AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Lawmakers from every corner of Texas are preparing to return to the State Capitol for the start of the 87th legislative session.

The state still does not have an official plan for how the upcoming 87th Legislative Session will operate during the pandemic.

But the Texas House of Representatives has outlined a framework for the opening ceremony, offering the first glimpse of how lawmakers will balance transparency with COVID-19 precautions.

In-person attendance for the ceremony will be limited, State Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, said.

“There’ll be fewer guests, members will be spread out further apart than they usually are,” Rep. Talarico explained, adding that it will look much different than in years past.

“A typical session, you would see very huge attendance on the first day of session, there’d be a lot of people packing in the galleries, all throughout the Capitol. Everyone wants to be there to see what’s going on,” explained Mark Wiggins, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

The House Administrative Committee’s plan will limit media and some guests to the galley, which sparked some concern about transparency if that process should continue through the session.

Rep. Talarico said House leaders are in a difficult position, trying to balance two competing interests.

“One is the health of legislators and staffers and the general public, and also the need for an open democratic system during the legislative session,” Rep. Talarico said.

Lawmakers are hoping virtual meetings and testimonies during session can help bridge the gap of access.

“I’m hoping we can use a hybrid approach of blending in-person testimony with some kind of virtual testimony or virtual feedback from constituents around the state,” Rep. Talarico said.

Wiggins and other lobbyists said public access is critical to the democratic process, even if it’s virtual.

“It’s oftentimes the people who are out there in the field who a particular bill will directly affect were the best people to talk about exactly how that may play out in real life,” Wiggins explained. “The public has to be there to provide the feedback to hold legislators accountable. And the education component of it can be overlooked.”

For now, lawmakers are exploring ways to increase availability outside the walls of the Capitol.

“We’re going to make sure that we are accessible virtually,” Rep. Talarico said. “So folks can contact us via email, via social media, via phone, and be able to get in touch with us quickly and get questions answered and get concerns voiced in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the health of anyone involved.”

State Senators held committee hearings in November and December, giving a glimpse of how public testimony could be handled during the session. Hearings of the Senate Education Committee and and the Committee on Health and Human Services featured testimony only from invited participants. Most addressed the lawmakers virtually. Committee members seated on the dais were separated by plexiglass barriers.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, a Republican from Lakeway, near Austin, serves on the Health and Human Services Committee. Buckingham is a physician and says its important for lawmakers to be flexible as the session begins.

“I believe everyone’s priority is the same, and that is that the public needs access to its government, and how we’re working,” Sen. Buckingham said. “And so we’re trying to figure out that balance between how are they accessing their government of being able to come in and testify and how do we do that safely for the health of everybody, from elected officials who are at risk to some of our employees who are at risk from the virus.”

“I think the key word is ‘fluid,'” Buckingham said.

Buckingham’s district covers nearly 20-thousand square miles, stretching from the outskirts of Austin through the Hill Country and up to Abilene. Sen. Buckingham emphasized the need to balance public health needs and the needs of small businesses as lawmakers work in the coming months.

“I will tell you the outcry from our mom and pop shops is tremendous,” Buckingham said, highlighting concerns of small businesses facing local restrictions due to the pandemic. “And what I am hearing non stop is being artificially closed by the government, by Mayor Adler, in the case of Austin is killing them. And a lot of these folks, they leveraged their retirement to start their dream, whether it was a restaurant or a little bar or a little brewery or a little distillery or whatever it was, and they’ve been shut down,” Buckingham added.

“The stress is real and people are really hurting,” Buckingham said. “It’s going to be a long time to recover, even if we can recover.”

Lawmakers to address criminal justice reform

The Texas District & County Attorneys Association, an advocacy group for prosecutors across the state, quipped on Twitter in November about state lawmakers’ effort to address criminal justice reform.

“Some things never change” was followed by a shrugging emoticon.

The TDCAA noted that out of the more than 800 bills filed ahead of the upcoming legislative session, 33 bills would create one or more new crimes, and 17 bills would increase the punishments for existing crimes, despite the expressed focus on criminal justice reform by many lawmakers.

Texas has more than 2,000 criminal offenses, already. But the bills, focusing primarily on gun control by Democrats, are unlikely to pass. Thousands of bills will be filed in the 87th Legislature and most won’t see the light of day—just 820 of more than 7,000 bills became law in the last legislative session.

Criminal justice reform advocates said they’re committed to fighting for fewer crimes and more realistic punishments.

“I hope policymakers will recognize that we need a system with a smaller footprint that focuses on addressing violent crime, addressing conduct that really imperils public safety,” said Marc Levin, chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, a conservative-leaning criminal justice reform organization. “Even for those things that are crimes, we need to look at what should subject someone to the possibility of arrest.”

Criminal justice issues will be at the forefront when lawmakers return to the Texas Capitol in January. The George Floyd Act, proposed by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson and State Sen. Royce West, would ban chokeholds and require police officers to step in when excessive force is being used by another officer.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, said around 25 new crimes are adopted each legislative session. Still, he believes opportunities for reform like the decriminalization of marijuana will be the focus of the incoming legislature.

