Dec 9, 2020

Texas 2021 Legislative Session Preview

On January 12, lawmakers from across the state of Texas will convene the 87th Texas Legislative Session. This will be the first time that all 181 legislators will come together since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is still unclear what health and safety protocols they will follow, but it will certainly be a much different environment than previous sessions. Both the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives have set up working groups to provide suggestions and guidelines identifying best practices for how session will operate. Of particular importance is how public access to the capitol is handled. Legislators will vote on these recommendations and other rule changes when session convenes on January 13.

A Pared Down Session

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has advised Senators and indicated to stakeholders to brace for a drastically pared down session with far fewer pieces of legislation making their way through the process, and has listed his legislative priorities. Those priorities include passing the budget, redistricting, election reform, limited liability protections as it relates to COVID-19, and law enforcement support. On the House side, the legislative tempo and agenda, in addition to committee makeup and chairmanship designations, will likely be determined by Representative Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who is widely expected to replace outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Having secured the support of more than a super majority of the House, Representative Phelan has already set up a transition team and named his executive staff to ensure a smooth and easy transition of power.

Budget

The budget is of course the most pressing issue, and the only one required by the Texas Constitution to be addressed within the 140-day session. Due to historic declines in revenue from the pandemic and an ill-timed collapse in oil prices, lawmakers will have to confront a $4.58 billion shortfall. Thankfully, due to sales tax revenue from consumer spending and the ability to collect sales tax from out-of-state online sellers (Texas Wayfair Decision), the shortfall is not as dire as originally projected during the July revenue estimate. Additionally, Governor Abbott has directed state agencies and institutions of higher education to each submit a plan identifying savings that will reduce respective general revenue related appropriations by five percent for the 2020-2021 biennium. Comptroller Hegar will release the Biennial Revenue Estimate at the start of the 87th legislative session, which will provide lawmakers a benchmark of how much revenue will be available for general-purpose spending during the 2021-2022 biennium.

Redistricting

Typically, a legislative session following a census year is primarily focused on redistricting. During a normal redistricting session, the federal government delivers the census population data to the legislature no later than April 1. However, this year the federal government is anticipating a delay, and Texas may not receive the data until July 31, 2021. This means that Texas will likely have to convene for a special session during the summer or early fall. Despite the delay, the redistricting committees will begin taking public testimony during the regular session.

Education

In addition to the budget and redistricting, lawmakers will have to tackle education issues related to the pandemic and budget shortfall. Online learning came to the forefront this past year and exposed many weaknesses in Texas’ virtual education program and the need for additional technology funding for school districts. On that same note, anticipate initiatives to enhance and expand broadband access across the state, particularly in rural areas.

Regulation

During the pandemic, Governor Abbott was able to use his broad executive authority to waive rules and regulations for many industries and businesses to help keep them afloat during uncertain times. Now that the red tape is gone, many industries are expected to push to permanently remove those pre-pandemic regulations. The industries vary widely from alcohol sales to telehealth. While reducing regulations might prove popular among legislators, on the other hand many have expressed concern about the amount of executive power Governor Abbott was able to wield during the shutdown. Accordingly, anticipate legislation looking to rein in executive authority during a disaster response.

Notable Pre-Filings

Notable legislation that have been pre-filed for the upcoming legislative session includes:

  • HB 88 by Representative Senfronia Thompson – named the George Floyd Act to address racial inequities in law enforcement, and criminal justice reforms
  • HB 171 by Representative Diego Bernal – Medicaid expansion bill
  • HB 98 by Representative Lina Ortega – Maternal health, expanding Medicaid eligibility for 12 months following pregnancy
  • SB 90 by Senator Jose Menendez – Medical Marijuana
  • HB 36 by Representative Jarvis Johnson – Abolishing Confederate Heroes Day
  • HB 173 by Representative Drew Springer – Establishment of the Emergency Powers Board