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By Carl Parker
For the Record 

How Our Legislature Has Changed

 

Last updated 1/24/2023 at 9:17pm

It is hard to believe the changes that have taken place in the Texas Legislature in only 60 years. Some represent substantial improvements in the way it operates but unfortunately some of it is not helpful to transparency and openness in our state government.

Until 1965 there was no office space allowed for members of the House in which they could carry on their representative duties with any degree of privacy. Members were allowed to have a full-time secretary and one half-time secretary during the session and for 30 days thereafter. Legislators were paid $20.00 per day for their service and were reimbursed only once to go to Austin and back.

In 1965 so-called offices were provided for members of the Legislature by dividing space in the capitol by installing wooden panels that did not reach the floor nor the ceiling. Each space was shared by two members of the Legislature and though it offered little privacy, it was far better than having no space at all. Because of lack of space, all work was done at members’ desks, such as responding to letters from constituents, preparing amendments to legislation along with having light meals for lunch, newspaper reading, visiting with out-of-town guests who may have shown up and other such activities. All of which made the floor of the House during the session look like pure bedlam. Shortly thereafter the House passed rules prohibiting all but legislative type office activity at the desks having created what was called the “members lounge” in a large room off to the side of the House chamber.

Fortunately, the Legislature was an open place with no security guards. All four of the main doors were open as well as the Legislature itself being open to guests invited to join them on the floor on the floor by House members and senators. The capitol grounds were open to the public and often used as a shortcut from one part of town to the other. With no traffic control whatsoever.

Today several things have changed. The Department of Public Safety assisted by metal detectors are at all four entrances to the capitol. Strangely enough one can enter the capitol without a special identification if he/she has a license to carry a gun. It is no longer easy to simply walk in and visit your House member or senator. Generally, in today’s world, it requires an appointment ahead of time for separate visits to members of the Legislature. No longer can you drive through the capitol grounds. I found the fact somewhat irritating in that I possess two top secret clearances from the federal government, served in the U.S. Navy and 32 ½ years in the Legislature. All of that means nothing in my effort to drive my car onto the capitol grounds without special permission from the Administration Committee. In the Senate, even the press is no longer allowed to occupy any space on the Senate floor but assigned to a special place in the gallery and perhaps can hear what’s going on, or perhaps not.

 

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