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Texas Capitol Access During Session in Question

- Pandemic Complicates Journalists’ Work

State leaders shut down the Texas Capitol when the pandemic hit in March and further battened down the hatches during racial justice protests over the summer, locking out everyone but lawmakers and a bare-bones crew of staff. Just when and to what degree the Capitol will re-open for the legislative session set to convene Jan. 12 remains uncertain.

That uncertainty is prompting concerns among journalists for whom access to lawmakers and staff during deliberations is paramount for public accountability, but legislative leaders appear to be taking seriously the importance of making accommodations for reporters in whatever approach they take.

In response to inquiries from TAB, key staffers and lawmakers indicate the question is one being asked at all planning discussions and acknowledge their constitutional obligation to function openly, but the inability to predict what kind of safety protocols will be needed months from now is hampering any firm decision-making.

The potential confluence of a bad flu season and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a statistically vulnerable population of lawmakers, is one source of ambiguity, while the absence of a returning Speaker of the House is another as the chamber’s operating rules depend on that seat and attendant staffing infrastructure being filled.

Assuming the Capitol is open in a limited fashion, journalists can expect to be required to wear face masks and possibly take temperature checks upon entering the building. Social distancing will likely be enforced, so impromptu interviews or scrums may be few and far between.

But even if the building itself is open, that doesn’t mean lawmakers’ offices will be open without advance appointments. Each office is allowed to set its own rules and they will likely vary as much as the members themselves do.

While some capitol observers are certain the legislature will require more than the 140 days allotted by the state’s constitution for deliberations in the regular session, it remains to be seen.

With legislative redistricting on tap, a special session was already anticipated, but the only job the constitution assigns lawmakers is the adoption of a two-year state budget.

If lawmakers get that done on schedule, then Governor Abbott – the only person who can call a special session and control its agenda, and already the target of heavy criticism many fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats – may prefer to avoid potentially messy legislative assaults ahead of his anticipated 2022 re-election race.

But with the state’s budget picture billions in the red, that mess may not be avoidable.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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