State of Texas: ‘The public needs access to its government’ — at the Capitol

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Lawmakers from every corner of Texas are preparing to return to the State Capitol for the start of the 87th legislative session.

The state still does not have an official plan for how the upcoming 87th Legislative Session will operate during the pandemic.

But the Texas House of Representatives has outlined a framework for the opening ceremony, offering the first glimpse of how lawmakers will balance transparency with COVID-19 precautions. In-person attendance for the ceremony will be limited, State Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, said.

“There’ll be fewer guests, members will be spread out further apart than they usually are,” Rep. Talarico explained, adding that it will look much different than in years past.

“A typical session, you would see very huge attendance on the first day of session, there’d be a lot of people packing in the galleries, all throughout the Capitol. Everyone wants to be there to see what’s going on,” explained Mark Wiggins, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

The House Administrative Committee’s plan will limit media and some guests to the galley, which sparked some concern about transparency if that process should continue through the session. Rep. Talarico said House leaders are in a difficult position, trying to balance two competing interests. “One is the health of legislators and staffers and the general public, and also the need for an open democratic system during the legislative session,” Rep. Talarico said.

Lawmakers are hoping virtual meetings and testimonies during session can help bridge the gap of access. “I’m hoping we can use a hybrid approach of blending in-person testimony with some kind of virtual testimony or virtual feedback from constituents around the state,” Rep. Talarico said. Wiggins and other lobbyists said public access is critical to the democratic process, even if it’s virtual.

“It’s oftentimes the people who are out there in the field who a particular bill will directly affect were the best people to talk about exactly how that may play out in real life,” Wiggins explained. “The public has to be there to provide the feedback to hold legislators accountable. And the education component of it can be overlooked.”

For now, lawmakers are exploring ways to increase availability outside the walls of the Capitol.

“We’re going to make sure that we are accessible virtually,” Rep. Talarico said. “So folks can contact us via email, via social media, via phone, and be able to get in touch with us quickly and get questions answered and get concerns voiced in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the health of anyone involved.”

State Senators held committee hearings in November and December, giving a glimpse of how public testimony could be handled during the session. Hearings of the Senate Education Committee and and the Committee on Health and Human Services featured testimony only from invited participants. Most addressed the lawmakers virtually. Committee members seated on the dais were separated by plexiglass barriers.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, a Republican from Lakeway, near Austin, serves on the Health and Human Services Committee. Buckingham is a physician and says its important for lawmakers to be flexible as the session begins.

“I believe everyone’s priority is the same, and that is that the public needs access to its government, and how we’re working,” Sen. Buckingham said. “And so we’re trying to figure out that balance between how are they accessing their government of being able to come in and testify and how do we do that safely for the health of everybody, from elected officials who are at risk to some of our employees who are at risk from the virus.”

“I think the key word is ‘fluid,'” Buckingham said.

Buckingham’s district covers nearly 20-thousand square miles, stretching from the outskirts of Austin through the Hill Country and up to Abilene. Sen. Buckingham emphasized the need to balance public health needs and the needs of small businesses as lawmakers work in the coming months.

“I will tell you the outcry from our mom and pop shops is tremendous,” Buckingham said, highlighting concerns of small businesses facing local restrictions due to the pandemic. “And what I am hearing non stop is being artificially closed by the government, by Mayor Adler, in the case of Austin is killing them. And a lot of these folks, they leveraged their retirement to start their dream, whether it was a restaurant or a little bar or a little brewery or a little distillery or whatever it was, and they’ve been shut down,” Buckingham added.

“The stress is real and people are really hurting,” Buckingham said. “It’s going to be a long time to recover, even if we can recover.”

Read more: State of Texas: ‘The public needs access to its government’ — balancing health and transparency at the Capitol | KXAN Austin

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