“If we are no longer in love with just locking everyone up for everything, let’s make that true,” Wu told KXAN. “Many of the things that we want to do have a side benefit that the Texas Legislature is going to love, and that is it’s going to save money.”

Before becoming a senior policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Doug Smith spent six years in prison himself for challenges connected to mental illness and substance abuse disorder.
Smith told KXAN that lawmakers often attempt to address the crime instead of a solution, like prevention, which he will advocate for in the upcoming legislative session.

“What we know is that increasing penalties doesn’t actually prevent property loss or harm to communities,” Smith said. “Increasing penalties just extends the amount of time that someone might be punished for that criminal activity.”

Texas cities face battle over taxpayer-funded lobbyists

The City of Austin is a familiar sparring partner with the Texas legislature.

Bracing for a contentious legislative session when state lawmakers return to the Texas Capitol in January, city leaders defended the use of taxpayer-funded lobbyists to achieve and defend agenda goals while Republican leaders fight to end the practice.

“Everybody should have the ability, as effectively as they can, to advocate for their positions and make sure the legislators know what’s true and what’s not true,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN. “People on the other side just don’t want to hear from folks in Austin or other cities — and the surest way to do that is to make sure they’re not part of the conversation, and that’s not right.”

In 2020, the City of Austin has spent $435,000-$824,000, according to state ethics reports, on lobbying services with five firms. Three lobbyists on the City’s outside, taxpayer-funded team work for Focused Advocacy, an agency that specializes in lobbying for municipalities.

Focused Advocacy has received $110,000-$225,000 from the City of Austin this year and lobbies for 16 other cities, ethics reports show.

Brie Franco, director of the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Dept., said outside lobbyists are vetted for potential conflicts and follow the agenda set forth by the Austin City Council.

“Out of the 7,300 bills filed each session, about 2,500 affect cities,” Franco said. “It’s seeking that assistance for the legislative expertise, for the knowledge of how the system works, and then also the relationships with the members.”

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Banning taxpayer-funded lobbying is a legislative priority of the Texas Republican Party. The state Senate is holding a hearing on the issue next month and presumed House Speaker-elect Dade Phelan supported a push to end the practice in the last legislative session.

More than $40 million of taxpayer funds were spent on lobbying in the 2017 legislative session, according to a report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Chuck DeVore, vice president of the foundation’s national initiatives, said cities could spend their resources on bill analysis and tracking, which isn’t considered lobbying under Texas law.

“I certainly would like to see a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying,” DeVore said. “A lot of these lobbyists who have commercial clients also help guide or control those commercial clients’ campaign donation budgets.”

City of Austin lobbyists will spend the upcoming legislative session advocating for coronavirus relief and defending the City Council’s vote to cut or reallocate up to $150 million from the police budget.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both vowed to punish cities that “defund police” with legislation.

The City maintains that lobbyists help facilitate meetings between constituents and lawmakers and are key pieces to protecting local control, as they did when residents expressed concerns about short-term rentals being used as party houses.

“I can’t think of a more grassroots way of using lobbyists so that these folks can tell their story of what’s happened in their homes and in their neighborhoods,” Franco said.

Renewed push to legalize marijuana

Members of the Texas Legislature returning to the State Capitol will be tasked with confronting the coronavirus pandemic, a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall and the once-in-a-decade redrawing of political maps—likely foregoing many of the culture war battles familiar to previous legislative sessions.

Texas Democrats believe, however, that a renewed push to legalize marijuana can find space in a crowded session because of its ability to address criminal justice reform and budget woes.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Hays County Democrat, sponsored a bill that would essentially decriminalize personal marijuana possession. A similar bill passed in the Texas House in 2019, but failed to gain support in the Senate.

A bill from State Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso would create a retail marketplace for marijuana products.

“I think the revenue and cost-saving issues are always going to be a priority, especially in a budget year like this,” Zwiener told KXAN. “Local budgets as well as state budgets are facing some challenges.”

Texas faces a $4.6 billion budget shortfall caused by oil prices that plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. While state lawmakers are hopeful more federal financial support is coming, agencies throughout state government are anticipating and preparing for difficult cuts.

Not only are Democrats enticed by the financial opportunity that legalized marijuana presents—estimates suggest the state could gain $1 billion of new annual revenue—but they see an opportunity to lower incarceration rates.

“I think it’s a perfect time to have this conversation,” Moody said. “You’re talking about disentangling a substance issue from the criminal justice system and rejecting the status quo.”

State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and member of the committee that crafts the state budget, believes the legislature will have to have a narrow focus on the budget in the upcoming session but says the potential financial benefit of legalized marijuana could give the movement a renewed boost.

“Certainly, I think there’s more appetite to look at things like that now more than there may have been in the past,” Howard said.