State of Texas: Time of tension at the Capitol

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas lawmakers started the legislative session Tuesday amid heightened security at the State Capitol. Both DPS and Texas National Guard had a larger than normal presence inside and outside the building.

Many of them are still on duty at the Capitol.

That’s because of an FBI warning saying armed protests are being planned at capitols in all 50 states in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration. The warning says government buildings could be stormed, similar to what happened earlier this month at the U.S. Capitol.

As lawmakers gathered at the State Capitol on Tuesday, President Donald Trump came to Texas to make his first appearance since the unrest at the nation’s Capitol.

He visited the Rio Grande Valley, in part to tout the progress of the border wall he’s been campaigning on for years.

“I kept my promises. And today we celebrate an extraordinary milestone the completion of the promised 450 miles of border wall,” Trump said Tuesday from a section of the wall in Alamo, just outside McAllen.

Hundreds of supporters lined the streets to greet the president, although the public was not allowed to attend the event itself.

“He supported America, he supported our military. He’s gotten more things done in the last four years than what he even promised to do, and he fulfilled all of his promises,” Weslaco native Jim Thalackre said Tuesday.

“I’m glad he’s come down here to the border, I’ve been here for 25 years, and I think he’s really done a great job for us,” Thalackre said.

“We’re all in support of our president, we love our country, that’s what this is all about,” said Trump supporter Patty, who made the trip for the president’s visit all the way from Minnesota.

But Democrats call the trip a waste of time.

“The priorities of the nation should be getting the COVID-19 vaccines out to the people, talking about how we unite the country, especially after that violent attack that we had at the Capitol,” said Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat representing the state’s 28th district along the border.

Trump did address the chaos at our nation’s Capitol Tuesday.

“We believe in respecting America’s history and traditions, not tearing them down. We believe in the rule of law, not in violence or rioting,” the president said. “Now is the time for our nation to heal. And it’s time for peace and for calm. Respect for law enforcement.”

But Democrats, including Cuellar and Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, representative of border District 15, said the trip is more deflection.

“He now is coming to our border to try to give a better last image, if you will of his presidency. He’s trying to appease his base,” Gonzalez said Tuesday.

Democrats also question the amount of the border wall the Trump administration can take credit for.

“He talks about 450 miles of fencing a wall — that’s not even correct. The new miles are only about 25 miles. So that means he’s built only a little bit over four miles, about six miles every year, in the last four years,” Cuellar said.

Customs and Border Protection said about 20% of the administration’s wall has been completed in new territories.

President Trump’s visit to Texas came one day before the U.S. House voted to impeach him for the second time. This time, the impeachment is for his role in inciting the violence at the Capitol.

“This president took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Instead he has chosen to betray and attack our sacred democracy,” Houston Democrat Sylvia Garcia said during the proceedings. Garcia was one of the managers in Trump’s first impeachment.

The vote went mostly along party lines. Texas Republican Pat Fallon called the impeachment a “sham” as he spoke on the floor in opposition.

“This is just political grandstanding at its worst,” Fallon said.

Central Texas Republican Chip Roy also criticized the articles of impeachment presented by Democrats. But he had strong criticism for President Trump’s actions.

“The President of the United States deserves universal condemnation for what was clearly, in my opinion, impeachable conduct, pressuring the vice president to violate his oath of the Constitution to count the electors,” Roy said.

However, he said the focus on inciting insurrection made the articles drafted by Democrats “flawed and unsupportable.”

Session priorities for state leaders

Gov. Greg Abbott promised to lure more businesses to Texas and punish cities that defund police while sharing his agenda for the 87th Legislative Session on Thursday.

Abbott participated in an indoor event hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, where hospitals are critically full, and the city is at its highest level of COVID-19 risk.

About half of the attendees wore masks at the indoor event.

“2021 is going to be even better than 2020,” Abbott said, citing businesses like Tesla and HP that have relocated to Texas. “The United States needs Texas to lead.”

