Week in Review: A Digest of What Happened This Week at the Capitol

January 15, 2021

Legislative News

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It was an eventful week at the Capitol, as Tuesday, Jan. 12, marked the first day of the 87th Legislative Session. The House elected a new speaker for the first time since the start of the 86th session in 2019. Both chambers adopted the rules that will govern how they operate. And Comptroller Glenn Hegar projected that the Legislature would have $112.5 billion in state revenue available for general purpose spending in the next budget.

From now until the end of the regular session, TAC Legislative Services staff will report weekly on the highlights of what’s happening (and not happening) at the Capitol, as well as what can be expected in the weeks ahead regarding all matters important to county government. Stay tuned.

“Welcome back my friends.” – The 87th Texas Legislature convened Tuesday, Jan. 12, as called for by the Texas Constitution. While the surging pandemic and tight security following the tragic Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol made for unprecedented opening day conditions, the Legislature was able to complete its business without incident. The 150 members of the House took their oath of office and elected Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) to lead the chamber as speaker by a vote of 143-2. The two nay votes came from freshmen members Bryan Slayton (R-Royse City) and Jeff Cason (R-Bedford). Reps. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) and Tracy King (D-Batesville) missed votes due to positive COVID-19 tests; both report feeling healthy and look forward to fulfilling their duties over the 140-day legislative session.

Speaker Phelan, who was first elected to the House in 2014, was one of the main architects of several disaster relief and flood mitigation-related bills when he served as chair of House State Affairs during the 86th session. One of Phelan’s first tasks will be assigning members of the House to committees.

The Senate elected Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) president pro tempore. While largely a ceremonial position, the designation positions Birdwell as third in line to serve as governor should the governor or lieutenant governor be unable to fulfill those duties. The lieutenant governor has announced that he will push to change the threshold to consider legislation from 19 of the 31 members to 18; the current makeup of the Senate is 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

“We’re so glad you could attend; come inside, come inside.” – But only if you adhere to this session’s safety requirements. Both the House and Senate have restrictions in place due to concerns about COVID-19 that limit access. Capitol visitors should look over the rules beforehand; contact TAC’s legislative consultants if there are concerns or questions about the rules. At a minimum, be prepared to be encouraged to take a rapid COVID-19 test at the entrance before entering the building – expect a short wait for the results – and, once inside, face masks are required for all visitors. Those at the Capitol might also have to wait to enter the various chambers, rooms and elevators due to strict capacity limitations imposed in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

House and Senate Rules Adopted – On Wednesday, the Senate voted to change their rules. Previously the chamber required 19 votes to bring a bill to the floor. Then Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) lost his reelection bid. After the election, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promised to lower the threshold to 18 votes and kept that promise on the second day of the session, lowering the threshold on a party line vote of 18-13. The number of votes assumes all members are present and voting; otherwise, it will be lower (five-ninths of those present and voting). Additional rule changes include:

  • Removed the Committee on Agriculture (5 members).
  • Added the Committee on Jurisprudence (5 members).
  • Renamed the Committee on Intergovernmental Relations to Local Government (increased from 7 to 9 members).
  • Decreased the number of members of the Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development from 11 to 9 members.
  • Increased number of members of the Committee on Nominations from 7 to 9 members.
  • Removed the Committee on Property Tax (5 members).
  • Renamed the Committee on Water and Rural Affairs to the Committee on Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs (increased from 7 to 9 members).

On Thursday, the House adopted its rules by a vote of 141-0. Among the highlights:

  • The House added Rule 16 to ensure the chamber is able to carry out its duties in the event of a disruption caused by an actual or imminent threat of an emergency, including an epidemic or pandemic.
  • Requires face masks for persons admitted into committee and subcommittee meetings and requires that those masks be worn except when speaking from a microphone on the dais or the witness podium.
  • Allows the public’s right to access committee meetings to be satisfied by real-time video broadcasts.
  • Reduces the quorum requirements for the purpose of taking testimony during a public hearing to be met to two members.
  • Requires committee chairs to accept electronically submitted comments on measures or matters included on the public notice for a public hearing.
  • Limits access to the floor and requires each person admitted to the floor to wear a face mask.
  • Allows members to vote from the floor or the gallery.

The Speaker has not yet announced committee appointments. Senate committee appointments are available here.

State Revenue Estimate Released – Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimates the state will have $112.5 billion in revenue available for the state’s 2022-2023 budget while stressing that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the estimate which could be off in either direction. He also reduced the $4.6 billion deficit estimated in July 2020 for the current biennium’s budget to $946 million.

Disaster Related Legislation – Many county issues will be high on the list of the Legislature’s priorities, including revisiting Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code, which outlines a political subdivision’s limited authority. In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40 bills have been filed to date to address items such as prohibiting local officials from issuing an order designating essential and non-essential businesses as well as limiting a local official’s compensation if regular business operations are prohibited during a disaster declaration. Legislation to limit or remove existing local authority or local oversight of resources will be closely monitored in the coming months.

Texas Supreme Court Releases Emergency Order 33 – Issued Jan. 14, Emergency Order 33 replaces Emergency Order 29 and contains the following provisions.

  • Permits courts to modify or suspend deadlines and procedures through April 1.
  • Requires courts to continue to use all reasonable efforts to hold proceedings remotely and to follow the Office of Court Administration's Guidance for All Court Proceedings.
  • Prohibits Justice and Municipal Courts from holding in-person jury proceedings before April 1.
  • Permits district, county, and probate courts to hold in-person jury trials after certain actions.
  • Permits courts to hold virtual jury proceedings in certain cases with certain technology provided to prospective jurors.
  • Extends the possession and access to a child provisions from previous orders.
  • Extends the ability for an attorney professional disciplinary or disability proceeding to conduct proceedings remotely.

Unfunded Mandates – TAC’s 2020 Unfunded Mandates Survey is closing today, Friday, Jan. 15. Analyzing the data and producing the report will take a few weeks. Once completed, the report will be available on TAC’s Unfunded Mandates web page. In the meantime, the 2018 report is available on the same page.

Fiscal Notes – TAC recently began contacting counties for assistance with fiscal notes. Therefore, requests may come from Tim Brown, Zelma Smith or Austin McCarty requesting help in gathering information for fiscal notes. Fiscal notes are required for every bill before it can be heard in committee; as a result, county information could help decide if the bill is voted out of committee or dies in committee.

Legislative Directories – As committee assignments, staff, and office information becomes available during the 87th Legislature, TAC will compile the Legislative Directory. This session resource will be published and distributed in March.

Helpful Tracking Links for Legislation