Around the Texas Capitol: 87th Texas Legislature opens very different 140-day session
By Lauren Fairbanks, Shayne Woodard and J Pete Laney
TAD Governmental Affairs
Jan.12 marked the first day of the 87th Texas Legislature. As expected, it looks very different compared to previous sessions. Both chambers had a significantly shorter opening day ceremony and the size of the crowd at the Capitol was drastically reduced. All attendees were also required to take a COVID-19 test prior to entering the Capitol. Three clear priorities have emerged for this session’s agenda: the budget, redistricting and the pandemic.
Redistricting will be an especially important issue for rural Texas. As people continue to move to large metropolitan areas around the state, rural districts will have to reach further toward those population centers to meet representation requirements. Using census data, legislators draw equally populated districts to reflect population growth and to guarantee equal voter representation. This priority will ensure long nights of debate and could possibly cause several special sessions if consensus cannot be met. Only time will tell.
More highlights from the first week of session and what you can expect in the coming months are included below.
Biennial Revenue Estimate
Comptroller Glenn Hegar released his biennial revenue estimate on Monday, Jan. 11 – the day before the Legislature convened. Strong consumer spending has helped lessen the state’s projected deficit to just under $1 billion, with available general revenue calculated at $112.5 billion for the 2022-23 biennium.
That number is down only slightly from the current budget and is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer at the start of the coronavirus. Hegar had projected a potential $4.6 billion shortfall this summer when the pandemic first wreaked havoc on the economy. The state also enters the budget cycle with a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.6 billion. More details on the BRE can be found here.
Rulemaking, Senate committees & a new Texas House Speaker
The Texas Senate approved a fundamental change to its rules on Jan. 13, lowering the threshold for consideration of a bill to 18 votes. Rulemaking, a process that is historically considered a housekeeping item, garnered significant media attention in the days leading up the legislative session when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced he would seek to alter the three-fifths rule. Previously known as the two-thirds rule, this relates to the number of votes required to bring a bill to the floor for consideration. In 2015, the Senate changed the rule from two-thirds to three-fifths to accommodate a 19-31 Republican majority. The Republican majority now stands at 18. This change in rule allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without Democratic input. The measure was approved on a party line vote.
The Senate also included a number of COVID-19-related protocols in their rulemaking. Those include:
- Each senator is allowed one staffer on the floor while the Senate is in session.
- A member must have a negative COVID-19 test that day to attend a committee hearing or be present on the Senate floor.
- All Senate staff must be tested before accessing the chamber or committee hearings.
- While on the floor, members of the Senate must wear masks except when at their desks.
On Jan. 15, Patrick announced Senate committee appointments. Senate committees now have the ability to meet immediately. Click here for the lieutenant governor’s announcement. The full list of committee appointments can be viewed here.
A few changes were made to the Senate’s committee structure for this session. Most notably, the Senate Committee on Agriculture was eliminated and rolled into another committee. The newly named Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs will handle agriculture-related policy measures. Formerly the Senate Committee on Water and Rural Affairs, it will still be chaired by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) with newly elected Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) serving as vice chair. Both come from largely rural districts and have significant background in agriculture policy. Springer most recently served as chair of the House Agriculture & Livestock committee when he was still a state representative. Other members of the committee include Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin), Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), Lois W. Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) and Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood).
Another committee relevant to the Texas Association of Dairymen is the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services. Historically, this committee should oversee any legislation related to the sale of unpasteurized (raw) milk. Sen. Lois W. Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) will remain chair with Perry serving as vice chair, Other members include César Blanco (D-El Paso), Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Borris Miles (D-Houston), Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) and Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).
Across the rotunda in the House, the election of Dade Phelan as Speaker of the Texas House was one of the House’s first order of business on Jan. 12. Phelan was voted in by a 142-2 margin.
The House debated their rules on Jan. 14. HR 4, the rules resolution, was adopted 141-0. The rules provide an additional section addressing special measures for the COVID-19 pandemic, parts of which may be “deactivated” if the pandemic eases. Those measures include:
- Masks must be worn on the House floor and in the gallery. When speaking on the House microphones, the speaker can remove his or her mask.
- Members will be able to vote from the gallery and in rooms that immediately adjoin the chamber on secured laptops.
- In committees, 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 to use an online portal for the public to submit written testimony online if the public does not wish to travel.
- Public access to committee meetings may be satisfied by video broadcasting the meeting in real time on the internet.
- Media access was moved from the House floor to a designated area in the House gallery.
A number of other amendments were overwhelmingly defeated, including one measure that would have required the speaker to only appoint majority party members as committee chairs. Amendments offered by Democrats to make changes to the redistricting process also were voted down.
Texas House District 68 special election
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Saturday, Jan. 23, as the special election date to fill the Texas House of Representatives District 68 seat vacated by now-Sen. Drew Springer. Springer now sits in the upper chamber after winning the Dec. 19 special election runoff to replace Sen. Pat Fallon, who is now a member of Congress.
Four Republicans and one Democrat have filed for the seat. Candidates include:
- John Berry (R), a Jacksboro financial planner
- Jason Brinkley (R), attorney and Cooke County judge who resigned to run
- Craig Carter (R), a businessman from Nocona; previously ran for Senate District 30
- David Spiller (R), a Jacksboro attorney and school board trustee
- Charles D. Gregory (D), a retired postal worker from Childress
House District 68 includes the counties of Childress, Collingsworth, Cooke, Cottle, Crosby, Dickens, Fisher, Floyd, Garza, Hall, Hardeman, Haskell, Jack, Kent, King, Montague, Motley, Stonewall, Throckmorton, Wheeler, Wilbarger and Young.