Abbott made little mention of the coronavirus pandemic as he outlined his priorities for lawmakers who returned to the Capitol this week.

He instead called for a law that would allow the state to withhold sales tax revenue from cities that defund police, vowed to fight federal government overreach by the incoming Biden administration and expressed a desire to make Texas a second amendment sanctuary state.

“He’s talking about issues that don’t matter to Texans,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “He’s talking about issues that really stand to benefit himself.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, heard what sounded like the beginnings of a national campaign.

In an interview in November, Abbott said he was focused on being re-elected to the governor’s Office in 2022 but did not close the door on a bid for the White House in 2024.

“It was definitely bigger than just a State of the State address,” Rottinghaus said. “(Abbott) at the end was very clear that he thought this was a model that the U.S. could use. Texas can lead the way on conservative values and a strong economy.”

“This is exactly what George W. Bush did when he ran for president. It’s exactly what Rick Perry did when he ran for president. Greg Abbott is following that model to a tee.”

Abbott said he wants to protect Texans with pre-existing conditions and expand telemedicine this legislative session.

At no time during the 30-minute discussion did Abbott mention the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout or the more than 31,000 Texans who have died from the virus — a challenge Rottinghaus said he won’t be able to avoid.

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“If he can’t get past this moment where there’s a tremendous health crisis which is proceeding a tremendous policy crisis then it’s going to be a black mark on his candidacy in Texas and possibly nationally,” Rottinghaus said.

Abbott has not yet announced his emergency priorities for the legislative session which are the first order of business for lawmakers. Those priorities are typically unveiled during the State of the State address.

Republican Dade Phelan is outlining his priorities for the new legislative session as he becomes the Speaker of the House.

Phelan announced in early November he expected to have enough votes to take on the position which presides over the Texas House of Representatives and maintains order during debates.

Phelan has represented House District 21, which includes Orange County and part of Jefferson County in Southeast Texas since 2015.

Phelan told Nexstar’s Wes Rapaport Monday morning that public education would be a top priority this year, in addition to building up the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re gonna do our best to make sure our commitment to public education is strong,” Phelan said.

“When you go look at your personal budget back home, or my personal budget in my house, or my, you know, the budget that I have in my business — whatever I spend the most money on is the most important thing,” Phelan said.. “And the most important thing here in Texas is education.”

In his role as Speaker, Phelan becomes one of the “Big Three” in Texas, which includes the governor and lieutenant governor. Phelan said he’s looking forward to getting to know Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick more over weekly breakfasts.

“I’m getting to know them,” Phelan said of Abbott and Patrick. “You know, they are they’re good people, I really respect them and they work hard.”

“We’ve had some preliminary conversations,” Phelan continued. “We’ll have a lot more conversations and we’ll spend a lot more time together, but we’re all committed to get Texas economy back up and running.”

The Speaker’s role also includes giving out committee assignments in the House. Although there is some push for him to appoint only Republicans as committee chairs, he indicated he planned to do what his predecessors have and give some assignments to Democrats as well.

“We will continue the the legacy that my predecessors have had both Republican and Democrat,” Phelan said. “When Republicans were in the minority, Democrats gave them a proportionate share of chairmanships, and then Republicans came into power, they gave Democrats proportionate share of chairmanships, and that’s not going to end.”

Democrats will have a more difficult time in the upper chamber at the Capitol. In an 18-13 vote along party lines, the Texas Senate adopted a key rule change that lowers the threshold for a bill to come to the floor for a vote.

The effort was led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who aimed to ensure Republicans (who are in the majority) have more power to override Democrats wishing to block legislation.

The balance of power in the chamber is 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats with the addition of new members from the 2020 election.

“We can’t do anything you want us to do, if we don’t change the rule,” Patrick told guests at a luncheon hosted by a conservative public policy think tank. “Anything that’s important, conservative bills will be blocked, gun bills, life bills, tax bills will be blocked.”

