The Texas Legislature officially kicked off its 87th session last week, an every-other-year tradition that sees lawmakers of all stripes gather in Austin to pass a two-year budget and a few laws that could, in theory, improve the quality of life for Texans of all stripes — if we’re lucky.
This year, the still raging coronavirus pandemic has been the topic du jour in the Texas Capitol, as it’s been in every nook and cranny of the Lone Star State for these past ten interminable months.
Since each of the Legislature’s two chambers are independent bodies (Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick runs the state Senate, while the Texas House just installed Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont to be its new House Speaker), each group has kept with tradition by charting out its own set of coronavirus-inspired restrictions and rule modifications to try and keep lawmakers and the public safe from the deadly disease still floating through the air.
In the Senate, Patrick has taken a hard line on COVID-19 testing. During this year’s session, anyone who plans to set foot in the Senate chambers or in a committee hearing room has to test negative for COVID-19 beforehand, including senators themselves. Senate staff only have to get tested once a week, but must show a negative test result before going to a committee hearing or onto the Senate floor. The test requirement was approved unanimously.
Rapid-result coronavirus tests with 15-minute turnarounds are available to all in a tent in front of the state Capitol, although tests aren’t required for people simply visiting the building.
The only way out of the state Senate’s testing rules is to provide proof that you’ve been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The state Senate also requires folks to wear masks, but allows senators to take off their face coverings when sitting at their desks, while seated at committee hearings or while addressing the Senate at a microphone.
More contentiously, Patrick’s Senate voted along party lines to lower the number of votes needed to bring legislation up for discussion from 19 to 18. The move, which Patrick pushed for once his party lost a Senate seat after Pleasanton Republican Rep. Pete Flores lost his reelection bid, gives Senate Republicans the ability to block any legislative proposals from the Democratic minority. It’s the second time Patrick has successfully pushed to lower this threshold to give his party full control; He also did so in 2015, the first time he presided over the Senate as lieutenant governor.
“We can’t do anything you want us to do if we don’t change the rule,” Patrick said at a Texas Public Policy Foundation luncheon on Wednesday before the Senate voted on the change. “Anything that’s important, conservative bills will be blocked. Gun bills, life bills, tax bills, they’ll be blocked, so we have to do it. That’s what you elected us to do.”
One Patrick ally, Houston Republican state Rep. Paul Bettencourt, tweeted “Elections have consequences,” after the rule change passed with an 18 to 13 vote.
Across the hall, the Texas House also passed rules that require face masks to be worn inside its chamber and during its committee hearings, although representatives can take theirs off when talking from a microphone or when sitting behind protective barriers during committee hearings.
But despite having way more lawmakers in close proximity than the Senate (150 representatives vs. only 31 senators), the Texas House chose not to require coronavirus testing for representatives or the public.
On Thursday, before the state House voted unanimously to approve its pandemic rules, Republican state Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi said that the House leadership’s decision not to require testing was done partly for appearances. He claimed that it would send the wrong message if state representatives took up testing resources when courthouses and schools in Texas don’t have the same access to quick testing.
“For us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong,” Hunter argued.
The cracks in the Texas House’s testing policy are already showing, as one state representative, Democrat Joe Deshotel of Beaumont, tested positive for COVID-19 as he left the Capitol on Thursday evening.
Deshotel’s positive test came after he’d been on the House floor close to fellow lawmakers for three days straight following the Legislature’s opening day ceremonies on January 12. Those representatives who were in close contact with Deshotel — including Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, who chose not to attend the opening day festivities hoping to limit her exposure to the coronavirus — were asked to self-quarantine for 10 days starting Thursday.
Beckley took to Twitter Sunday to express her frustration:
Almost a year of following procedures guided by science and not 1 Covid19 scare. Zoomed birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. First week of session and I had prolonged exposure to a positive member because we are catering to extreme science deniers. Currently pissed off #txlege— Michelle Beckley (@ForHD65) January 17, 2021
The Texas House approved a rule change that would allow representatives to vote on legislation “from a secure portable device when the Member is inside the House chamber, gallery, or an adjacent room on the 2nd or 3rd floor” to make it easier to vote while maintaining social distance.
The House’s rules also dictate that virtual testimony from the public is only allowed by invitation, which means that unless you’re directly asked by a state representative to testify you’ll have to come in-person to Austin to speak your piece, much to the dismay of accessibility advocates like Democratic state Rep. Erin Zwiener from Driftwood.
“We need to hear from our communities who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 this session. This is a loss,” Zwiener wrote Thursday.
The Texas Legislature has also responded to the pandemic by limiting the number of journalists allowed to cover the legislative session each day, with the state Senate putting in way more limits to media access than the state House.
Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw announced on January 4 that “for at least the first 60 days” of the new session, the state Senate will only allow a rotating pool of four reporters to sit in the Senate gallery to cover its business. Two reporters will come from big-city outlets, the other two from rural news organizations.
On top of that, the Texas Senate won’t allow any reporters at all to cover committee hearings in-person. Shaw wrote that “videos of Senate proceedings are available on the Senate’s webpage” for live viewing.
In the Texas House, “up to 17 credentialed journalists” will be allowed to sit in a reserved section of the House gallery on a first-come, first-served basis according to a January 7 memo from Cait Meisenheimer, press secretary for then-outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. If those seats fill up, “members of the media are welcome to sit in any remaining open seat in the gallery,” Meisenheimer wrote.
Contrary to the state Senate, Meisenheimer said the House will allow media into committee hearings — as long as there’s still enough room for social distancing, that is.
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