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Weeks Before The Legislative Session, Leaders' Priorities And COVID-19 Safety Plans Are Uncertain

A sparsely populated room at the Texas Legislature.
Todd Wiseman
The Texas Tribune
Texas House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, sent a memo to lawmakers last week saying masks will be required, guests will be asked to test for the virus and attendance will be limited for the first day of the legislative session.

The Texas legislative session begins Jan. 12, and members are heading into the Christmas holiday faced with several unknowns.

With less than three weeks until the Texas Legislature meets, uncertainty is lingering as state leaders have yet to flesh out their agendas and lawmakers scramble to figure out how to safely convene during the coronavirus pandemic.

It has been anything but the typical pre-session run-up, and members are heading into the Christmas holiday faced with several unknowns — which, to be sure, could be settled in short order. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has suggested there could be an announcement about pandemic protocols next week, and Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to give more details about his legislative agenda once the new year begins.

But for now, the pre-session landscape remains somewhat unsettled, aside from the obvious must-pass items like the budget and redistricting legislation that Capitol observers expect to form the backbone of a challenging session, which begins Jan. 12.

“I think the political community has taken it to heart that the agenda for this session will be more modest, and I think ... with a presumed budget deficit and redistricting and some sort of COVID protocols stifling at least a portion of the typical Legislature means that some — a significant amount — of the political oxygen has already been eaten up,” said Ted Delisi, a Republican political consultant.

Texas Republicans are coming off a November election in which they far surpassed expectations and beat back an all-out Democratic offensive up and down the ballot, including a push to flip the state House that flopped. The impact on the actual balance of power at the Capitol was minimal: Democrats picked up one seat in the House and lost one, leaving the partisan makeup the same in the chamber. And while Republicans lost one seat — and their supermajority — in the Senate, Patrick is pushing for a key rule change that would wipe out the practical advantage that Democrats gained from that.

Still, although the election results did not dramatically change the chambers, some Republicans argue they are heading into session with sizable ambitions — and likely less space and time to achieve them given the pandemic.

“There’s definitely a heightened sense of urgency to get things done,” said Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, who chairs the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I think voters sent a clear message of who they want in charge and the kinds of priorities they want. We definitely have a mandate, we just have to work twice as hard and twice as fast.”

Middleton is carrying a bill to ban cities and local governments from using taxpayer dollars to lobby the state government, one of the big pieces of incomplete business for conservatives last session. And while there is momentum to finish the job this time, they all know lawmakers will first and foremost have to tackle billions of dollars in projected shortfalls in the state’s current two-year budget, redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative boundaries, and provide COVID-19 relief.

What leadership wants to tackle beyond that is more of an open question, and in some ways, the wait for coronavirus protocols — as well as the all-consuming focus on the pandemic in general — has put the typical pre-session agenda-setting in a holding pattern.

Abbott has made clear one priority beyond the must-do issues: punishing local governments that “defund the police,” as he sees it. It was an issue he latched onto in the run-up to the November election, and he has continued to push it since then, most recently celebrating the completion of a draft proposal that would put the Austin Police Department under state control.

Abbott has otherwise spent recent days virtually addressing chambers of commerce across the state, trumpeting corporate relocations to Texas despite the pandemic, touting the timeline for widespread vaccination and laying out the broad strokes of a legislative agenda. Speaking with the Irving-Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 11, Abbott talked about police funding, as well as holding officers more accountable with better training and body cameras. He promised “robust packages” to respond to the current pandemic — and prepare for future ones, like ensuring the state has personal protective equipment for the next pandemic.

And he spent some time on health care, saying he wants to consider making permanent some of the telemedicine practices that came about during the pandemic and ensure that “whatever law may apply” — Obamacare or not — “preexisting conditions will be insured and will be covered.” (Texas is leading a lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act.)

Abbott also vowed the state would not raise taxes to deal with the budget deficit, said he would be “adamant” about legislation that protects businesses from liability related to the coronavirus, called broadband internet expansion a “top-shelf issue” that is virtually guaranteed to pass and agreed that the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, should be used to balance the budget given the circumstances.

