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A Texas Legislative Session Like No Other

When Texas lawmakers return to the Capitol in January, they will begin the 87th Texas Legislature under extraordinary circumstances. COVID-19 related restrictions will make it difficult for legislative operations, tough for the public and issue advocates to participate, and onerous for broadcasters and other members of the media covering the session.

Working groups in the Texas House and Senate have been busy over many months developing plans on who will be let into the building as well as how both chambers will function, but broadcasters should understand that these plans remain fluid.

What is known as of this week could easily change when January comes, and further shift during the session. One lawmaker told Austin’s Quorum Report that it is possible that restrictions might be eased or made more stringent, 60-days into the session depending on conditions at that time.

During the early part of the session, both the Texas House and Senate will pass their own versions of their respective chamber’s rules of operation and only then will operational plans be firm.

The House
Last week, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Committee on Administration, outlined some of the House’s tentative plans for operations to an online gathering of legislative policy advocates which included TAB staff.

Geren noted the difficulty of balancing the need to keep lawmakers and public safe, while they participate in a constitutionally mandated process in a closed space.

Some of the House’s plans are already in place such as plexiglass shields installed in all House committee rooms to protect lawmakers and staff on the dais, special filtration in the House’s air conditioning system, and the recent purchase of UV sanitization robots to patrol public spaces.

Other House proposals include:

  • Allowing only legislators and limited legislative staff on the House floor during floor sessions.
  • No media would be allowed in the back hall of the House chamber, but consideration is being given to two pool media cameras on the House floor, print and video.
  • Media would have a limited, reserved section in the 3rd floor gallery of the House chamber
  • Additional sections of the House gallery would be reserved for legislative staff and members of the public

The media-related restrictions above would mean limited in-person media access to House daily sessions and reliance on House Internet broadcasts for at least some video.

Geren said the House is exploring alternative ways of voting so members can vote from somewhere in the Capitol other than the floor using geo-fenced software.

Additional House proposals under consideration include:

  • Admission to the Capitol contingent on a negative, on-site COVID test result
  • Limits placed on the number of people in the Capitol
  • Standard COVID prevention restrictions in place such as facemasks and social distancing in public areas
  • Each member’s office would have its own behavioral restrictions

In the event of a COVID outbreak within the Capitol, planning is underway to adjust operations and access, but there are not firm proposals yet.

The Senate
The Senate has not provided public comment on its operations, but there has been some off the record reporting online by Quorum Report and the Texas Tribune.

Speaking to KFYO’s Chad Hasty during a Monday broadcast, QR’s Scott Braddock discussed the difficulty in finding out information about the Senate’s proposed operations.

Braddock noted that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wanted to see admission to the Capitol only with a negative COVID test result no older than 24 hours, or a test administered onsite at the Capitol. 

A senior adviser to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, told the Texas Tribune this past weekend that Patrick and presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, hope to be able to make a definitive statement on testing and access to the building soon.

Senate committee witnesses would have to register at least three days in advance of that committee’s hearing. 

The Senate might echo, for the most part, what the House is considering doing along the lines of members’ voting capabilities and media access to floor sessions.

Braddock noted that legislative staff testing for COVID-19 could occur at least twice a week during the session.

Preparing your Station for Legislative Coverage
Join TAB President Oscar Rodriguez, and Michael Schneider, VP, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, next week as they outline for journalists the major policy concerns in play in the upcoming session as well as the operational dynamics at the Capitol.

TAB will also have the latest, and very fluid word, on covering the session from those in the know at the Capitol.

This hour-long session, Covering the 87th Texas Legislature, takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 11 AM CT.

Register here to find out how a new House Speaker, an ongoing pandemic, and ensuing health, economic and budgetary crises will impact the 87th Texas Legislature.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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