Updated December 14, 2020
On Dec. 14, Chair of the House Administration Committee, Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), announced an “Opening Day Operational Plan” for the first day of the 87th Texas Legislature. The latest update says that prior to arriving at the Capitol, all Members, guests, media, and staff seated on the House floor or in the gallery and attending the opening day ceremony will be asked to take a COVID-19 test.
Face masks will be required. Access to the House floor will be restricted, and the public, media and other guests will be seated in the House gallery.
According to the announcement, air purification units have been installed on the House floor and sanitization stations will be available outside the doors of the House floor.
In just over a month the Texas Legislature will begin its next session, but what public testimony will look like during the pandemic is not certain.
Being heard by decision makers and lawmakers through public testimony can influence policy that affects the lives of so many others across the state.
Organizations are concerned about how testimony will be heard, how transparency will be maintained, all while keeping people safe during the pandemic.
While the rules for next session remain in limbo, last Friday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told members of the Texas Senate that those who wish to testify will need to sign up three days in advance, as opposed to the traditional day of sign up. Those testifying would need to clear a coronavirus test before the hearing.
According to the Texas Tribune, during the Senate Democrat Caucus conference call on Friday, Patrick said the National Guard would conduct the rapid testing and those cleared could enter the building.
This week the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met for the first time ahead of the legislative session and discussed Texas’ response to COVID-19, and all testimonies were heard via video-conferencing.
“There’s no doubt that the upcoming Texas Legislature’s 87th Session will operate differently than any session before,” said Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) in a statement about her concerns with advocacy this session being extremely challenging.
“It’s especially important to have mechanisms in place for the public to safely testify as public testimony is a cornerstone of the legislative process,” Howard said.
“The public’s input will be critical as we grapple with a tough state budget and recession, redistricting, public education, and a public health crisis,” she explained.
Howard says there are a number of innovative ways that we can use technology and public health strategies in order to safely hear from the people we serve. “Allowing live online and/or pre-recorded testimony is an obvious opportunity to improve that process during a pandemic,” she said.
“Nine months into this, we’re all well aware of the limitations of Zoom meetings. I’ve been advising advocates to be hyper-organized this session, and really work in advance to build coalitions. It’s very likely we’ll have limits on the number of Capitol visitors, including limitations on those important advocacy days we usually have. Finding ways to convey support for your issue without the ease of popping into an office for a few minutes will require finding new avenues for making sure your voice is heard,” Rep. Howard added.
Advocates seek answers
“Texans expect to be able to participate in and observe the actions taken by their elected representatives. It will be difficult, but special action will be needed to assure that the government operates openly, even in these extraordinary times“, said Luis Figueroa, legislative and policy director for Every Texan, in an email this week.
“Public and private entities throughout the state and the country have provided for remote stakeholder participation through written, video, and online testimony, in addition to limited in-person options if conducted safely. We are confident that the Texas Legislature, with its robust online government presence compared to other states, can and should do so as well,” Figueroa added.
Texans Care for Children, a non-partisan, multi-issue children’s policy organization, sent a letter along with 72 other Texas organizations regarding protocols for the legislative session urging “state legislative leaders to ensure that the upcoming legislative session operates under guidelines that prioritize safety, transparency, and meaningful opportunities for public input.”
The letter states, “as we move into a regular session when proceedings lead to policy decisions, full public participation is absolutely essential. For example, the ability to submit public written testimony is no substitute for members of the public having the opportunity to provide testimony, raise questions, and respond to committee members’ questions during live hearings.”
Stephanie Rubin, CEO, Texans Care for Children provided a statement to RA News on Thursday about concerns on what public testimony will look like:
“You have to keep in mind that there are a lot of serious issues that legislators need to tackle this session, like making sure Texans have health insurance during this health crisis, addressing the way the pandemic hit student mental health and learning, and strengthening our CPS system to keep kids safe, to name just a few.
“Legislators will need protocols that allow them to take on these and other pressing issues in a way that keeps people safe while also maintaining transparency and allowing Texans to participate in a meaningful way. Accomplishing that goal will be difficult for legislative leaders, but we’re hopeful that they can leverage technology and a little Texas ingenuity to get the job done.”
Access to the chamber
“It’s just pretty much up in the air right now what we’re gonna do,” said State Rep. Charlie Geren (R Fort-Worth), to the 2020 Virtual Annual Texas Taxpayers and Research Association (TTARA), this week referring to the safety protocol of the next session.
Geren said the decision on whether masks will be required is still being negotiated with the Texas Senate.
“The Senate and the House are pretty far apart on a lot of that right now. But it is being worked out,” Geren said.
“There’s nothing in concrete yet,” Geren told the Texas Tribune.