The Impact of COVID-19 on the 87th Legislative Session  What to Expect

Preparations are being made at the Texas capitol to accommodate the arrival of the 2021 Legislative Session. COVID-19 remains a top priority for Texas lawmakers, as does the budget and redistricting measures, making this legislative environment ripe for a special session.

Legislature

The Legislature of the State of Texas will convene on the 2nd Tuesday in January 2021. The maximum duration of a regular session is 140 days. The Governor is given authority under the state constitution to convene the Legislature at other times during the biennium. Such “special sessions” are reserved for legislation that the Governor deems critically important in the conduct of state affairs. Called sessions are limited to a period of 30 days, during which the Legislature is permitted to pass laws only on subjects submitted by the Governor in calling for the session. Due to the nature of the pandemic and its effect on the budget, as well as the challenge of redistricting facing lawmakers this session (the data for which won’t be available until June), it is fully expected that at least one special session will be called.

Protocols: Limits, But New Opportunities

House leaders recently discussed what to expect for the upcoming session with regard to capitol building access and legislative processes and procedures. While some of the modifications being considered are already underway, some are still being worked through.

  • Building security protocols continue to be developed by the Department of Public Safety and the State Preservation Board, but it is widely expected that there will be limited Capitol access for guests, and no “county” days or other large scale advocacy days, no outside events, and no visitors recognized from the dais.
  • On Opening Day, we will see members only on the floor. Since the Texas Constitution provides that any duly elected member cannot be denied floor access, there will likely not be a requirement for members to wear a mask on the House floor. Staff and press will be required to wear masks on the floor.
  • Committee rooms have been retrofitted with plexiglass dividers between seats. The auditorium will be reserved for committee hearings, with two days reserved for the House, two days for the Senate, and Fridays as needed. There will be limited seating available in committee rooms for the public.
  • Offices will decide safety standards individually and whether they will have plexiglass installed and if masks will be required upon entry.
  • Significant resources have been invested on air filters for the Capitol, as well as an Ultraviolet robot for the House floor.
  • Temperature checks will be required upon building entry, and they will be installing more hand sanitizer stations throughout the building.
  • Discussions continue on how frequently they will do COVID-19 testing. They are exploring 15-minute swab tests for testing.
  • · Voting while physically away from the House floor is likewise being contemplated. They are working on voting from the back of the House floor and talking through how voting from your office would work. Virtual voting directly from the member’s computer is being discussed to prevent staff from voting for the member.

All these changes are specific to the House, and the Senate is considering their own protocols. There is no guarantee that the plans will be identical, but it is likely there will be much overlap.

These protocols will clearly affect the process during this legislative session, it is very likely there will be no in-person “Capitol Days” as we have come to know them. However, we are exploring other ways to connect our clients with legislators virtually. This new way of connecting has proven to be effective throughout the interim, so be assured that Policy Solutions will look for new and innovative ways of communicating your legislative priorities as this session continues to move forward.

The potential remains to see additional adjustments to “business as usual,” such as hard caps on the number of bills that a member could file this session. Additionally, bills that do get filed might not all get referred to committee – a substantial departure from the norm. With committee hearings need to adhere to a more rigid process for safety, including scheduled witnesses, holding rooms, fewer staff, etc., expect the normal process to be much slower. Unless there is a broad consensus on a particular bill, it is highly likely that many proposed laws that would normally receive a full hearing will go unheard.

Moreover, COVID has also had an enormous negative impact on the state budget. Just last year the comptroller was predicting a $2.89 billion surplus to end the current budget, but due to the pandemic, the that surplus has turned into a $4.6 billion shortfall. That negative $7 billion swing does not include funding for the next two-year budget cycle, which is also expected to be in the billions. This will make things problematic for policymakers as we enter into the 87th Legislative Session, since Texas is a “pay as you go” state and must balance its budget each year. Any bill that increases state spending is likely to be dead on arrival.

Lastly, to complicate matters even further, 2021 is a redistricting year, when legislative districts are redrawn to be of equal size following the decennial census. However, the redistricting population data will not be available until into the summer, which will certainly necessitate a special session, but also creating the possibility that session could be delayed until then – perhaps being gaveled in on January 12th to elect a speaker and adopt rules, but then adjourn for a few months until such data is available. We will provide any information as it becomes available.

As always, it is our pleasure to be your voice at the Texas state capitol. Please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments or concerns that you may have.