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Professors explain roles state senators play in Texas

The race to represent the sprawling District 30 of the Texas State Senate could be the campaign to watch in 2018.

Outgoing state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, is challenging the longtime incumbent, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, in the primary. Last week, Denton City Council member Keely Briggs announced she intends to run for the seat as an independent. If there is a Democratic candidate, they have until Monday to file.

The trio of District 30 hopefuls begs the question: What does a state senator do?   

The Texas State Senate plays a more prestigious role in writing state law than the Texas House of Representatives, according to Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. Individual senators represent much larger segments of the population (800,000-1 million people) but still are expected to serve their constituents as any representative does, experts say. They serve four-year terms and are not limited in how many terms they can serve. 

Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

The Texas Legislature is set up similar to the U.S. Congress. At both the state and federal levels, the houses have a larger body. In Congress, the Senate is often referred to colloquially as “the upper house,” Jillson said.

Similarly, in Texas, the state Senate is the more senior, prestigious and influential of the two bodies, he said.

“A house member is always ready to run for Texas Senate,” Jillson said. "A senator never runs for the Texas House.”

District 30 covers all of 12 North Texas counties along with the northern portions of Collin and Denton Counties. Fallon, who has served two terms in the Texas House, lives near the southeastern edge of District 30. Estes lives in the northwestern edge. Briggs lives in the south-central portion of the district.

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Because each Texas senator serves a larger population, the Senate body is smaller (31 members) and more personal, Jillson said.

“They talk in small groups and can go right up to the lieutenant governor, the presiding officer,” Jillson said.

By contrast, the Texas House is larger (150 members) and have more detailed rules to maintain order and to be recognized to speak.

The Texas Senate may be prestigious and influential, but it has limited power, said Clare Brock, a government professor at Texas Woman’s University.

“Many people don’t understand what the limits of government are,” Brock said.

Clare Brock, assistant professor of government, Texas Woman's UniversityCourtesy photo
Clare Brock, assistant professor of government, Texas Woman's University
Courtesy photo

State senators, like other government officials, have access to tremendous amounts of information. They hire staff to help gather and analyze that information, Brock said. They can use that information both in creating legislation and in responding to the needs of their constituents.

People may be more likely to call on their state representative than their state senator when they are having a problem with state government, Jillson said. But state senators help their constituents, too.

“A senator has a local office,” he said, adding although the senator might not be there all the time, a staff member will be. The staff may take care of the problem or prepare materials for the senator to take care of it.

Senators love to talk with their constituents because they know that those personal conversations matter, Jillson said.

“They know every personal conversation can be a vote,” he said.  

The lion’s share of a legislator’s work is done in committee, Brock said. Legislation gets filed and then assigned to a committee for hearings before it ever goes to the Senate floor for a vote. Most bills that are filed never become laws, with many dying in committee. Senators often are assigned to committees that align with their expertise and interests, including the interests of their district. Senators with more seniority often have more privilege in their committee assignments.

For example, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, ranks fourth in seniority. She is chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, which puts together the entire state budget every two years.

Oftentimes, senators write and file the legislation that is handled in their committees. But they can be successful with legislation in other committees, Brock said.

At that point, a senator's success depends on the relationships a senator has with fellow senators. That doesn’t mean the senator has be popular, just persuasive, she said.  

Seniority can help with that, but it isn’t necessary. The body is always changing, she said.

“A new senator can build relationships, too,” Brock said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.