The Texas Tribune held a weeklong virtual symposium Dec. 7-11 previewing the state’s upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. Throughout the event, lawmakers, state officials and journalists discussed the impact of 2020 elections on the state House and Senate, the impact of COVID-19 on the state budget, the priorities of lawmakers in both chambers, calls for action on racial justice and police brutality, what the redistricting process is likely to look like and more.
Watch all of the conversations from the symposium and read highlights from the discussions below.
The Tribune’s Evan Smith and Ross Ramsey on how the Legislature works — and what it might look like in a pandemic
Texas lawmakers will meet next month to address the health and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but social distancing measures will likely disrupt the Legislature’s daily grind, said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune.
“It's a social mechanism,” Ramsey said during a panel discussion explaining the Legislature and previewing the 2021 session. “This is where we go to debate, jump up and down, scream at each other, come out with a kind of forced agreement – and if you can't get together, it doesn't function right.”
The conversation, moderated by Tribune CEO Evan Smith, highlighted the inner workings of the Texas Capitol, from how a bill becomes a law to the differences between the Legislature’s upper and lower chamber. Thousands of bills are expected to be filed during the session, but less than one in four of those will become law, Ramsey said.
“It's all insider baseball,” Ramsey said. “Basically, you have to have approval – either expressed or tacit – from the House, Senate and governor in order to pass a law.”
Despite a Republican-controlled state government, Ramsey said working across the aisle is common during the 140-day session. Lawmakers in January will tackle issues including the next state budget and redistricting.
“Most issues in the Legislature aren't really Republican and Democratic issues,” Ramsey said. “There's a million ways to do this.”
Three veteran members of the Texas House discuss how presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan will lead the lower chamber
Three veteran Texas lawmakers said that Dade Phelan, the presumptive Texas House speaker, will unite lawmakers through his experience and sincerity in what will be the Legislature’s first chance to address the health and economic impact of the pandemic next month.
“With coronavirus, COVID-19, the agenda could be very narrow this session,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, during a panel discussion previewing the Phelan administration and the 2021 legislative session. “And Dade Phelan is the perfect person for this situation.”
The conversation, moderated by Tribune CEO Evan Smith, also included Joe Moody, one of Phelan’s more prominent Democrat supporters from El Paso, and Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson. While Moody said he supported Phelan for his character, Button praised the Beaumont Republican for his years of leadership, including when Phelan didn’t push Button last session to support a bill he knew her constituents would reject.
“First, he respects people from his heart,” Button said of why she supports Phelan. “Second, he takes time to communicate with people. Third, definitely, he is trustworthy.”
The panelists also said that Phelan, like Dennis Bonnen — who will retire as speaker at the end of his term after a secret recording revealed he encouraged the targeting of 10 GOP members for primary challenges — has the same focus and knack to get things done as his predecessor and will, as Hunter said, fairly call “balls and strikes.”
Texas House members spell out their top priorities heading in to the 2021 legislative session
Several Texas lawmakers said the upcoming legislative session will likely be pushed into a special session next year if federal census results are delayed for long.
The comments came from state Reps. Four Price, R-Amarillo; Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth; Toni Rose, D-Dallas; and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, during a conversation about the House agenda moderated by Cassandra Pollock, the Tribune’s state politics reporter.
Price, who went through redistricting in 2011, said that under any circumstances, the process of redrawing state political maps is difficult. Now, he said, it could be delayed because the U.S. Census Bureau has pushed back its deadlines for counting the population due to COVID-19.
“It's crazy to think that it's not contentious at some moments,” Price said. “Because inherently, when you're drawing maps that affect the state board of education, House and Senate districts and congressional districts, at some level … it can become controversial or personal to many of the members in both chambers.”
The representatives also talked about how the legislative session will be affected by the pandemic, elections and the presumptive new speaker.
“It's up to the 150 of us to come together for the betterment of Texas,” Goldman said. “We're going to have a $4 to $5 billion budget deficit that we have to balance the budget on. We have redistricting, of course, that we have to do. And then there are other major issues, in my opinion, like health and human services that we have to find some long-term solution on.”
With Dade Phelan likely to become the Texas House speaker, Price said Phelan will have the “incredibly difficult job” of placing members on committees and deciding who will chair them.
Canales said some of the members will need to energize their base for the next election and that’s why there will be at least one special session with “a lot of red meat to it.”
“The reality is that’s historically been the tool used,” Canales said. “And so, we'll be back. How many times? I don't know.”
Four members of the Texas Senate outline what’s on the agenda for the upper chamber
Health care will likely be top of mind for Texas lawmakers as they return to the Capitol for the 2021 legislative session during the worst public health crisis in a century.
