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What is a special session, and who pays for it?

Martin do Nascimento
KUT News
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot gives his annual State of the State address in the House of Representatives Chambers in the Texas State Capitol on Jan. 31, 2017.

During the regular legislative session, Texas lawmakers meet every two years for 140 days. The special session is best described in two words: legislative overtime.

Lawmakers head back to Austin on Oct. 9 to address Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's agenda on school vouchers.

As part of our Texas Decides series, a listener wanted to know more about special sessions and who pays for them.

Why is a special session called?

"It can really be called for any reason at any time," says Kevin Stewart, the author of the "Texas Legislative Law Handbook."

"It can be called if there were items that didn't get passed, but it can also be called for emergencies. If there's something important going on in the state or nationally and the Legislature needs to address it, then the governor has the power to call them in."

To call a special session, the governor has to issue an official proclamation with any items he wants the Legislature to address. He or she can pick the number of topics they want to tackle, and there's no limit. The record was in 1919. The governor at the time, William P. Hobby, had 253 topics on his call.

What gets heard in a special session?

Gov. Greg Abbott only has 20 items on his call. His first priority for lawmakers is so-called sunset legislation, which would keep state agencies like the Texas Medical Board running. 

Once lawmakers work through the sunset issue, they can move on to the 19 other issues, which includes bills on property tax reform, local ordinances and transgender public restroom use.

Lawmakers can file bills, too, but they're limited to items on the governor's call. Anything within that is fair game. Stewart says that gives the governor a lot of power.

"Let’s say [the governor] needs a vote on a particular issue. He may say, 'Look, you're not going to get another swing at this for a year and a half, unless I open up the call on this other issue that you want,'" Stewart says. "So, he can balance those interests and use the call strategically."

How does the special session operate?

The Legislature has just 30 days to tackle everything on the governor's call. Bills still go through the same process as in the regular legislative session: They go through the various committees and need to pass in both chambers to become law.

The special session can end early though, without tackling every item on the governor's call. Both chambers can vote to adjourn, or they can break quorum. Two-thirds of the members have to show up to get anything done. However, the governor can call as many special sessions as he or she would like.

How much does a special session cost?

Estimates vary. The price tag starts at about $800,000 for a 30-day session. That alone covers per diems for state lawmakers. Think of per diems like overtime pay for state lawmakers, which cover things like food or housing. Utilities, security, printing and staffing can push the cost up to $1.2 million. Again though, all of this depends on how long the special session lasts and if all lawmakers take their per diems.

Where does the money come from?

Taxpayers foot the bill, but Stewart says it's already covered in the state budget, specifically Article 10.

"[The cost] doesn't come from some other program," Stewart says. "It's money that's sitting there, waiting to be spent."

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.