On Thursday, Texas House lawmakers tasked with investigating the response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde met for the second time. Most testimony is taking place behind closed doors, so little information about the proceedings has been available.
Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders earlier this week signaled how much money they want to spend on increasing mental health resources in the state, as well as more funding for the Department of Public Safety, including for Gov. Greg Abbott’s border mission, Operation Lone Star.
John Moritz has been following the latest for the USA Today Network’s Austin Bureau, where he covers the Texas Capitol. He told the Texas Standard that the closed nature of the hearings is unusual, and that lawmakers say it’s because they’re taking a “quasi-judicial” approach. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s start with these House investigative hearings into the Uvalde shooting. What does House Speaker Dade Phelan want to accomplish?
John Moritz: Well, it’s an interesting thing where they calling it a “quasi-judicial approach” to it, which could mean that perhaps some sort of charges might be brought in an instance or, you know, something that will go to the courts. And that’s why they’re doing it behind closed doors, which kind of, you know, makes it a bit opaque for those of us who cover it and for the listeners who want to follow this story along.
It feels like we’ve been in the dark many times with details on this shooting. And as you said, these hearings are happening behind closed doors. Is that normal?
This is the first that I can recall in my many years covering Austin. Typically, public hearings are just that: They’re public hearings. They’re held in a committee room; witnesses sign up and they testify. Typically they’re live-streamed for anybody who wants to watch along. However, there are some sensitive issues here. And it’s my sense that the lawmakers basically want to be sure that they don’t do anything that’s going to mess up the investigation by either the [Texas] Rangers or the FBI and the other law enforcement agencies that might be looking into the events of May 24th.
Meanwhile, Speaker Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had some back-and-forth earlier this week about funding for mental health services and more ballistic equipment for DPS. How much more money are we talking here? And do the chamber leaders seem to be in agreement over allocating these funds?
I think they’re in general agreement from the 50,000-foot level. We’re talking about $100 million when it’s all said and done, and that’ll come out of the budget that’s already approved. You know, they can shift money around from one agency to another. And also, just because the economy has come back and the oil and gas taxes are coming in, there is plenty of money for lawmakers to basically kind of redirect to some of these programs that both the speaker and the lieutenant governor seem to agree on in principle.
The speaker has agreed to Patrick’s proposal to buy a new ballistic shields for troopers. And he’s in general agreement on many of the mental health initiatives that the speaker’s also put out there. You know, obviously, this is a negotiation. It’s not [that] one person gets to decide, so there’ll be some back-and-forth. But the sense is that they will agree on something.
Have we heard from either Phelan or Patrick on issues of gun control or gun safety?
That’s probably off the table from both sides. The Democrats want to go there; the Democrats are outnumbered. The Republicans do not want to go there when it comes to restricting firearms in Texas. So I do not think we will see any real movement on that front. The statements that both have put out do not include any gun safety or gun control measures.
Well, you mentioned Texas does have money coming in, particularly with oil and gas. But competing for funding is Gov. Greg Abbott’s border mission, known as Operation Lone Star. Am I right that DPS received about $2 billion in the past two fiscal years for that?
Yeah, that that is true. The DPS budget of late is sort of analogous to the Defense Department’s budget during the Cold War years a generation or so ago. It seems like what they want, they get – and sometimes they even get more than they might ask for. So, yeah, there’s money going to DPS, and the state is not being stingy with it.
And this can happen outside of the legislative session – this is the kind of decision that can be made sometime soon, is that right?
Yeah, because the Legislature only meets every other year, the Constitution and the law provide mechanisms – it’s called budget execution. It’s kind of a technical term where the leaders of the budget-writing committees and the legislative leaders and the governor can basically agree to shuffle money around that’s already been allocated. They can’t come up with brand-new money like levy a tax through this; that has to be done by the Legislature. But as long as there’s money out there, they have a fair amount of latitude to move it around once it’s declared an emergency and some other legal standards are met.