“It is time for us to be very pragmatic and take a common-sense approach to how we cover the health care needs of Texans,” said state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, during a Texas Tribune panel discussion on the state Senate’s agenda. She added that, amid a mounting number of uninsured Texans, she was “extremely optimistic” legislators would vote to expand Medicaid this session. Texas lawmakers have been reluctant to expand coverage for people with incomes near or below the poverty line.
The conversation, moderated by Tribune reporter Patrick Svitek, also featured state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. Perry said he has “no doubt this is the session” to expand access to broadband internet for rural Texans. More than 800,000 people lack adequate broadband infrastructure, according to a letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott in September by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.
The panelists also highlighted new safety protocols that will be in place this session at the Capitol. Members of the public who wish to testify may first have to test negative for COVID-19.
“My hope is that we make it a work environment where we can get the job of the people done in a safe and professional way,” Menendez said.
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione and State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa discuss their plans to craft a state budget amid an economic downturn
Editor's note: This session was recorded Dec. 4, when Sen. Chuy Hinojosa was vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee. On Dec. 9, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. as vice chair of the panel, replacing Hinojosa.
Two Texas lawmakers said despite an expected shortfall of almost $5 billion for the current two-year budget, they hope to increase funding for health care and broadband services in the next budget, without increasing taxes.
“In these times of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, tax increases are completely off the table,” said Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.
State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, also joined the conversation moderated by the Tribune’s executive editor, Ross Ramsey.
Capriglione and Hinojosa said the state has an obligation to continue funding public education to keep the commitment made in the 2019 session.
As more people are relying on the internet for education and telehealth during the pandemic, Hinojosa said lawmakers also hope to create a plan to increase access to broadband services.
“Broadband speed, internet was not a priority, it was just a normal one of the key issues that we needed to address, but because of the pandemic, now it’s become a priority,” Hinojosa said.
“We have so many tools in our toolbox that we’ll be able to work through it. It will be nothing compared to 2011,” Hinojosa said. “It will be some pain, yes, but nothing compared to 2011.”
Redistricting leaders in the Texas House and Senate look toward the process of drawing the district maps that will take place this year
The redistricting process — redrawing congressional and state legislative districts — could take longer than usual this year, two state lawmakers said. Redistricting takes place every 10 years following the census.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting. “We’ll start the session with those unknowns still there.”
Huffman was joined by state Rep. Phil King, R-Austin, in a conversation moderated by Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune. Legal challenges and changing deadlines, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, frustrated census efforts and could push redistricting into a special session, the lawmakers said.
If the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t hand over data to lawmakers by mid-April, Huffman said “it will be impossible to get” maps redrawn without a special session.
A number of statewide public hearings scheduled for earlier this year were canceled because of the pandemic. King said he was working with the House parliamentarian to draft rules to allow virtual meetings where the public can weigh in on how new maps are drawn. Huffman said she plans to introduce a similar proposal.
Leading members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus outline the priorities of their members for the 2021 legislative session
During the 2021 legislative session, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus will focus on continuing efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system, said state Rep. Nicole Collier, the caucus’ first vice chair.
“We have different police departments with different policies,” Collier, D-Fort Worth, said. “We want to aim to provide uniformity, some type of consistent system, that people in Texas can look to and say, ‘This is what is expected of our law enforcement officers all across the state.”’
The conversation, moderated by Tribune political reporter Alex Samuels, also included state Rep. Harold Dutton, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. While Dutton said the caucus has long advocated for increased police training and oversight, widespread outrage following the death of George Floyd in police custody has heightened visibility of Black Americans’ treatment by law enforcement.
Still, Dutton acknowledged the challenges of reimagining policing in a Legislature where only a fraction of bills become law and in a state where some Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have pledged to “back the blue.”
“All the good members of the Legislature will at least entertain the discussion about this, and let’s see if we can’t agree to do something that changes the outcome of policing in Texas,” Dutton, D-Houston, said.
Collier said the caucus also plans to address disparities in health care, which have been exposed with greater clarity by the coronavirus pandemic.
“For years we've had Texas Legislative Black Caucus members attempting to break down the barriers to access to health care and health services,” Collier said. “What this pandemic tells us is that we have a problem … in Texas, and now all the people are seeing it.”
Women’s equity is at the top of the agenda for state Reps. Gina Hinojosa and Julie Johnson, co-founders of the Texas Legislature’s Women’s Equity Bloc
Last legislative session, the Texas House had a “shocking underrepresentation” of women on its most powerful committees, said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, in a conversation about what a group of women lawmakers wants to see in the upcoming legislative session.
