Pandemic Safety Precautions Adopted, Subject to Change as Conditions Shift
Completed in 1888, the Texas State Capitol is a party of one in bearing witness to the business of Texas lawmaking in the face of a global pandemic. Thirty years into its storied history, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 swept across the globe, infecting some 500 million people (roughly one-third of the planet’s population) and leaving a staggering 20 to 50 million dead in its wake. Despite the worst pandemic in modern history, an abbreviated regular session, and special sessions extending into the summer, the 36th Legislature managed to create the Texas Railroad Commission, transform public education funding, and ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.
The last century’s radical technological and medical advancements advantage the 87th Legislature, but lawmakers will nonetheless be challenged as they work to continue the prior session’s advances in public education, respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, pass a balanced budget against the backdrop of a historic economic downturn, and complete redistricting with 2020 Census data not yet received. Both chambers have adjusted their rules to current conditions. With the Senate’s first committee meetings now set, House committee assignments imminent, and the Governor’s emergency items eligible for consideration, those pandemic adjustments will now get their test.
The House and Senate adopt their rules independently of one another, and as with much of their business, the two chambers had different ideas on how to operate. Perhaps the most notable difference regards COVID-19 testing. The Senate unanimously adopted rules requiring each senator and attending staff to return a negative test prior to entry to the Senate floor. The House instituted no such requirement, with rules author Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) stating that doing so would unfairly preference the safety of House members over everyday Texans who lack the same ready access to testing. The chambers were in closer alignment regarding masks. Both will require their members to wear masks, with exceptions during specified committee and floor operations. The State Preservation Board controls the Capitol’s common spaces and has issued a mask requirement for all entrants for the entirety of their time in the building; an exception exists for witnesses while they are testifying, and members may waive the requirement in their personal offices. While a test is not required for building entry, a tent on the North side of the Capitol offers free optional rapid testing. Negative test results earn green stickers for lapel display, which will be required for entry to Senate committee hearings; proof of vaccination is an acceptable alternative. No such requirement was adopted for admission to House committee hearings.
Ceremonial proceedings have been reduced or eliminated, capacity limits in hearing rooms reduced, and lawmakers have discretion on operations within their offices, with in-office rapid testing available at the member’s discretion. The 150-member House faces a greater challenge to accommodate social distancing than does the 31-member Senate. To meet this logistical challenge, and in a historic first, representatives will be granted authority to vote from rooms adjoining the chamber, such as the members lounge. Debate on whether to permit virtual testimony was spirited. The House and Senate will allow remote testimony for invited witnesses. Efforts to expand access to virtual public testimony fell short, but House rules will permit representatives to monitor most hearings from afar with a quorum intact so long as two remain present. House members still must be physically present to register committee votes.
Further rule changes have been contemplated in acknowledgement of fluid public health conditions, and today’s review should not be considered exhaustive. TAC will remain engaged as the session evolves, with the legislative services, legal and other divisions working in partnership with you to ensure the county voice is well represented at the Capitol. Please join our Core Legislative Group if you can assist in these efforts – no one understands your community better than local leaders like you, and that perspective is vital to our collective work.
For more information about this article, please contact Pete Winckler.