Limited capacity at Texas Capitol during 2021 session raises transparency concerns

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — 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, explained.

“There’ll be fewer guests, members will be spread out further apart 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.”

The Capitol grounds will open for the first time Wednesday, Dec.16, according to the State Preservation Board. The building, however, will stay closed.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Baytown Republican, submitted a request for an opinion from the Texas Attorney General, asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on access to the Capitol and whether legislators can vote on legislation from a location other than their respective chambers.

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