“We have to do it,” Patrick continued. “That’s what you elected us to do.”

That threshold has dipped at the start of the last two sessions, from 21 votes to 19 votes and after Wednesday, 18 votes needed to consider a bill.

Democrats say Patrick is moving the goalposts.

“I grew up in Whitney, Texas, and I will be darned if I remember us studying what 5/9 is,” State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said. “2/3 yes, 3/5 yes, but 5/9? We just never contemplated somebody standing up trying to say they wanted to be governed by 5/9.”

Patrick said elections matter.

“We’re the majority,” he said at Wednesday’s luncheon. “Elections matter.”

“So it’s going to be 16 a simple majority plus two,” he explained. “And they said, ‘well that’s — it’s political.’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re the majority.’”

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The Senate also discussed coronavirus protocols as well as operations for the Redistricting Committee, tasked with redrawing district boundaries.

Lawmakers face funding challenge

The Texas House and Senate both held swearing-in ceremonies for members on Tuesday. That launched the 140-day biennium legislative session in a state where the coronavirus continues to strain health care systems and thwart the economy.

On Monday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers that they will face a $1 billion budget shortfall in the upcoming session, a relief compared to the $4.6 billion shortfall estimate he made in July.

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State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, an Austin Democrat, brings with her a background in shaping budgets from her time as the Travis County judge.

“I’m looking forward to learning how to rebuild a state infrastructure that responds even in good times to Texas residents,” Eckhardt said.

Rep. Donna Howard of Austin was first elected to the Texas House in 2006 and served through the housing market crash and recession.

Howard, a Democrat, said the state is only now recovering from billions of dollars of cuts that were made to public education, a mistake it can’t afford to make again.

“It was very grueling, actually, because there was clearly a demarcation between those who wanted to maintain services and those who wanted to cut,” Howard said.

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Republican Rep. John Cyrier of Lockhart represents Central Texas’ most rural district.

He believes some pandemic-related issues, like broadband access for students learning from home, may force lawmakers to bridge the gap between rural and urban Texans.

“To me, it’s more education,” Cyrier said. “It’s more of just understanding our way of life.”

Changes inside the Capitol

Both the Texas House and Senate adopted rules for their respective chambers this week, and in them — regulations on how to balance public health with their ability to legislate.

The Senate voted on its rules Wednesday. The House passed its rules Thursday.

Lawmakers are taking different approaches to how they and their staff will interact with constituents.

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, skipped Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, calling it a “superspreader event.” Her Capitol office is closed to the public, but she is still taking virtual meetings.

“I bought an air purifier for this office,” she said. “Everybody’s facing walls instead of facing each other. We keep the masks on in the office.”

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“What you’re trying to do is if one person gets COVID, that your whole office doesn’t get COVID,” Beckley, entering her second term in the statehouse, said.

“You can still be open, you just aren’t face to face,” she explained.

Across the dome, State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is keeping his new office open to the public.

“We welcome folks to make appointments; we welcome folks to come by,” Hughes said. “That hasn’t changed.”

“We’re here, we’ve all tested negative,” Hughes mentioned, citing Senate rules he crafted requiring regular testing of members and staff.

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“Masks are worn in the common areas of the Capitol,” Hughes stated. “When we’re on the Senate floor, we wear a mask until we get to our desk.”

The start of the legislative session, combined with potential protests at state Capitols around the nation following the unrest at the nation’s Capitol, has spurred a stronger law enforcement presence at the Texas Capitol Complex. Extra state troopers were called in to protect the building and its occupants. The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it deployed additional personnel, but refused to discuss operational specifics.

Capitol visitors are required to wear masks in public spaces of the building. Free COVID-19 testing is available in front of the north entrance. Testing is optional for entry, but some lawmakers may require a negative test to enter their office, and the Senate requires a negative test to enter the chamber.

Both the House and Senate adjourned until Jan. 26.

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