Are Lawmakers Wasting Your Time?

By Amy Davis

HOUSTON - Local 2 investigates what some say is the biggest waste of state lawmakers' time and your tax dollars.

We showed you Wednesday how your elected officials are spending weeks in Austin using state resources to congratulate friends, honor relatives and, some say, squander valuable time that could be used to take on the issues you sent them to Austin to tackle.

KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Amy Davis is back with what some say is the simple solution.

In Austin, on the floor of the House and Senate every morning begins something like this: "Please join me this morning in recognizing Ms. Mary Alice Gonzales," state Rep. Dora Olivo said. Or, "Today I'm honored to recognize a group of fine leaders from my district," another state representative said.

It's basically one hour of lawmakers recognizing people, places, births and deaths, all before they get down to what state Sen. John Whitmire calls the real business of the people.

"Passing laws, public safety, highways, roads, public health, education, that's the public," explained Whitmire.  "Ceremonies like births, marriages and winning championships are kind of personal notes."

Like when state Rep. John Zerwas wrote a resolution congratulating Ralph and Carolyn Zerwas, his parents, on their 60th wedding anniversary.

"You know, if somebody dies in a family, if somebody completes my internship program, if there's someone that I know has been a tremendous leader in the community, I do a resolution for them," state Sen. Rodney Ellis told Davis.

We met Ellis at a town hall meeting after he refused our request for an interview. The Senator wrote and passed 118 ceremonial resolutions last session, although he says he on;y introduced eight of those on the floor of the Senate.

"Thirty-eight percent of everything you did last legislature was honoring people's birthdays and anniversaries," Davis told him.

"That's not true," said Ellis. "One hundred-ninety were real resolutions."

Davis explained what the Legislative record shows.

"Well, you know what?" Ellis asked rhetorically. "Have fun and run that on the news."

After we ran Wednesday night's story on the news, Ellis had this to say:

"I can remember getting a letter and a resolution from Congresswoman Barbara Jordan when I graduated from high school. And I still have that. It meant a lot to me," Ellis said.

"We all want to honor the people in our districts. We really do," state Rep. Ellen Cohen said. "There just has to be a more expeditious and financially judicious way of doing it."

Cohen said the quickest and least expensive way to honor constituents is to print proclamations right in her district office. It takes no vote, no capitol employees to draft the resolutions -- just a nice document from her inkjet printer.

"I'd like to think they're happy if we take the time to acknowledge them by the ones we do here," Cohen said of her constituents who receive the proclamations from her district office.

State Rep. Bill Callegari came in second behind Ellis, writing 74 ceremonial resolutions last year, like the one congratulating Chick-Fil-A of Katy for being named the 2008 business of the year by the Katy Chamber of Commerce. In HR 3125, Callegari congratulates Derek Bull of Highlands Ranch, Colo., on his graduation from a Colorado high school.

"That was my grandson," Callegari explained to Davis. "I guess I did take the liberty to do that because I have other grandsons that did graduate from Texas and I thought I should do the same. So, maybe that was a little frivolous on my part."

Callegari, unlike Ellis, said he wouldn't mind drafting the congratulatory letters from his office, saving everyone's time at the capitol.

"Certainly, if the Legislature made a decision that we're not going to do this on the House floor, you know, I don't have a major problem with that," he said.

"I don't think it takes a lot of time to be honest with you," Ellis told Davis. "But, I would say for members who don't like it, don't do it."

Whitmire said that in years past senators and representatives have agreed to police themselves and not go overboard on the ceremonial resolutions. They can actually vote to change the rules of order to ban the resolutions, or just limit each representative to a handful each session.

There is also a cost involved in drafting all of the ceremonial resolutions. Legislative staff are required to research the people and places and type up the resolutions. The Legislative Budget Council said it has never calculated that cost, but admits it is paid state workers doing all of the work.

Want to see more examples of the ceremonial resolutions Davis found and see what the lawmakers had to say about them? Check out the Ask Amy blog.

If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2011 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.