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Lege Week 1 Wrap-up: COVID restrictions mean doing things differently
Posted on January 16, 2021 at 9:47 am

The 87th Texas Legislative Session, which officially began last Tuesday, will be a unique experience. As with everything during the global pandemic, our legislative strategy will have to consider all necessary COVID-19 precautions to ensure we are not putting our community at risk.

The Texas Legislature is also doing things a little differently under the pandemic, and this week both the House and the Senate voted on pandemic-specific rules. Below are the biggest takeaways.

  • All Texans will be allowed to provide testimony in-person. The Senate will require a negative COVID-19 test to enter committee hearings, the House will not. Both Chambers will require the public to wear masks.
  • Virtual testimony in the House will be by invitation only, meaning that the only way to guarantee you can speak on a bill in committee will be to go in person, submit written testimony, or be invited by a Committee Chair.
  • Each member of the legislature will have control over COVID-19 procedures for their own offices. That means each of the 181 members of the House and Senate may have different requirements as to testing, requesting meetings, and more.
  • The Capitol building itself is run by the Capitol Preservation Board, which has its own rules for COVID-19, including closing event spaces, mask requirements, capacity limits and more.

With these new rules in place, it will be more difficult to participate in the legislative process. Members of the public will have to weigh their own COVID-19 risk with the precautions each legislator is enacting and take into account limited access to the Capitol building itself. Without easily accessible virtual testimony, those who are part of high-risk communities (older adults, people living with severe underlying medical conditions, immune compromised people) may find providing their input to be difficult and for some impossible.

Make no mistake, this legislative session will be like no other. Equality Texas and our movement partners are already brainstorming ways to ensure that your voice will be heard.

Interested in participating in lege? Click here to sign up.

Other important updates from this week in the legislature:

  • Dade Phelan was sworn in as the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
  • The Texas Senate voted 18-13, to change the threshold of support legislation needs to make it to a floor for a hearing. This change to 18 legislators allows Republicans to decide which bills can be heard without the Democratic party’s input.
  • We have already seen an attempt to attack the LGBTQ+ Community. Freshman tea party Representative Bryan Slaton prepared an anti-trans amendment to the House rules, but it did not make it to the floor.

We’ll need all hands on deck for this unprecedented legislative session. Join us today to stay on top of legislative updates and calls to action.


For those who are interested in the weeds of the legislature, read below for more detail on the rules and happenings of the first week: 

CONSTITUENT PARTICIPATION

House Rules

  • In-person testimony is allowed, and unlimited (up to building capacity restrictions) 
  •  You can still “drop a card” – meaning you can show up in person and register for or against a bill without testifying
  • You can still register from your laptop or phone if you are connected to the Public-Capitol WIFI network
  • Virtual testimony will be allowed but, will be very limited by invite only by the Chair of the Committee
  • Written testimony is allowed if a sworn statement is submitted, the witness is responsible to file a copy of the statement beforehand
  • Lawmakers will make their own rules about visitation/meetings to their specific offices
  • Representatives may take off their masks to talk at the front and back microphone podiums, otherwise all Texas House Members are required to wear their masks

Senate Rules

  • Anyone who enters the chamber, or a committee room must have tested negative for COVID-19 that day or show proof of vaccination.
  • Public seating in the Senate gallery will be limited to ensure social distancing. Members can decide whether to require a coronavirus test before someone enters their office.
  • Lawmakers will make their own rules about visitation/meetings to their specific offices.
  • Senators must wear face masks on the floor, except when they are alone at their desks. With fewer members, senators have more space in between desks than their counterparts in the House.

Texas Capitol Building Rules

  •  Although routine rapid COVID-19 testing took place on Tuesday upon entering the Capitol, it is still unclear that testing will continue or be required before entering the building. As of now, it is available on the north plaza at no expense
  • The Capitol will be closed every Saturday and Sunday for building cleaning
  • Only one entrance (North) will be open to the public
  • There will be public visitor capacity limits (unspecified as of now) and social distancing and masks will be required in all public areas in the Capitol
  • There will be no public tours or sponsored event space 

ITEMS OF NOTE

  • During the Rules Debate in the House Rep. Bryan Slayton, R-Royse City, pushed an amendment to prioritize voting on bills that would outlaw abortion. He prefiled an amendment outlawing best practice trans medical care for youth, which never made it on the floor. 
  • Rep. Joe Deshotel is the first state lawmaker to announce that they’ve contracted COVID-19 since the start of the legislative session this week. He did not take the required test before the session and was on the floor for three days before he tested positive. Rep. Michelle Beckley sits near him on the house floor and is in self-quarantine for the next 10 days.  
  • Rep. Drew Darby also tested positive, but did not come to the Texas Capitol for swearing in.
  • Senate Committees have been announced.  Most of our legislation goes through Senate State Affairs which will be Chaired by Senator Bryan Hughes and Vice Chaired by Senator Brian Birdwell.