AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As the Texas House addressed the pandemic response with less than 30 days remaining in the legislative session, lawmakers in the lower chamber finally addressed a promise made at the start of the session.
Lawmakers want to be more involved in the pandemic response, they made that clear throughout the last year. In response to that, they debated House Bill 3, an overarching bill filed to serve as a guide for the governor’s powers during the disaster. It officially passed on Tuesday afternoon 104-39.
“HB 3 contemplates ensuring that in a pandemic disaster, there’s a streamlined and effective response to a future pandemic,” State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said as he laid out the bill in the House.
HB 3, which Burrows authored, would create a roadmap for future pandemics. But it would also limit the tools at the disposal of state and local leaders during these crises.
HB 3 would implement a legislative oversight committee with the ability to strike down any order, waiver or suspension in a pandemic. That panel could also terminate a Governor’s disaster declaration.
“We love Governor Abbott,” State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said. “It’s not about a personality, it’s about that role in making sure that responsibilities are balanced and make sure that checks and balances are in place.”
With the past few weeks full of marathon debates over guns, abortion and voting rules— all conservative priorities in the Republican-led legislature— Democrats made it clear they were ready to shift the focus to finding fixes for the faulty energy grid and addressing problems in the state brought on by the pandemic.
“We came here to do good things,” State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said. “We came here to move the ball forward on health care during a pandemic on significant major energy reforms in the midst of yet another energy crisis.”
Republicans find themselves cautiously celebrating the advancements of their conservative priorities.
“We’re excited about the way the session is at this point,” Hughes said. “We’re not there yet, but it’s looking real good.”
HB 3 would also prevent firearm stores and churches from closing through government-mandated business closures.
An amendment was added to enable the entire legislature to convene after 120 days in a disaster to debate measures relating to that disaster.
“This bill does not give the governor any new powers that he did not have during the last pandemic,” Burrows claimed. “The bill instead gives clarity on how in a pandemic, the response should be handled.”
Abbott has expressed a willingness to work with lawmakers during the pandemic and sought input from a team of experts. His office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
More amendments were added as debate continued into the night Monday, including provisions that would keep state parks and golf courses open, and allowing nursing home residents to have at least one visitor.
There was debate over an amendment proposed by Rep. Cody Vasut, R- Angleton, that would have only allowed the state legislature to issue a mask mandate, not any executive orders or local orders. The amendment initially passed, but after confusion and a verification vote, it was voted down.
Another amendment, proposed by Rep. Mike Schofield, R- Houston, and approved, struck one word from the bill.
“Page eight prohibits the presiding officer of a governing body or political subdivision from amongst other things, requiring ‘specific’ businesses or industries to close,” Rep. Schofield said, “This amendment would take out the word ‘specific,’ so they don’t have to say, ‘the Johnson Brewery is shut down.'”
The legislation now heads to the Senate.