First, some lore:
* A few sessions back, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution applauding the population control efforts of the Boston Strangler. A member introduced it to make the point that his esteemed colleagues aren't always paying attention. Wags here still argue whether, at that particular moment, they were.
* In 1982, a legislator accused of cattle-rustling defended himself by claiming he was at a bordello in Nuevo Laredo on the night in question. Prosecutors"proved he had partaken of those services on a different night, then convicted him.
* In 1981, a legislator set out to advance his political career through martyrdom by having his cousin shoot him, and then claiming to police he was the victim of a satanic cult. In his plea-bargain on a perjury charge, he agreed to resign his seat.
* Last session some tourists got an even livelier spectacle than they bargained for when they stumbled upon a surprise birthday party for a freshman legislator in the lobby outside the House chamber. His present was a striptease act.
* A senator once demanded that his filibustering colleague be removed from the Senate floor for being drunk in public, whereupon the offending member demanded his accuser be removed because he was insane in public. The chair permitted both to stay put.
* On the subject of filibusters, the art form was ratcheted into another dimension in 1979 when a group of liberal senators -- the Killer Bees, as they were known -- hid from both the leadership and the Texas Rangers for five days to thwart a quorum needed to pass a bill they considered odious. The measure died.
The Texas Legislature convened for its biennial session this week, reopening the best show in town.
"It only meets for 140 days every two years," mused Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, "and most Texans think it'd be better if it only met for two days every 140 years."
"I'm sure most Texans think of 'Send in the Clowns' as our theme song," said state Sen. Bob McFarland (R), chuckling over a column in his morning paper headlined, "The Big Top."
This year's blue ribbon for ridicule goes to Ben Sargent, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Austin American-Statesman. His cartoon depicted Capitol Building tourists in various states of revulsion -- covering the eyes of their children, spitting out their false teeth and, yes, even vomiting -- at the sight of their returning legislators.
But lest anyone get the idea that the Texas Legislature is some backwater body peopled by dolts, knaves and thieves, the place works pretty well.
On the whole, it's honest, efficient and responsive to constituents. So say even its critics.
For anyone overdosed on the ways of Congress, with its year-round sessions and year-round gridlock, the Texas Legislature offers a refreshing change of pace.
The citizen-legislator concept is alive and kicking here. The legislature meets for less than five months every two years. Texas is one of seven states to retain the once-dominant biennial session. It pays members $600 per month, plus a $30 per diem on the days the legislature is in session. This means that just about every member has another real-life job, and everybody takes a financial loss to serve.
"I'd never want it any other way," said Rep. Bill Messer (D), chairman of the influential Calendar Committee. "I'd never want Texas to get to the point where its legislators' jobs depended on their votes."
Critics will tell you that the legislators' lack of expertise makes them too dependent on lobbyists for information about the 5,000-plus bills introduced each session.
The legislature is getting more professional here, but slowly. As recently as the 1960s, legislators didn't have offices. They did all their business on the floor, with secretaries pecking away next to them on portable typing stands. Now each House member has a staff of two professionals, and one back in the district.
But there is another side to this dearth of expertise that pleases lots of Texans -- and, to a degree, insulates their legislature from the persuasions of the lobby.
"They key is that we spend 18 months a session at home," McFarland said. "I can talk every day to the Chevy dealer or the local physician. I don't have to take the word of their lobbyists in Austin. It just stands to reason that if I spend most of my time at home, I'm going to have a better feel for the needs of my constituents than if I'm just back on weekends and holidays."
The legislature has no partisan aisle and little respect for the custom of seniority. As the Republican Party becomes more of a legitimate grass-roots force in Texas politics -- a record 53 of the 150 House members this session are Republicans -- that may change, although most people here hope it won't.
"One reason we accomplish a lot in a short period of time is that we don't get bogged down in partisan games," said Speaker of the House Gib Lewis, a conservative Democrat who regularly appoints Republicans to head major committees.
The Texas legislature has more constitutional power than all but a handful of other state legislatures. The governor of Texas is constitutionally weak. His role in budget and tax matters is limited to the veto, the bully pulpit and the right to call special sessions.
This promises be a fascinating session for the legislature. A fervently low-tax, low-service state, Texas is facing its first budget crunch since the days of $4-a-barrel oil. Tax and budget issues will dominate, but get-the-juices-flowing bills to do away with Blue Laws, permit horse-race betting and adopt a statewide water plan should provide plenty of entertainment.
In a sense, the session will be about whether, and how, this increasingly urban state moves away from the low-service, less-government ideology of its frontier past.
The legislature was molded in that past, and it shares the belief of diminishing majority of modern-day Texans that the old ways still work.
"The average Texans bascially mistrusts government," McFarland said. "The legislature is designed for him."