AUSTIN, Texas - A year ago, when Austin and the rest of Texas were in lockdown, most state lawmakers were also locked out. That left Governor Greg Abbott to contain the outbreak by issuing executive orders and declarations.
Now with the lockdown lifted, lawmakers are addressing accusations that Abbott did too much.
"And there should never again should one man that has the power to impose such life-altering suspension of laws and our rights ever again," said Civil Liberty activist Terri Hall.
Members of the Senate State Affairs committee Wednesday took up legislation to limit what a governor can do during a crisis. But state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) made it clear, what’s drafted is not a personal critique.
"This legislation is a response in the shortcomings of laws this legislature passed and adopted as written and amended since 1975 and is not related to Gov. Abbott's handling of the current pandemic," he said.
SJR 45 and its companion bill SB 1025 would require a public vote to amend the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.
The legislation would require the governor to call a Special Session if a declaration goes past 30 days under the following conditions:
- The declaration affects half of the state's population;
- Two-fifths (102 or more) counties; or
- Two-thirds of the counties in three (3) or more trauma service regions.
The time limit is extended to 90 days during an event involving radiation. The legislation reigns in actions like mask mandates, closing businesses, and setting occupancy rates. It would also redefine a crisis.
"Under this measure, disasters would be limited to Acts of God, or man-made catastrophe, be they malice or negligent, unassociated with Acts of Violence or Force. On the other hand, it designates emergency powers as the appropriate response to when citizen conduct has deteriorated, meaning protests, unrest, riot or revolt," said Birdwell.
In a controversial move, protection for houses of worship was removed. Birdwell said that was done because other bills will address the issue. The move prompted an exchange between Birdwell and committee member state Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood).
"I agree completely we need to have businesses protected, but I put right above businesses as number one the protection of our religious rights, protection of our churches," said Hall.
Birdwell used a Christmas Tree analogy, indicating he was worried the bill could be overloaded with too many ornaments. "I could not turn this vehicle into every element and thus over-complicate the bill potentially leading to its defeat," said Birdwell.
Hall stated he is worried that there is no guarantee the other bills that are drafted to protect churches will get to the Governor’s desk. "What upset people the most, out of all that was shut down, was when they shut our churches down and said we couldn't go to Church," said Hall.
The committee moved the legislation to the full Senate for consideration.
The Senate Health & Human Services Committee also held hearings on pandemic-related Bills:
- SB 968 Kolkhorst: Relating to public health disaster and public health emergency preparedness and response; providing a civil penalty
- SB 969 Kolkhorst: Relating to reporting procedures for and information concerning public health disasters and to certain public health studies; creating the office of the chief state epidemiologist; providing a civil penalty
- SB 984 Schwertner | et al.: Relating to public health disaster and public health emergency preparedness and response, including the operation of the Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response
- SB 1195 Paxton: Relating to the right of certain hospital patients to designate an essential caregiver for in-person visitation
- SB 1313 Hall: Relating to the right to choose and refuse medical treatment and control measures and to the imposition of isolation or quarantine control measures
- SB 1614 Bettencourt: Relating to requiring emergency generators or other power sources in nursing facilities and assisted living facilities
- SB 1616 Bettencourt: Relating to powers and duties of governmental entities during a public health disaster; providing civil penalties