Texas House requires masks for 2021 legislative session, declines to expand virtual testimony

Texas House requires masks for 2021 legislative session, declines to expand virtual testimony

Legislators greet each other on the floor of the House prior to the opening of the 2021 legislative session.

Legislators greet one another on the floor of the House before the opening of the 2021 legislative session.

Credit: Bob Daemmrich/CapitolPressPhoto/Pool

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

After Hunter stripped a provision aimed at expanding access to virtual testimony in committee hearings, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, called it “a loss,” saying lawmakers “need to hear from our communities who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 this session.” People with disabilities have said they did not plan to testify in-person at the Capitol this year because of fears of exposure to the virus.

“I’m sorry we don’t have stronger access,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s 2021, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Freshman state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, authored the proposals that aimed to limit the role for House Democrats as committee chairs. Slaton, one of two members to vote against new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, for the post earlier this week, said Thursday he was proposing the amendments to carry out the will of Texas voters who kept House Republicans in the majority after the November election.

Both of Slaton’s proposals drew mockery from the rest of the chamber, which voted overwhelmingly against them. Members defended the tradition of committee chairs from both parties, saying it helped them avoid the partisan gridlock of the U.S. House.

At one point, state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, addressed Slaton from the chamber’s back microphone as former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who while in office oftentimes drew criticism over his hardline proposals and persistent questioning of other members.

“Would Rep. Stickland — I mean Rep. Slaton — yield to a question?” Leach asked. “Do you really want Austin to be more like Washington?”

“That was cute,” Slaton responded before the amendment at issue failed 135-5.

In a statement later Thursday, Phelan said the rules “balance transparency and accessibility with the necessary public health safeguards to better protect our chamber” and applauded the lower chamber on “the respectful manner in which” it debated the various proposals.

Coronavirus testing was a particularly notable difference in the rules passed by each chamber — and their leaders made it known. After the Senate approved its rules Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised senators for unanimously agreeing to mandatory testing, calling it a “courageous vote” and saying he hoped the House “will look at your actions and consider it.”

“I believe that we should test for the entire Capitol, for anyone to come in,” Patrick said.

Patrick drew fire early in the pandemic for suggesting he and other grandparents would be willing to risk their lives if it meant saving the economy. However, he has struck a more concerned tone about the virus in the lead-up to the session, particularly when it comes to testing.

“I don’t understand, quite frankly, any legislator who says, ‘I don’t wanna test,’ I just don’t understand,” Patrick told a Houston TV station earlier this week. “And there’s 150 over there [in House], so you have more of a sense, quite frankly, you could have a spread.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Source: Texas Tribune

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