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Pre-pandemic, the Texas state Capitol during legislative sessions had been a flurry of crowded hearings, hand shaking, protests, lobbying and people vying for the attention of their state lawmakers.
But this year, those options may not be available to all Texans, even as the issues they’re fighting for in the midst of a pandemic may be more urgent than ever.
The public is still allowed in the Capitol but there are restrictions. The Senate is requiring people who enter the chamber or committee meetings to first test negative for COVID-19. The House isn’t requiring negative COVID-19 tests, but everyone in both chambers must wear a mask.
Public seating in the gallery will be limited to allow for social distancing. But House members also rejected a measure that would have allowed Texans who don’t want to show up at committees in person to testify virtually. Many Texans may not be willing to expose themselves to the risk. After all, two weeks into the session, two House members have already tested positive.
Here are some ways Texans can connect with their lawmakers safely this legislative session.
Individual lawmakers will decide whether their offices are open to members of the public. Regardless, more business will be conducted via technology than ever before.
Some legislators, like state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, say they will encourage people to make appointments to meet virtually until more members of the Legislature and the public have received their COVID-19 vaccines. Raymond said especially during the session, it is important for lawmakers to be accessible to the public, but in-person meetings are too high a risk.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said virtual meeting opportunities can allow for people who could not otherwise travel across the state to meet with legislators. DeFrancesco said if people take advantage of virtual meetings, that will help compensate for the lack of in-person interaction.
“It's important to have the human stories and that human dimension to the policymaking process,” said DeFrancesco, whose research focuses on social identity, human thought, emotion and their influence on political behavior. “Usually it can happen live and in person. But now we're in a whole different world, so we need to make sure that that human dimension is not lost.”
State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, said he will communicate with the public virtually as much as possible, but in some situations may meet with people in person with safety precautions in place.
This will be Lucio’s eighth legislative session, and he said a majority of bills he has filed have come from people coming into his office and sharing their stories. While that strategy is going to have to change this year, Lucio said he encourages people who are passionate about issues to present them to lawmakers, whether virtually or in person.
“I don't think that there's going to be any less advocacy, it's just going to look different,” he said.
Public policy lobbyist Bryan Eppstein said while lobbyists and members of the public won’t be able to gather and collaborate casually in public spaces like in past sessions, virtual meetings with lawmakers can open space for more people to get in touch with legislators by eliminating travel times to the Capitol.
“There really wasn't an ability to do virtual sessions 30 years ago, so the benefit of having internet technology and broadband is going to be put to great use this coming session,” Eppstein said.
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said he will be allowing members of the public in his office without requiring an appointment or a COVID-19 test, but masks will be required and capacity will be limited. Capriglione said he will also be available to people virtually and people should feel comfortable contacting lawmakers remotely.
“We want to make sure that people that do visit us are able to do so in a healthy way,” he said. “More people will be able to have their voices heard because they're gonna be more comfortable providing this information remotely.”
Eppstein said since the Texas Legislature only meets every other year, it has the advantage of observing other states’ legislative sessions that took place in 2020 and watching how their COVID-19 protocols played out, especially those that held sessions in person.
Other methods of communication
If people want to share sentiments about a law, a mandate or anything else with lawmakers, they can submit those online instead of dropping by a lawmaker’s office, Lucio said.
“For their safety as much as for ours, we want to try to do this as virtually as possible,” he said.
Legislative consultant Mignon McGarry said a good way to connect with lawmakers this session that people don’t always think about is to go through their district offices, which are “more on top of it than they've ever been about trying to be helpful and trying to connect people.”
People can also write letters to their lawmakers and submit written comments to participate in hearings or town halls, McGarry said, and they always have the option of Zoom, texts or phone calls to try and get in touch.
“We're all gonna have to work harder … to prove that things matter to their constituents,” McGarry said. “I think more will be pinned on written comments than we've ever done and in the recent past.”
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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.