After largely ceding leadership of the state’s pandemic response to Gov. Greg Abbott, state lawmakers appear to be awakening to the need for their involvement in the process.
Some citizens and legislators have blamed Abbott for vague decisions and missteps throughout the process, including waiting too long to order a shutdown, re-opening businesses too quickly and then reversing some re-openings, stalling a statewide mask policy, yielding to outside pressure to open some types of businesses ahead of schedule and ordering in-person instruction in public schools as COVID-19 cases were surging.
Yet, lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, have had little input and have done little independently besides joining the chorus of critics complaining on social media or public statements about Abbott’s management of the pandemic.
“We’re in a crisis situation with health care, economy, unemployment and starting schools,” said Michael Adams, professor and interim chair of political science in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.
“Governor Abbott is the chief executive of the state, but lawmakers are also elected officials, and they should be taking a bigger role. If they want a special session, they should demand a special session,” Adams said.
Typically, the interim period is a time for planning, committee meetings and preparing for the next session of the Legislature. But logistics and legal issues of trying to conduct business as usual during the pandemic have made it difficult.
“The unprecedented events surrounding COVID-19 make following normal business a challenge,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor and Pauline Yelderman Endowed Chair of political science at the University of Houston. “There just isn’t much of a roadmap.”
Part of the challenge is that the capitol has not been fully functioning, and hearings are intended to be open to the public. Safety measures are being put in place. State Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) told the Dallas Morning News that lawmakers are exploring whether video conferencing is allowed under House rules.
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has convened working groups of senators to discuss challenges Texas will face in the legislative session but not to draft legislation.
For some lawmakers, working through the logistical challenges is not an excuse for doing nothing. Several have called for Abbott to convene a special session of the Legislature.
“As an elected official, it is my job to protect my constituents from government overreach,” state Sen. Charles Perry (R- Lubbock) said in a statement. “The COVID-19 virus will not be going away anytime soon, even with masks and social distancing. We need proper legislative testimony and to vet out fact from the misinformation so that a long-term viable and transparent outcome can be achieved.”
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) also said lawmakers need to be involved in the crisis response.
“It is time to fully activate the diverse group of lawmakers — Republican and Democratic, rural and urban, old and young — who have been sidelined from the COVID-19 decision-making,” Martinez Fischer said.
Conservative Republican lawmakers who make up the Texas Freedom Caucus recently called for Abbott to reform a law that grants the governor’s office wider authority during a disaster.
Abbott has not signaled his willingness to expand his authority or convene a special session of the Legislature.
Rottinghaus said it is unlikely Abbott will call a special session because he has been loath to do so in the past, and engaging the Legislature could be politically risky for him.
“Abbott’s fear is that a special session will highlight divisions within the (Republican) Party,” Rottinghaus said. “But it would provide critical input and reduce perceptions that the governor is simply railroading his plans through.
“Ignoring their input is institutionally irresponsible and potentially politically damaging,” he said. “Abbott wants wins in the next legislative session. Less interaction or involvement now might mean defeat on close bills down the road.”
Despite the challenge of conducting business, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus launched a series of virtual town hall meetings on potential criminal justice reforms following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was suffocated by a Minneapolis police officer.
Members of the House Democratic Caucus have also been out in their communities, providing information and resources to constituents.
“My office has handed out thousands of masks, and I’ve been holding discussions about unemployment insurance and other key issues with my constituents,” said State Rep. Chris Turner (D- Grand Prairie), chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.
Turner said he is hoping to find a way to conduct committee meetings soon both to plan for the upcoming Legislative session next year and to provide oversight of the billions of dollars that are being spent on the pandemic response and that response measures benefit all Texans.
“Many of the major issues are getting attention, just with a different lens,” Turner said.
The Democratic caucus’ top priorities during the upcoming session include health care, education, criminal justice reform and the state budget. The pandemic has magnified the inadequacy of affordable health care in Texas, Turner said.
Geren said committee meetings are needed to accomplish critical work such as crafting the first state of the state budget and reviewing the work of state agencies to determine where they should be abolished.