AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In an abbreviated kick-off, Texas lawmakers are convening at the State Capitol on Tuesday for the 87th Legislative Session.
COVID-19 concerns stunted the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies, which involve swearing in members, speeches from state leaders, and celebrating with invited guests.
“We’re here to do the People’s business,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said.
Tuesday’s events were limited in size to comply with social distancing requirements, and limited in length to avoid keeping large groups of people in an enclosed space for an extended period of time.
This is the first time state lawmakers have met since the spring of 2019.
“We not only have the pandemic of the COVID, but we have the pandemic of all the racial tensions, and the pandemic of the riots in the Capitols, and so on, so we’re dealing with all that this session,” State Rep. Terry Meza, D- Irving, said.
Capitol guests were met with a heightened presence by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday. The agency confirmed additional personnel and resources were deployed to the Capitol. A KXAN photographer observed K-9s, a law enforcement helicopter, drone, officers on bicycles and fullt armored security.
“While we do not discuss operational specifics, DPS will continue to adjust our operations as needed to maintain public order and address potential threats,” a DPS spokesperson said in an email. Police dogs, helicopter and officers on bicycles were spotted on the Capitol grounds Tuesday morning.
At least 20 armed demonstrators were spotted on the south area of the grounds, but left after a few speeches. On the north side, about 10 people gathered to protest the COVID-19 vaccine.
Some members of the public were denied entry to the Capitol building after refusing to take free COVID-19 tests supplied by the state.
Some state lawmakers opted to skip the ceremony, calling it a “superspreader event.”
“The bigger picture is that we’re the height of a pandemic,” State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, explained, citing record COVID-19 hospitalization numbers.
As the session starts, the state faces a $1 billion deficit for fiscal year 2020-21, according to a revenue estimate by the Texas Comptroller. This represents an overall 0.4% decrease of available funds from the two previous years.
State Rep. Travis Clardy, R- Nacogdoches, said he was optimistic about the amount the economy has recovered since the pandemic began.
“We were looking at a very dire circumstance coming here,” Clardy said. “There’s been a very nice recovery, not completely, but we’re in a condition to deal with the supplemental appropriations for the last part of the 86th biennial budget.”
“We can deal with that, I think creatively, but also using some of the rainy day funds, which is what it’s there for, and going forward, though, we thought we might be short $10-$12 billion,” Clardy continued. “That’s been revised down significantly.”
“So there’s going to be a shortfall still,” he said. “But I think we’re going to be able to manage it.”
The House also elected Dade Phelan, R- Beaumont, as the new Speaker by a 143-2 vote. Four members did not vote.
“When the House last adjourned, we celebrated landmark property tax and school finance reform,” Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in his first speech as leader of the chamber. “But now, Texas children are at risk of falling behind because of disruptions caused by this to this state as a result of the pandemic. We cannot fail them when they need us the most.”
“To get Texas back to work, we must protect our citizens’ health and safety, we must revitalize our economy, we must reduce burdensome regulation that impedes our business climate,” Phelan continued. “We can do all this while balancing the budget without shifting the financial burden or of recovery to our hard working families.”