Here's why COVID-19 is No. 1 challenge facing Texas lawmakers for 2021 session

Lawmaker must first decide how they will work amid the pandemic, decide how to tackle the problems it has created for the state.

AUSTIN — With the elections behind them, Texas lawmakers are preparing for a legislative session in two months that will be dominated by a pandemic that has strained the state's health care system and rewritten the playbook for the state's economy.

"The pandemic is front of mind – not just in our planning for how we operate the session but what we deliver during session," said state Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who in 2019 was named House speaker pro tem. "We have a crisis on two fronts, both an economic and a health care crisis."

Moody is among 10 House members named to a special bi-partisan panel to draft the blueprint for conducting the chamber's business even as a the highly contagious and sometimes deadly coronavirus is spreading with renewed force across Texas.

The Texas Constitution and rules governing the House and Senate make no provisions for meeting virtually. In addition, given that the Legislature meets only for 140 days every odd year, so much business among the 150 House members, 31 senators – plus an army of lobbyists and dozens of reporters – is traditionally conducted face-to-face and handshake-to-handshake.

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State Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican elected this month to his 10th term, said rules will likely be written after lawmakers reconvene Jan. 12 for a "hybrid" session that allows a combination of in-person and virtual meetings to hear testimony and cast votes on legislation.

"I think the Capitol will probably have a lot of health protocols, probably temperature checks," he said. "I think you will see a lot of sanitizing and social distancing."

State Rep. Todd Hunter

More importantly, several lawmakers said, will be to find ways to improve access to health care, especially for Texans who have lost jobs and health coverage due because of the pandemic.

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has already filed a measure to amend the state Constitution to require the state to expand eligibility under the federal Medicaid program to cover more low-income Texans, which would mean more federal matching funds come to the state.

Republican state Rep. Matt Shaheen would take a different approach to expanding the program. He filed legislation to offer property tax breaks to physicians to accept Medicaid patients because government reimbursement rates are often too low to cover the cost of care.

Last summer, as the Texas economy began to sputter as a result of stay-at-home orders and a drop in demand for oil and gas, state Comptroller Glenn Hegar warned lawmakers they will likely encountered a $4.6 billion budget shortfall this year.

In anticipation of the pandemic-induced slowdown, state leaders earlier this year instructed must government agencies to begin paring back spending and to prepare for leaner times once lawmakers began cobbling together the state's two-year spending plan in 2021.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, the Collin County Republican who leads to the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, this week said nothing has happened in the intervening months to change that assessment.

State Sen. Jane Nelson

"With the projected shortfall, we will have to be especially prudent with our resources," she said.

The Nov. 3 elections kept intact the state's tax increase-averse GOP leadership. But Moody said lawmakers should at least "explore ways" to increase state revenues.

"All that we do should push forward into helping our local businesses, helping those who don't have access to medical care and finding ways that we can reduce costs in as many places as we can," he said.

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One significant change heading into the upcoming session is a new speaker for the Texas House. Almost as soon as it was clear Republicans would hold their majority. Rep. Dade Phelan announced that he had wrapped up the votes needed to take the gavel in January.

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont

Among Phelan's supporters were several prominent House Democrats. And in his announcement, Phelan echoed some of the Democrats' talking points from the just-ended campaign when he he said House leadership "must be diverse."

"It must look like Texas and give a meaningful voice to different people across the state," he said. 

Phelan's rise rankled state Republican Party Chairman Allen West, who does not serve in state office.

“Let me clearly state this: the Republican Party of Texas will not support, nor accept, state Rep. Dade Phelan as Speaker of the Texas House,” West said in a statement Monday. “Texas does not need a Republican political traitor, not at a time when the two diverging philosophies of governance are this lucid.”

Several prominent Republicans pushed back against West, a former congressman from Florida who is fairly new to Texas. Outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, suggested West return to Florida. Rep. Justin Holland, a Rockwall Republican, said the party chairman "needs a civics lesson in Texas politics."

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Gov. Greg Abbott steered clear of the intraparty squabble, but made clear he supports the incoming House leader. He called Phelan "a strong conservative (who) has a proven record of fighting for the lives and livelihoods of all Texans."

Both the Democrat Moody and the Republican Hunter said lawmakers should check partisan labels at the Capitol door to tackle the unprecedented challenges the pandemic has put in their path.

That means issues like the so-called "bathroom bill" that in 2017 sought to limit the restroom options of transgender people and measures targeting undocumented immigrants and their children should be set aside, they said.

"I don't see any space for meaningless political posturing," Moody said. "I don't think the people of Texas have the space for that either. They're trying to figure out how to keep their businesses open, they're trying to live with tighter budgets in their households, educate their kids."

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Hunter said his advice to state leaders is "put on your seat belt and get ready for work."

"You will always have some political issues, no doubt," he said. "But this time we need to be looking at the state's business. We need to be focused on the people, the taxpayers.

"This is a session for no gamesmanship," he added. "This is a session for workmanship."

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso speaks in a press conference about Gov. Greg Abbott's expected approval of the state's  two-year budget, which includes $20 million to establish the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. The Hunt School of Dental Medicine, expected to welcome its first class of students in 2021, will be the first in Texas in over 50 years and the very first at a health sciences center based on the U.S.-Mexico border.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.