Texas Legislative News: Jan. 19, 2021

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On Tuesday, Jan. 12, state lawmakers convened for the 87th regular session of the Texas Legislature and will meet for 140 days to propose and debate legislation on a wide variety of policy issues. After completing their business last week, both the House and Senate indicated that they will next convene on Jan. 26.

Today is the eighth day of the 87th regular session. A total of 132 days remain until lawmakers adjourn sine die on May 31, 2021. To adjourn sine die means to close proceedings without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing.

On the first day of the session, state officials instituted a policy requiring visitors to take a COVID-19 test prior to entering the Capitol. The tests take about 15 minutes to yield a result, and upon confirmation of a negative test, an individual is provided with a wristband. Although testing positive for COVID-19 might not prevent an individual from entering the Capitol, those who test positive may be restricted from certain areas or activities within the building.

During the first week of the session, the House and Senate adopted rules on legislative procedure and public testimony. Lawmakers also received a new state revenue projection from the Texas Comptroller.

The House

State representatives were sworn into office, and their first major action was to elect a presiding officer of the body, the Speaker of the Texas House. They voted overwhelmingly in support of Rep. Dade Phelan, who has served Orange and Jefferson counties in the House since 2015. In his acceptance speech to the body, Phelan emphasized bipartisanship and effective governance.

“Let us unite in one common purpose to do what is right for the people of Texas,” he said.

Later in the week, House members approved the rules that they’ll operate under during the session. Capitol watchers were interested to see what new structure would be put into place regarding public testimony during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the new rules, the House can allow in-person testimony, and the public will also be able to submit written comments electronically using a process that has yet to be determined. The House will allow virtual testimony on an invite-only basis. Individual members will be responsible for setting any pandemic-related requirements for visitors to their offices.

The House will require lawmakers and members of the public to wear masks in committee hearings unless they are speaking at a microphone. The same conditions apply to lawmakers while on the House floor. The House also adjusted quorum requirements so testimony can be taken with a limited number of committee members attending in person while the remaining members can participate remotely. House members will not be required to take regular COVID-19 tests.

Additionally, House members rejected attempts to bar members of the minority party to serve as the chair of certain committees, a change which likely would have resulted in greater discord in the chamber.

The Senate

The Texas Senate also adopted its rules last week, and its provisions differ somewhat from those of the House. For instance, in order to enter a committee hearing or the Senate floor, a Senator must have received a negative COVID-19 test on that same day. Members of the public will not be allowed to attend a committee hearing or enter the Senate gallery without a wristband indicating either a negative COVID-19 test on that day or proof of vaccination, though individual senators will decide the wristband requirements for visitation to their offices.

The Senate will continue to require that all committee testimony is provided in-person, with the exception of the Redistricting Committee which will also allow some virtual testimony. However, the pandemic rules the Senate adopted are temporary, and senators will reconsider them about 60 days into session in case any changes need to be made.

Lastly, the Senate lowered the threshold of support required to consider legislation on the floor. The previous three-fifths requirement meant that 19 of the 31 senators would need to support bringing a measure up for debate. The approved change now makes that a five-ninths rule — shifting the necessary level of support to 18 of the 31 senators. Supporting lawmakers said the change was necessary to prevent the blockage of important measures, whereas critics argued that it will lead to less compromise and more rancor among the body.

State Revenue Projection

Some of the biggest news of the week came before the Legislature convened. On Jan. 11, the Texas Comptroller released the Biennial Revenue Estimate (BRE) which provides lawmakers with an idea of what they’ll have available to spend when crafting the state’s two-year budget. The BRE also informs them of the accuracy of estimates from the last session, and whether there is a revenue shortfall in the current biennium.

Prior to the Comptroller’s announcement, expectations of the revenue projection were dire, with some people anticipating the Legislature having up to $20 billion less to work with during this session than during the last. Such a gap could lead to dramatic cuts in necessary services, and many disability advocates have feared such a scenario.

Thankfully, the picture is not as bad as was suspected. The Comptroller estimated that lawmakers will have $112.5 billion to spend in the next budget, down just a bit from the $112.96 billion allocated in the current budget. The BRE also indicated a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the current budget, which lawmakers will need to close in a supplemental appropriations bill this session.

Keep in mind that this is an estimate, and the situation may change for better or worse in the future. But it will be difficult to maintain the current level of some state services with any gap in revenue along with caseload growth and inflation. Lawmakers will be looking for areas to cut spending, and it will be incumbent on the disability community to communicate with their elected officials this session and help stave off reductions to programs that are already underfunded.

Stay Informed

To stay up to date regarding how disability-related issues are being addressed by the Legislature, subscribe to TCDD eNews. On our website, you can find legislative resources and video updates from TCDD Policy Director Scott Daigle on what’s happening at the Capitol. To receive additional notifications, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

During the 87th Texas Legislature, the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) provides regular updates on disability-related issues that are being considered at the Capitol. We’ll also share overviews of how business is conducted by lawmakers and details on upcoming TCDD events.