New Texas House Rules Reflect COVID-19 Risks; Don’t Allow Public To Testify Virtually

Though most legislators can participate in hearings online, members of the public must appear in person.

By Jill Ament, Michael Marks & Shelly BrisbinJanuary 15, 2021 11:25 am

As the Texas House of Representatives’ session got underway this week, debates continued about how the body would address COVID-19 risks, including about the impact of the virus on voting in the House chamber and on public access to the legislative process. 

Scott Braddock is editor of the Quorum Report. He told Texas Standard that the 150 House members will not be allowed to cast floor votes from home or from other remote locations, but they can vote from laptops while at the Capitol. The goal is to facilitate social distancing.

“They have given them laptops that are supposedly secure laptops that they can vote from,” Braddock said. “[Members can vote from] the gallery or from rooms that are immediately adjoining the Texas House floor, so they can do that spacing a little bit better … or they can still vote from their desks on the House floor.”

One reasons House leaders wanted to prevent remote voting is that it could look like a precedent for election procedures in the future. Conservative opponents of remote voting for their constituents don’t want to allow it in the House.

Lawmakers also have said the process of legislating is better done in person, where persuasion can be brought to bear.

“Legislating – it’s a very intimate process,” Braddock said. “It’s an eyeball-to-eyeball kind of thing.”

Public input rules have also shifted because of COVID-19.

“Under the House rules, in committees other than redistricting, only two lawmakers have to be present in the room for it to constitute a quorum, so they can listen to testimony on various pieces of legislation,” Braddock said.

That testimony must be offered in person, even though lawmakers can attend meetings virtually.

Rules governing the 2021 redistricting process have already put Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides, with Republicans voting down all changes Democrats proposed to the deliberation process, without making specific responses to the proposals.

“The reason you don’t talk about redistricting when you’re a Republican is that this is going to end up in a courtroom,” Braddock said. “Redistricting is something that’s always heavily litigated.”

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