“I think just the fact that we only had one woman on the Calendars Committee — the committee that sets the agenda for the entire House — was a hard pill to swallow.”
This time around, a group of Democratic lawmakers are hoping to change that, having formed an “Equity Caucus” to advocate for women’s equity in House leadership and pledging to vote as a bloc for the House speaker, going public with its pick of Dade Phelan.
State Reps. Hinojosa and Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, spoke about what the women’s bloc is hoping for in the upcoming legislative session during a conversation with Emily Ramshaw, the co-founder and CEO of the 19th, a nonprofit newsroom focused on gender equity. Ramshaw is also a former editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.
Johnson said some Democrats and Republicans weren’t aware of women’s lack of opportunity in the House until the group of women lawmakers brought it up.
Now, Johnson said she’s hopeful the presumptive speaker, Phelan, will empower women in his administration, “giving women an opportunity to work hard, use the intelligence that God gave us and be smart leaders and participate in a high level in the Texas House.”
The representatives also spoke about the importance of health care, education, child care access and LGBTQ+ protections in the upcoming session. Johnson said the caucus will bring the perspective of women who have children and care for their families.
“Women are the glue of most households and women have to make tough choices,” Johnson said. “And we have to pick and choose what bills get paid when times are tough, and how to manage feeding our family, and how to manage educating our kids, and all the things that women and mothers have to do across the state.”
Incoming members of the Texas Legislature discuss their plans and priorities for their first legislative session
The state’s budget and redistricting, along with access to education, will be some of the top priorities for new members of the Texas Legislature as the state wrestles with soaring COVID-19 cases and a projected shortfall of nearly $5 billion.
“The more things change, the more things stay the same,” said Rep.-elect Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, adding that supporting law enforcement is also one of her top concerns.
The conversation, moderated by Tribune political reporter Cassi Pollock, also included Rep.-elect Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass, and Rep.-elect Jacey Jetton, R-Sugar Land. Falling along party lines, the new members had different views for addressing the budget and managing COVID-19 during session, though all three said they supported Dade Phelan, the presumptive Texas House speaker.
The Republicans, Jetton and Slawson, said they wanted to reopen the economy to address shortfalls. While they supported safety precautions like wearing masks in their offices — members can make their own office guidelines — both said they didn’t want rapid testing to prohibit constituents from accessing members.
“This is the people’s house, and we need to make sure the people have access to us,” Jetton said.
Morales, the Democrat, said he wants to consider pulling money from the state’s “rainy day fund” to address the budget and would like to increase access to broadband and healthcare in the many rural counties in his district, the largest in the state. He also supports rapid testing in the Capitol and will require masks in his office.
Four Tribune reporters share what they are most watching for at the 2021 legislative session
A month before the 2021 legislative session, much remains unclear, including how a session will work during a pandemic and what the priorities of the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker will be, Texas Tribune reporters said.
Following an election that largely maintained the status quo within the Texas Legislature, Pollock said Democrats’ inability to gain any seats in the House means they’ll have limited input on the state’s redistricting process. Ura said their level of input will depend on how early Texas receives census information, and that overall, she’d be surprised if the process was complete by the end of the session.
Other than redistricting, setting the budget and addressing the impacts of the coronavirus, the governor, lieutenant governor and presumptive House speaker, Dade Phelan, haven’t made their legislative priorities clear, Svitek said.
Conversations on how people will testify during the session are underway, Pollock said, and lawmakers are considering options such as limiting the number of people in the Capitol and requiring a negative COVID-19 test before entering.
“A lot of this is just really kind of up in the air and I think folks are … getting antsy on just having some answers and some clarity on what all this ends up looking like come January,” Pollock said.
Major sponsors of this symposium are Toyota North America, the Beer Alliance of Texas, CenterPoint Energy, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Philanthropy Advocates, Educate Texas, Gulf States Toyota, Raise Your Hand Texas, AT&T, Texas State University System, HCA Healthcare, University of Texas at Arlington, IDEA Public Schools, DoorDash, Texas Exes, NRG Energy and 19th Amendment Centennial Fund. It is supported by Office of Public Insurance Counsel, One World Strategy Group, Texas Infrastructure Now and Fairmont Austin. Media support is provided by Spectrum News.
Tribune events are supported through contributions from our investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
Disclosure: AT&T, CenterPoint Energy, Educate Texas, Gulf States Toyota, IDEA Public Schools, NRG Energy, Office of Public Insurance Counsel, One World Strategy Group, Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas Exes, Texas Infrastructure Now, Beer Alliance of Texas, Texas State University System and University of Texas - Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.