By Patrick Svitek, Texas Tribune
The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.
The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.
“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”
“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”
The opening day of the 140-day session was otherwise highlighted by adjustments made due to the pandemic and the election of Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, as House speaker, which was expected. In addition to each chamber’s opening-day protocols, there was mandatory COVID-19 testing for everyone entering the building, a move that the Department of Public Safety announced Monday evening.
“Everyone has been tested that’s on the floor today and in the gallery,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during the Senate’s meeting. “We want our Capitol open this session unlike many states. … We’re going to be open to the best of our ability throughout session.”
The pandemic was a central topic of state leaders’ speeches. More Texans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday than at any time since the pandemic started, and the death toll in the state was approaching 30,000. But the state is in the early stages of distributing vaccines.
After he was elected speaker, Phelan told House members they were beginning the session “at a crossroads.”
“Today, we are on the brink of defeating COVID-19,” Phelan said. “Now the difficult work of recovery begins, and we have a very short runway in which to do it.”
In similar speeches to both chambers, Abbott promised to focus on “tackling COVID challenges” and “getting Texans back to work.” He also spoke of ensuring better access to health care for Texans and helping law enforcement, an allusion to his previously announced push to punish local governments that “defund the police” in his view.
Phelan also used his speech to address the storming of the U.S. Capitol, saying Americans “witnessed the dark side of political and social division as senseless and unacceptable violence swept through our streets” both last week and over the summer, when anti-police-brutality protesters clashed with some police.
Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.
After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.
There was little drama inside the building as well. After unofficially locking up the speakership weeks ago, Phelan won it by a vote of 143-2. In the Senate, lawmakers unanimously elected state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, president pro tempore, a ceremonial post which typically goes to the longest-serving senator who has not yet served as pro tem. Birdwell replaces state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
Both chambers are set to take up their rules later this week, and then, if they finish their work, adjourn until Jan. 26.
The scene on each chamber’s floor was less active and crowded than it has been on opening day in past sessions, with lawmakers allowed to bring fewer guests than usual. House members were required to wear masks; senators were not.
Milling about the Capitol before noon, lawmakers said they felt safe, both with the enhanced security presence and the pandemic measures.
“I feel way over safe,” Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, said, adding that he did not see any security concerns and disagreed with the need for mandatory coronavirus testing to enter the building.
While the House and Senate instituted opening-day protocols inside their respective chambers, members have been allowed to run their offices how they see fit, at least in the House. Phelan said in a statement Monday night that “each member will decide how they run their office and the protocols governing their office for the remainder of the session.”
Biedermann said there are “no rules” inside his office and he is relying on people to be personally responsible, “just like they do in real life.”
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said his office is not accepting visitors and requiring masks.
“Members can do what they want through their own offices,” Turner said, “but in common areas, on the House floor, I hope everyone is respectful of each other.”