Around the Texas Capitol: Texas Legislature off to a COVID-slowed pace
By Lauren Fairbanks, Shayne Woodard and J Pete Laney
TAD Governmental Affairs
The coronavirus continues to dominate the atmosphere at the Texas Capitol, going into the second of only five months for the 87th Legislature to conduct the business of the state. Capitol access has been restricted to only one entrance and a COVID-19 testing tent has been placed near the entry, as some offices require them prior to a meeting. In addition, both chambers are gaveling out a week at a time; some committees are taking virtual testimony; and Gov. Greg Abbott opted for a televised event for the delivery of his State of the State address—an event that is usually held in a joint meeting of both the House and Senate. Many precautions are in place in an effort to slow transmission. With vaccine rollout slow, only time will tell if these precautions will be lifted later this session.
In the meantime, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has made committee appointments, Abbott has set forth his legislative priorities, and a Census Bureau official has all but confirmed what everyone has been anticipating…a special session this summer is already looming.
Read on for more recent highlights:
Proposed Senate and House budgets released
The Senate version of the Texas budget (SB 1) was filed by Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) on Jan. 21. SB 1 spends $119.7 billion in general revenue for the next two fiscal years. This is roughly $7 billion over the amount of general revenue Comptroller Glenn Hegar said lawmakers have to spend when he released his Biennial Revenue Estimate the prior week. The Texas House’s base budget was released shortly after the Senate’s, also spending $119.7 billion.
Redistricting special session
On Jan. 27, a Census Bureau official announced that the population numbers, which determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state, are not expected to be released until April 30. The timeline for the release of detailed census data that lawmakers need to redraw maps has not been finalized, but the data likely won’t be available until after July. Under the Census Bureau’s projected timeline, Abbott will have to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session in the summer.
Abbott’s State of the State & emergency items
In a statewide televised event, Abbott delivered his State of the State address on Feb. 1. He touted the beginning of the state’s economic recovery, citing eight months of job growth after more than 2 million Texans filed for unemployment in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Under state law, the governor can set priorities for the Legislature to consider within the first 60 days of a legislative session, known as “emergency items.” Abbott outlined five for the 87th Legislature:
- Expanding broadband internet access – Access to broadband has become even more important during the coronavirus pandemic as schools and businesses looked to remote learning and work-from-home options. Many lawmakers in September called on the governor to address this issue. More than 800,000 rural Texans currently do not have adequate broadband infrastructure.
- Punishing local governments that “defund the police” – Abbott continues push back against cities that cut police budgets, Austin in particular. Abbott would like to see legislators withhold tax revenue for those cities.
- Bail reform – An agenda item that failed to make it across the finish line last session, the Damon Allen Act is now an emergency item. The proposal is named after a slain state trooper.
- Election integrity – Abbott pinpointed the integrity of elections as essential to democracy and would like to ensure the trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections.
- Liability protection related to COVID 19 – Proposed legislation would extend broad protections from COVID liability lawsuits to health care providers, first responders, businesses, schools and houses of worship. Approximately a dozen lawsuits have been filed in Texas targeting doctors, hospitals and businesses struggling to comply with government guidelines while treating patients or trying to keep their doors open. At least 32 states so far have acted on similar legislation.
House committee appointments
Phelan announced House committee assignments for the 87th Legislature. Of the chairs, 21 are Republicans and 14 are Democrats; 12 are first-time chairs. Committee chairs were not placed on the House Calendars Committee. You can view the list of committee assignments here.
Most notably for the Texas Association of Dairymen, Rep. DeWayne Burns (R-Cleburne) was named chair of the House Agriculture & Livestock committee. Burns was elected to represent House District 58 in 2014. District 58 is made up of Bosque and Johnson counties. Burns has a long history in the farming and ranching community, growing up on his family farm near the Bosque County line. He went on to graduate from Tarleton State before holding several roles at the Texas Department of Agriculture. He will be a strong advocate for Texas agriculture and TAD looks forward to working with him in his new role.
Other committee chairs of note include:
Calendars – Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) – A very important procedural committee. Rural representative Burrows’ law firms primary focuses on representing agricultural producers.
Environmental Regulation – Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) – Landgraf also represents a very rural district and his family has been ranching in West Texas for five generations. This committee has jurisdiction over air, land and water pollution issues as well as environmental matters that are regulated by the Department of State Health Services or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Natural Resources – Tracy O. King (D-Batesville) – King is another familiar face in the agriculture community, also representing a very rural district. The committee has primary jurisdiction over water policy in the state.
Public Health – Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) – Klick, elected to the House in 2012, represents a portion of Tarrant County and has a nursing background. Historically, this committee has jurisdiction over any bills related to the regulation of unpasteurized (raw) milk.
House District 68 special election
A special election to fill the House District 68 seat was held on Jan. 23, and the five-candidate field was narrowed to two. Republicans David Spiller and Craig Carter are headed to a runoff on Feb. 23 to fill the seat of former state Rep. Drew Springer, who is now a member of the Texas Senate. Spiller, a Jacksboro attorney and school board trustee, finished with 44% of the vote, with Carter, a former state Senate candidate and owner of Old Boot Company in Nocona, taking 18%. The early voting period for the runoff election will begin Feb. 16.