AUSTIN, Texas - The opening of the legislative session came with a familiar sound of gavels. The 87th regular session, however, has a much different look because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In both chambers, plexiglass shields are up in order to reduce exposure risks.
Gov Greg Abbott welcomed lawmakers back to Austin, noting the challenges they face will require working together for 140 days now more than ever. "But equally as important America needs Texas to lead the way," said Governor Abbott.
State senators selected Republican Brian Birdwell as president protempore.
In accepting the position, which is third in line for Texas governor, Birdwell referenced a speech given at West Point by General Patton. "Duty, Senate, Texas will be my focus and I will execute those duties to the best of my ability," said Sen. Birdwell (R) Waco.
The matter of selecting a new speaker of the house was essentially resolved before the session began. On a vote of 143 ayes and 2 nays, Republican Dade Phelan took over from Dennis Bonnen.
Speaker Phelan urged lawmakers to focus on repairing the damage done to the education system by the pandemic, and the damage that’s been done by bitter political divisions.
"We have the opportunity to lead by example and work on the real issues of real significance for the people of Texas to do this I encourage each of you to get to know one another and share your insights seek one another’s point of view even when you disagree and work together for the betterment of Texas," said Speaker Phelan.
State lawmakers are expected to take up several hot topics, including police reform, public health, including pandemic response and expanding Medicaid, election law, such as the use of mail-in ballots, identifying voter fraud, and redrawing voting districts. There is also a bill to limit the governor’s executive powers during a disaster.
The main issue in every session is the budget and Governor Greg Abbott admitted COVID-19 will require some serious number crunching.
"This is something we’ve been working on going back to the summertime, to make sure that we are prepared to deal with as we go into the session, as we look to the funds that are available to us, to make sure that we will be able to continue to fund the current budget cycle that we are in, that ends at the end of August, but as you look forward what you will see is, as we continue to accelerate the process of the vaccines, as we continue to slow hospitalizations and reduce fatalities, you were going see the Texas economy engage very swiftly," said Gov. Abbott on Monday.
The first contentious party-line fight may be in the Senate where rules on voting will be taken up. What remains to be seen is how the public will be able to engage in the legislative process. COVID19 will limit access during the committee hearing, and that is expected to restrict public input.