Uncertainty Over Pandemic Protocols, Redistricting Await Texas’ Next Legislative Session

The Texas Capitol building in Austin. (Photo via Kim Broomhall/Pixabay)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — When the Texas Legislature gavels into session next month for its biennial five-month stretch, operations at the state Capitol will look vastly different thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the politics in a state dominated by Republicans will remain the same.

With just a month to go until the 87th regular session begins, lawmakers are still juggling how to safely legislate in the era of Covid-19, while preparing to tackle a billion-dollar state budget shortfall, education issues exacerbated by the pandemic and the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.

“The reality is this, we don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold, the way the House is going to function until the rules are passed,” said state Representative Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg. “But I think common sense should be our guidance.”

Canales said at a virtual event this week that masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing will all be implemented in his Capitol office but acknowledged that a common area in the fourth-floor office suite that he shares with two other members and their staffs “is kind of a challenge.”

While the Texas Senate and House of Representatives have set up working groups to develop suggestions and guidelines for how the session will operate, among the biggest concerns still looming is how much access the public and media will have to the process with new cases of the virus and fatalities continuing to rise.

In a typical session, the state Capitol building in Austin is a hotbed of activity, with state legislators, staff members, lobbyists and community members jamming hallways, office spaces and the House and Senate chambers. But the building has been closed to the public for months and Republican leaders have only hinted at what may be in store come opening day.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, suggested during a conference call with state senators last week that anybody providing public testimony in-person may need to register three days prior and test negative for coronavirus 24 hours before being allowed into the Capitol, the Texas Tribune reported. 

Patrick, who oversees the Senate, and presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican state representative, said they would be releasing more details about session protocols in the coming weeks.

Plexiglass shields on desks, frequent testing of legislators and staff members and more virtual hearings are all measures being considered to keep the Legislature running in what is being described as one of the toughest upcoming sessions in years.

But while the environment at the Capitol is expected to be much different from previous sessions, the Republicans’ continued dominance of state government means it will almost certainly be politics as usual.

And that could spell a messy redistricting battle for members of both parties.

Texas Democrats had hoped to wield some power in the process of redrawing the state’s political lines, a fractious and sometimes passionate undertaking that shapes the State Board of Education seats, state House and Senate districts and congressional lines for the next 10 years.

But those hopes vanished after the November elections when Democrats failed to make any real gains in their efforts to reclaim control of the state House for the first time in 20 years.

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, said a partisan and polarizing redistricting process could make it more difficult for the Legislature to carry out all the other business it has to conduct during the session.

But Jones said a lot will depend on when the state receives data from the U.S. Census Bureau, delayed after the agency suspended field operations because of the pandemic.

“We still don’t know for sure when the state will receive the data from the U.S. Census Bureau needed to draft the new U.S. House, Texas House, Texas Senate and State Board of Education districts,” he said. “There may be a preference as long as it arrives a little late in not trying to rush it through the regular session but rather call a special session in June devoted exclusively to redistricting so as not to poison the well in the regular session.”

Legislators have also suggested that a special session on redistricting would be inevitable if Census data is not received by mid-April.

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 further the state’s medical marijuana program and a bill introduced as the George Floyd Act that addresses racial inequities in law enforcement and criminal justice reforms.

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