Access to the Capitol will be quite limited for the general public this upcoming legislative session. If it’s true that democracy dies in the dark it’s especially at risk in a redistricting year when crowds of concerned citizens are not allowed to gather, while their representatives pick and choose who can vote for them. In-person participation will be difficult but fortunately there are potential technological changes being considered in response to COVID-19 which will present legislators with a historic opportunity to shed more light on the process, which too often is inaccessible for most everyday Texans.
The Capitol grounds reopened January 4th with the State Preservation Board releasing a base set of rules for visitors. It includes shortened hours, weekend closure for cleaning, no visitor tours, mask requirements while in the building, and occupancy limits. In addition, visitors will only be allowed through the North entrance and COVID-19 tests will be administered at no cost in the North Plaza. These restrictions put logistical constraints on advocates and concerned citizens, as well as the hearing rooms where public testimony takes place. This is precisely why legislators should allow the public to register support or opposition remotely, for the first time. Normally, if you want to have your opinion counted on a piece of legislation being considered in committee one must appear in person and log on to the Capitol wifi to do so electronically. While that doesn’t sound especially ludicrous on its face, this in-person requirement has long been the gate-keeper to engagement in the legislative process, and drawn the ire of private citizens and advocates alike. It’s a lot to ask of folks to get to Austin, wait at the mercy of committee chair’s for your opportunity to give oral testimony, and potentially secure overnight accommodations to ensure your voice is heard and your elected representatives are held to account.
The new protocols each chamber will follow during the course of legislating will be decided on the opening day of the legislative session, January 12th. The House’s Administration Committee, charged with issuing the chamber’s rules, released a memo on December 14th outlining opening day operations and public health-related facility upgrades like plastic shielding and a new air filtration system. All members-elect, guests and media will be tested for COVID-19 and masks will be required to wear masks on the floor and the gallery seating above. One of the proposed rule changes would allow legislators to vote remotely as opposed to exclusively on the chamber floor, at their desks. Moving to remote voting would mirror how many city council’s, and other governing bodies, have been conduct voting in light of COVID-19 across the state.
The x-factor here is that each member will retain the ability to dictate what protocols are followed within the confines of their own offices in the Capitol building. Right wing Republican members such as Briscoe Cain of Deer Park have already declared they will not require masks or social distancing in their offices as suggested by the Texas Department of State Health Services. This is why, considering the 181 member legislative body between the House and Senate, it’s reasonably fair to expect there will be some sort of COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released similar new protocols for the Senate where he acts as President. There were no mentions of masks in his memo but it stated that members and their guests would be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed on the Senate floor. Patrick previously stated in December that he also wanted members of the public wishing to testify in committees o register their support or opposition on bills multiple days in advance and be tested for COVID-19 ahead of entering the Capitol.Sounds logical enough, but, the problem is that as session heats up and committees start hearing more bills, it’s often rare to know which bills are scheduled to be heard more than a day or two in advance. Right now, committees are required to post online what bills they intend to hear within 24 hours of the committee’s scheduled meeting time. So unless he extends this 24-hour posting requirement, it’s just not feasible that someone wishing to testify would be able to secure a negative test result between when the hearing notice is posted and the committee’s meeting time. Whatsmore, particularly controversial bills can draw thousands of people to the Capitol, and the bare-minimum posting requirement is usually the maximum advance notice folks can expect to receive. This session is already shaping to be no different given the pre-filed legislation covering topics from the banning of abortion to state control of local police departments.
Patrick also advised that many Senate offices would be open by appointment only and that media access to Senators would be limited. This is the same man who told Fox News that the elderly should be willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve our way of life so we should be cautious at his convenient embrace of COVID-19 restrictions. Texans and the Democratic minority must do everything we can now to ensure that those in charge do not capitalize off of the pandemic in order to suppress public engagement.
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call