The 87th Texas legislative session begins next week on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. This session is setting up to be like no other. In this blog post, the ATPE Governmental Relations team shares what we know so far about public access to the Capitol, what will happen on opening day, how rules will be set, and what safety measures are being considered.
The State Preservation Board (SPB) is the agency responsible for preserving and maintaining the Texas State Capitol and many other important Texas buildings and grounds. The board reopened the Capitol to the public on January 4 and announced the following rules for public access to the Texas Capitol:
- The Texas Capitol will be open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
- Visitors must enter the building through the north entrance.
- Masks are required inside the building.
- Capacity limits will be observed and social distancing required in public areas.
- No public tours, groups, or sponsored events will be permitted.
Questions remain on how the public access hours of the Capitol will impact the timing of committee meetings and floor proceedings, which in the past have occurred outside of these times.
Opening day of the legislative session is typically full of excitement and hustle-bustle. Normally, legislators enjoy having their family members and loved ones by their side as they take their oath of office and hear their committee assignments. This session, each chamber has released protocols for an altered opening day ceremony experience aimed at lessening the chances of COVID-19 spread.
As reported by the Texas Tribune, State Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Chairman of the House Administration committee, released opening day guidelines to legislators in December. Lawmakers and their invited guests attending opening day festivities will be required to wear masks and take coronavirus tests ahead of time. The House floor will be restricted to legislators, approved guests, and other essential staff. Media, the public, and other guests will sit in the House gallery in a social distanced manner.
On January 4, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced opening day protocols for the Senate, which is a much smaller chamber than its counterpart. While Geren is allowing each state representative two guests either on the House floor or in the gallery, Patrick will allow only one guest per senator on the floor and up to three in the gallery. Senators, their guests and staff, and the media will be tested for COVID-19. As in the House, the Senate’s opening day ceremony will be much shorter. Unlike the House, only four members of the media will be allowed in the gallery on opening day, and a rotation of four media members at a time will be allowed in the gallery during session. Senate offices will be open for appointment only.
The first order of business in the House on opening day will be the election of the speaker. Representative Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) is the presumptive speaker, having garnered enough support from a bipartisan group of current House legislators to clinch the election. Phelan, who most recently chaired the House State Affairs committee, will face a session dominated by COVID-19 and redistricting.
Another important aspect of opening day is the adoption of rules in each chamber. Lawmakers vote on rules in their chamber that are largely procedural, such as the votes required to adopt a motion or the rules of speaking and debates. Lawmakers may even vote on the name of a committee! Geren also told lawmakers in December that rules for office spaces will be adopted on opening day. For now, only health and safety recommendations have been released to members that include conducting guest temperature checks, limiting groups, holding meetings outside, and wearing face coverings. Patrick has said that Senate rules will be adopted within the first week of the session, but it is unclear if that means senators are expected vote on those rules on opening day as is likely to happen in the House.
Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more updates as this unusual session gets underway next week.
This article originally appeared in ATPE’s advocacy blog, TeachtheVote.org, at https://teachthevote.atpe.org/Our-Blog/Latest-Posts/Texas-legislative-session-begins-in-one-week