“This is what it was created for,” Abbott said.

Abbott also acknowledged the budget challenges facing the Legislature but said he felt “that we’re gonna be able to navigate our way through that.”

Over the summer, Comptroller Glenn Hegar projected a $4.6 billion deficit to the state’s current two-year budget, thanks mainly to the economic fallout tied to the pandemic. More recently, he told lawmakers the state’s revenue outlook was “not nearly as dire as we feared in July,” but did not state specifics. He said tackling the budget for the 2022-23 biennium will be “a difficult exercise.” Hegar will give the Legislature another update before lawmakers convene in Austin in January.

In the nearer term, though, the pandemic has shown no signs of slowing in Texas. Abbott appears to be banking on the arrival of vaccines — and their growing availability in the coming months — instead of instituting any new statewide measures to combat the virus. He has repeatedly declared there will not be any more “shutdowns” in Texas, while touting that there could be “widespread distribution” of vaccines as early as March.

Abbott got vaccinated Tuesday in Austin, saying he wanted to show Texans how “safe and easy” it is.

At the Capitol, state leaders have been in talks for months over what protocols should be in place throughout the session, though no formal guidance has been announced yet. Over the past week, Capitol leaders have described what the first day of session will look like — masks will be required, COVID-19 tests will be encouraged — offering a glimpse at how the Legislature could operate once lawmakers are sworn in.

But there is still a long list of specifics that lawmakers say they don’t yet have clarity on, such as how committee hearings will be conducted inside the Capitol or whether screenings will be required before people are allowed to enter the building.

“I’m frustrated that we don’t have a clear picture, but I’m not surprised,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “We as the Texas House can’t vote on new rules until we are in session, [so] we are a little bit stuck. And we haven’t been able to meet during the interim because of the Capitol being closed.”

To Zwiener’s point, the House and Senate pass rules at the beginning of each session to help govern the body — and some protocols that have been floated would only be implemented if the chamber’s rules were updated to allow for it. For most of 2020, for example, House committees could not hold hearings since the Capitol was closed and the chamber rules did not allow for virtual hearings.

Presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan has asked a group of lawmakers to make recommendations and solicit input from members on what changes should be made to the chamber’s rules. And last week, House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, sent a memo to lawmakers saying masks will be required, guests will be asked to test for the virus and attendance will be limited for the first day of session. He also suggested there could be additional screening measures in place such as temperature checks.

A similar process has played out in the more ideologically conservative Senate with Patrick, who at a recent event said guest tickets for senators on opening day would be limited to a few per member and that testing for the virus beforehand would be “strongly advise[d].” Patrick also said a number of additional protocols would be announced next week.

“You know me, I’m not for lockdowns and mandates, but I am for smart policy — so that No. 1, we can protect the public, protect the staff, protect the members, so that we can make it as normal as we can as we go through this,” Patrick said during a virtual event with the conservative group Texas Values.

Since the Capitol closed in mid-March, Democrats and Republicans have raised questions about how accessible the legislative process will be to the public. Last week, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a member of the Freedom Caucus, asked the attorney general to weigh in on whether the Legislature has the power to close the Capitol, and whether members could debate or vote on legislation from outside the chamber.

“I’m going to be against anything that is going to restrict peoples’ ability to go in [the Capitol] and make their voice heard in person,” Middleton said. “We’re not some special class of people — and I just don’t agree that we should have some special set of rules that’s protecting us as politicians.”

Zwiener and others, though, still have concerns about issues like whether lawmakers will have access to good public health guidance, and what, if any, type of system will be in place to keep tabs on confirmed cases at the Capitol, which sees thousands of people daily during a normal session.

“We are a potential super-spreader event,” Zwiener said. “We have an obligation to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at the Capitol, not just for higher-risk colleagues, but also so that we don’t spread COVID to other parts of Texas.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Patrick Svitek | Texas Tribune
Cassandra Pollock | The Texas Tribune