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Researching Texas Law: Legislative History

Provides guidance in locating the legislative history of Texas bills and statutes.

Bill Files

Bill Files

The official legislative documents generated by each bill on its journey through the Legislature are retained in a physical folder, known as a bill file. These files are stored in the Texas State Archives and the Texas Legislative Reference Library. The bill file is the first stop in a legislative history search and contains most of the necessary information.

Contents of a Bill File

A bill file includes every official legislative document directly related to the bill. Depending on the age and condition of the file, this may include some or all of: each version of the bill; committee reports, vote sheets, and amendments; floor amendments; fiscal notes; bill analyses; signature sheets; "bill backs" (official time-stamped records of actions taken on the bill); and conference committee reports. It does not include documents that may be relevant but are either unofficial or not directly related to the bill, such as interim committee reports; House and Senate journal entries; committee minutes, hearing notices and witness documents; tapes or transcripts of committee proceedings or floor debates; news articles; and statements by legislators. In general, the older a file is, the less documentation it contains.

Finding a Bill File

The physical bill files are located at either the Texas Legislative Reference Library (files from 1973-present) or the Texas State Archives (all files prior to 1973). The Legislative Reference Library is engaged in a massive ongoing effort to scan all existing bill files and make them available online via its Legislative Archive System (LAS). At the time of this writing, the system contains scanned files from 1913-2005; for the current coverage, see the status page. Note that due to the limitations of OCR technology, the scanned files are not full-text searchable.

There are two ways to locate a bill file:

  • Use the LAS Direct Search to find a bill by its bill number or session law chapter number. This is useful if you already have some basic information about the bill.
  • Use the LAS Advanced Search to look for bills based on a variety of criteria, including subject, author, session, bill type, caption keyword, and many others. Be aware that much of this searchable information must be manually researched and entered by Legislative Reference Library staff, and so information such as author and caption isn't yet available for all sessions. To see which sessions have this information available for searching, check the status page.

House and Senate Journals

The House and Senate journals are the official record of the Legislature's actions during a session. Each chamber has its own journal, and new ones are produced each session. Each session's journal is organized chronologically by legislative day and includes entries on every procedural action taken on the House and Senate floor, which includes every time a bill is introduced, referred to committee, voted on, or otherwise moved forward in the legislative process. These entries are usually very brief and provide little information beyond noting that an action took place; as such, they are of limited use in determining legislative intent. In rare cases, however, a bill's author may have a statement of legislative intent read into the journal. These are extremely useful for determining intent.

Except in unusual circumstances, remarks and floor debates are not transcribed in the journals.

All of the journals have been scanned and are available in the Legislative Reference Library's journals collection. This collection also includes scanned copies of the journals of the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Committee Hearing and Floor Debate Recordings

Committee Hearings

Much of the work of the Texas Legislature is done in its various committees. These committees consider bills, hear testimony from interested witnesses, and make amendments to proposed legislation. Since so much nuts and bolts legislating happens in committee, listening to recordings of committee hearings can be a very valuable source of information about a bill.

Since 1974, most of the Texas Legislature's committee hearings have been recorded and preserved on audiotapes, which are stored at the Texas State Archives and the House Media Office. More recent years are available on the House and Senate websites, and the most recent few sessions have video available. A guide to locating the various video and audio recordings is available from the Legislative Reference Library.

Before requesting an audiotape, you must know which House and Senate committees considered the bill and on what dates. This information can be found in a bill's actions list. Many bills, especially more recent ones, have an actions list available on their bill file page in the Legislative Archive System. For those that don't, you must look up the bill in the House and Senate journals from the appropriate legislative session and note down the committee that heard the bill and the date(s) on which it was heard.

Prior to 1974, recordings are not available and the only record of a committee's work is in its report in the bill file or, if they exist, the committee's minutes. Some committee minutes may be found via the Legislative Reference Library's committee minutes database, and others are available at the Texas State Archives. Minutes that are not in one of these locations were likely not preserved and cannot be obtained.

Floor Proceedings

The House and Senate discussions on a bill can also be a rich source of legislative history and intent information. Many bills, especially those on a chamber's consent calendar, receive no discussion, but those bills for which floor amendments are offered might cause some debate. Controversial or highly significant bills also often generate floor discussion. To find out whether audiotapes are available for a particular floor debate, see the Legislative Reference Library guide.

Before requesting a tape, you'll need to know the date(s) on which the discussion was held. Be aware that floor proceedings often last for several hours, so you may want to check that day's journal pages for the relevant chamber to see at what point during the day they discussed the bill you're researching. This will help you narrow down what part of the tape you need to listen to.

Transcripts

There is no official transcription of either committee hearings or floor debates, and unofficial transcripts are extremely scarce. If a transcript does exist, it will be stored with the audiotapes in their respective archives and you can request a copy when you ask about the tapes. If a transcript does not exist, the only way to have it produced is to commission a private entity to create one.

In very rare instances, all or part of the proceedings relating to major legislation have been transcribed. One example of this is the 3-volume set Texas Tort Reform: Legislative History 1987, available in the library at call number KFT 1395 .A75 1988, which includes complete transcripts of the 1987 House and Senate proceedings related to tort reform legislation.

Other Official Documents

Code Revisor's Reports

Texas is engaged in a long-term project to transfer its civil statutes from a single set to subject-specific codes. The Texas Legislative Council produces proposed versions of these subject codes, which are introduced as bills before the Legislature and must be passed by each chamber. These revisions are nonsubstantive and by law may not alter the meaning of any statute; however, in the interests of modernization and clarity, the revised statutes often include changes to the wording and organization of the original statutes.

If a nonsubstantive revision changes existing statutory language, the reason will be reflected in the Code Revisor's Report, an official document that explains how and why each change was made. Revisor's Reports can be extremely useful to those doing a legislative history, since they give some context to otherwise inexplicable alterations in statutory language. All available Code Revisor's Reports have been scanned and made available by the Legislative Reference Library on their statutory revision page.

Interim Committee Reports

Near the end of each legislative session, the presiding officers of the House and Senate release a list of topics that their chamber's standing committees must study during the interim period before the next legislative session. These topics are called "interim charges." Once a committee has studied a topic, which may include holding hearings and gathering testimony, the committee issues a report of its findings. These reports may be used as the basis for legislation during later legislative sessions. When researching the history of legislation on particular subject, it can be useful to check and see if there were any interim reports issued on that topic, especially if a bill on the topic passed during the session following the report. All interim charges and interim reports are available online through the Legislative Reference Library's Legislative Reports database.

Session Summaries

After a session adjourns, several legislative offices publish overviews of its accomplishments and guides to passed legislation. While these summaries don't provide any original information, they are a good way to get an idea of how a particular session treated various topics. These guides are available online here. A similar publication covering joint resolutions, the Analysis of Proposed Constitutional Amendments, is available through the Legislative Reference Library's Constitutional Amendments database.