted it in the top priority position.

A super-majority of senators can vote to stop a filibuster, but senators are loathe to do unto others what they would not have done unto them.

It’s a great system if you want to make sure no bad bills ever become law. But if you want some good bills to become law, it’s awful.

The Senate has always had these rules and procedures, but I don’t think they always created such dysfunction. Perhaps I’m romanticizing. Or I could be remembering my days as a reporter, when I didn’t care what the Legislature passed or didn’t pass, so long as I had interesting stories to write.

But if there is a difference, this is part of it: Senators used to deal in good faith. And senators used to, ultimately, care more about what the Legislature accomplished than about how they could spin votes to win a primary or to make sure others lost a primary. Some still do; too many do not. Also, today’s minority Democrats still believe they can accomplish something if they always stick together; Republicans back in the days of Democratic domination knew their only chance of accomplishing anything was to work one-on-one with the majority party.

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On Thursday, Sen. Shane Martin asked whether the Senate could move on to other bills with an agreement to return to the roads bill Feb. 23, when Mr. Leatherman said it would be ready for debate.

By unanimous consent, Mr. Leatherman said, the Senate can raise the dead. (It’s one of his favorite lines, though I think he knows it isn’t true.) Mr. Martin asked unanimous consent for the temporary skip-over, and Sen. John Matthews, who dislikes bills that likely would come next, objected.

So at noon today, senators will convene for the fifth week of the legislative session, introduce new bills, welcome visitors, make a few speeches and pass the bills that no one objects to. And then, instead of debating how to fix our roads or reform our ethics law or provide every child in our state with a decent education or overhaul our judicial selection system or let the governor appoint the education superintendent, they will adjourn for the day.

Just as they have done every legislative day this year.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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