The 87th Legislative Session kicked off last week and after a flurry of activity Tuesday through Thursday, both houses adjourned until January 26, 2021. Here are the five key developments last week that will affect advocacy efforts this session.
1. Safety protocols: The State Preservation Board released the following adjustments to protocols for the 87th legislative session.
- The public will only be able to enter through the north door, and masks worn over the nose and mouth will be required at all times while inside. Guests will also be necessary to social distance and there will be capacity limits.
- There will be no public tours, groups, or sponsored event space available.
- COVID-19 testing will be accessible on the north plaza at no cost.
- The building will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and will be closed Saturday and Sunday for cleaning.
2. Money: On Monday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar unveiled the biennial revenue estimate, which revealed a better-than-expected outlook for budget writers this session. In short, there is a $946 million shortfall in the current budget. Budget writers will have $112.53 billion to appropriate for the 2022-2023 biennial budget – a 0.4% decrease from the last session. In hand, Texas has an additional $11.6 billion in the Economic Stabilization (or Rainy Day) fund and $13 billion in federal CARES Act Allocations that could replace General Revenue spending this biennium decrease shortfall. Despite continued uncertainty due to energy revenue, public health, and revenue through the end of this budget cycle, the estimate made clear that this legislation should have the tools necessary to maintain, if not strengthen, critical supports for children and families.
3. Leadership: On opening day, the House elected Rep. Dade Phelan, the Speaker of the House. Rep. Phelan is a Republican from Beaumont who has served in the House since 2015 and had bipartisan support in his election as Speaker. He rounds out the “Big Three” leaders in Texas, including the publicly-elected Governor and Lieutenant Governor who preside over the Senate.
4. Rules: Both houses, last week, adopted adjusted rules for the upcoming session, largely to address adaptations required by the public health considerations surrounding COVID-19 and their implications on the legislative process. The Senate took a much more aggressive approach to requirements for COVID-tests. Neither House adopted provisions to allow virtual testimony beyond what is currently allowed for invited witnesses.
- Masks must be worn on the Texas House floor, in the gallery, and during committee hearings. When members or witnesses are at the mic, masks may be removed.
- Members will be able to vote not only from the floor but also from the gallery and in rooms adjoining the chamber using secured laptops.
- For committee hearings, a quorum can constitute two members present on a dais while others listen remotely. Testimony will be taken in person unless it is invited testimony, then it can be done remotely. Committee chairs also have the option of using an online portal for the public to submit written testimony if they do not wish to travel.
- House members will determine protocols for access to their offices.
- Of concern, adopted rules make it optional for committees to make public the list of those who register in support or in opposition of bills without providing testimony.
- The Senate lowered the threshold of Senate votes required to bring legislation to the floor from 19 to 18 – aligning with the size of the GOP majority.
- A Senate member must have a negative COVID-19 test the day of any action in committee or on the Senate floor.
- All Senate staff must be tested prior to accessing the chamber or hearings
- Members of the Senate must wear masks on the floor except when alone at their desks.
- Public seating in the gallery will be limited and a wristband demonstrating a negative COVID-19 will be required to enter the gallery. A wristband indicating a negative test will be required for committee access as well.
- Proof of vaccination will be treated the same as a negative test.
- Senate members will determine protocols for access to their offices.
On Friday, the Senate posted their committees. Key committee leadership was maintained with Sen. Jane Nelson (Republican) chairing Finance and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (Republican) chairing Health and Human Services. The Speaker will be accepting preference cards from House members regarding committee assignments through January 22. We can expect House Committees to be announced in the weeks following.
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Let’s all be champions for children this session!