Lawmakers are expected to focus on Covid-19 challenges, health care and the state budget deficit during the five-month session.
(CN) — A heavily fortified Texas Capitol, a small presence of protesters and tents where required Covid-19 tests were being administered greeted lawmakers and a limited number of visitors on the opening day of the 87th legislative session, scaled down by the pandemic and threats of violence following last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Over 100 state troopers stood guard outside the state Capitol building Tuesday morning as part of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s deployment of additional personnel and resources after the FBI warned of plans for armed protests at statehouses across the country.
But the mostly ceremonial kick-off to Texas’ biennial legislative session, limited in size and duration to comply with pandemic-era protocols, brought few demonstrators aside from some protesting Covid-19 vaccinations.
“Everyone has been tested that’s on the floor today, in the gallery, ourselves up front, the governor, we’ve all been tested today,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said just after calling the Senate to order. “We want our Capitol open this session unlike many states.”
Lawmakers had struggle for months to develop a plan to safely operate while in session and learned less than 24 hours before opening day ceremonies that DPS had instructed the State Preservation Board to require Covid-19 testing for all entering the building.
At least two state representatives opted to skip Tuesday’s usually festive ceremonies over fears that it “may become a Covid-19 superspreader event.” State Representatives Michelle Beckley and Ana-Maria Ramos swore each other into office at an alternative location, the two Democrats said in a news release.
Inside the House chambers, dominated by Republicans for two decades now, State Representative Dade Phelan’s election as House Speaker represented the only real action taken up by its 150 members, most wearing masks. The House is scheduled to reconvene over the next two days to consider rules before adjourning until Jan. 26.
In his first remarks as House speaker, Phelan, a four-term, 45-year-old lawmaker from Beaumont, called on House members to “lead by example,” and encouraged them “to get to know one another and share your insights, seek one another’s points of view when you disagree and work together for the betterment of Texas.”
“We endured one of the most bitter elections in recent memory, as both sides challenged the motives and tactics of the other and many of our citizens questioned the electoral process itself,” Phelan said. “This past summer and as recently as last week, we witnessed the dark side of political and social division as senseless, unacceptable violence swept through our streets and even through our nation’s capital.”
The new House speaker said the “difficult recovery” for the state would now begin and promised to make education a top priority for the 2021 session.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott echoed Phelan’s call for unity, asking lawmakers in both chambers to work together over the next five months to tackle legislative issues including Covid-19 challenges, better access to health care for all Texans and support for law enforcement officers.
“Over the past year, Texans have been challenged like never before, but Texans are resilient, and our state will emerge from this episode stronger than ever before and in our typical superior fashion,” Abbott said.
Along with education issues exacerbated by the pandemic, legislators will also work on tackling the state’s nearly $1 billion budget deficit and the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.
Among the bills already filed are a Republican effort to ban abortions at or after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Currently, state law prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions, including if the mother is facing a life-threatening medical condition.
Other notable bills filed by lawmakers include a Medicaid expansion bill, a push to legalize marijuana statewide and a bill calling for civil liability for discriminatory false reports to police.