State of Texas: A frantic deadline for lawmakers and questions about risks as mask guidelines ease

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Hundreds of bills died in the Texas House early Friday morning. Facing a midnight deadline, House lawmakers rushed to approve scores of bills, almost all done by voice vote.

As the final seconds ticked off before the deadline, lawmakers squeezed in one final bill, a measure to expand protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. Speaker Dade Phelan and the House Clerk spoke at auctioneer pace to bring up the bill. When asked to explain the legislation, State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) said quickly, “Sexual harassment protection! Move passage!”

It took lawmakers 19 seconds to approve the legislation.

While that bill got through, hundreds of others were left out. There are ways to bring legislation back, as amendments to other bills, for instance. But few bills that missed the deadline are likely to become law this session.

The House deadline blocked a bill to improve how the state tracks data on mothers who die or barely survive childbirth.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said State Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Houston), who filed the legislation. Her bill made it to the House calendar, but did not get heard before the midnight deadline. Thierry had filed the legislation in two previous sessions, without success.

“Once again, it looks like we’re kicking the can down the road and so, I’m just left asking ‘Do Texas moms matter?’”

Thierry’s concerns were first highlighted in KXAN’s “Mothers Erased” investigation in 2019 which found problems with how Texas tracks deaths and near deaths.

The web portal would have collected data daily from health care providers on deaths during or within one year of delivery, high-risk conditions and complications. 

Thierry’s bill would have created the development of a work group to establish the first statewide, online maternal mortality and morbidity data registry. 

Thierry said the chances of the bill advancing as an amendment are slim.

“I’ve looked for so many other bills and vehicles to try to add this legislation to it. But unfortunately, there was very little legislation done this session on maternal mortality,” Thierry explained.

“I think that speaks and underscores why I am still continuing to champion this issue. So much more work needs to be done.”

Some of this session’s most controversial legislation is still on track to pass. State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) authored the “heartbeat bill” to restrict abortion and Senate Bill 7 to tighten election restrictions.

State Senator Bryan Hughes co-authored the heartbeat bill and Senate Bill 7 to tighten election restrictions.

Wes Rapaport sat down with Hughes to get his perspective on the next steps.

WES: So let’s talk a little bit about first off Senate Bill 7. The House made some changes. They’re sending it back to you. As I guess, what is your assessment of that legislation? As it comes back? Are you happy with the changes? Is that something you can work with?

Bryan Hughes: Yes, the process is working just like it’s supposed to. We’ve worked with our friends over in the House. Rep. Briscoe Cain knows the election code very well knows the House rules very well. The work they did in committee, and then on the floor, it gets us in good shape to go to a conference committee; you know how that goes with the House and Senate versions are worked out. I think we’re going to come out of the conference committee with a really good bill.

WES: This gives you the opportunity, you and Chairman Cain, to rework the legislation in the conference committee. Some people in this building have brought up a concern that it would allow you guys to rewrite the bill back there and take take things that maybe some Democrats have added in and wipe them out. Can you respond to that?

Bryan Hughes: Well, the conference committee will have five members from the House, five members from the Senate and then those members have to be voted on by the each house. Then those conference committee members will come up with a proposal for the House and Senate. It’s got to be passed by majority of both the House and the Senate. So there’s plenty of checks in the process. You know how that goes, the conference committee is normally where those final details get worked out. So it’s a process. Its people are familiar with it and all along the way there’s input. Again, its got to be voted on, its got to get a majority of both the House and the Senate before it goes to the governor. So it’s going to work like it should.

Hughes and other conservatives have faced criticism for spending time on divisive social issues like abortion and transgender rights at the expense of legislation to address the pandemic or power problems highlighted by the winter storm.

Hughes says lawmakers are making progress on what needs to be done.

“The COVID relief bill is already through the Senate. It’s been worked on by a lot of parties to get it right. It’s over in the House,” Hughes said. He added that the legislation gives “folks certainty as to what the responsibilities are, what’s expected of them in terms of dealing with COVID, and what’s a business’ potential liability if someone gets sick.”

Hughes said he’s confident that lawmakers will approve new measures to prevent a future power crisis, like what happened during the winter storm.

“We’ve already passed strong bills in the Senate to require winterization, and to require that if you’re a power company, if you’re a utility company, you’ve got to have extra fuel on site,” Hughes said. “So we’re taking steps to make sure that never happens again.”

“The storm we can’t control, that was a 100 year storm, maybe 150 year storm, we can’t control that. But we can do our part to make sure we’re ready,” Hughes said.

Governor begins bill signings

As lawmakers complete their work on legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott has begun signing some bills into law.

One bill signed by the governor made permanent the pandemic waiver that allowed restaurants to deliver alcohol-to-go. Another new law excludes medical and dental billing services from taxation, if they’re performed before an insurance claim is submitted. Abbott also signed a law that says businesses don’t have to pay franchise taxes on forgiven pandemic paycheck protection program loans.

“The last thing those businesses need at this time is to be taxed on those forgiven PPP loans,” Abbott said at the signing ceremony.

One bill likely to reach the governor’s desk this session aims to take away some of his powers. House Bill 3 would put new limits on the governor’s orders during a pandemic or a disaster. One provision would implement a legislative oversight committee that could strike down the governor’s emergency orders or terminate a Governor’s Disaster Declaration.

HB 3 cleared the House last week, and has now been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Tracking vaccines for lawmakers

Heading into the month of May, Texas reached a milestone: more than half the population over the age of 16 has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

This comes after months of Texans facing challenges trying to get vaccine appointments. Lawmakers across the state reported hearing from frustrated constituents about long wait times, technical glitches, general supply problems and other concerns about the vaccine distribution process.

“These calls have all but ceased,” noted a spokesperson for Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, in April.

With vaccine distribution becoming more widespread and supply picking up, health experts are turning their efforts toward battling hesitancy and misinformation. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found 28% of Texans reported no plans to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Almost all of the attention on the vaccination efforts has focused on the supply and issues with distribution efforts,” said research director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin Joshua Blank, in a press release in March. “But Texans don’t believe the vaccine distribution efforts are going poorly, and amidst consistent and stubborn vaccine skepticism, the real problem may soon be a lack of demand.”

Vaccine providers across the state have begun offering walk-up shots with no appointment, including Austin Public Health.

“Because there is so much available, there really is no barrier and no excuses,” said Cassandra DeLeon, APH’s assistant director.

Yet while public health officials continue to urge Texans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s unclear how many of the state’s elected officials have opted for the shot.

KXAN investigators surveyed the lawmakers sitting on key health-related committees in the Texas legislature, but many of them are not going public with their personal vaccine status.

Of the nearly 30 lawmakers contacted from the House Human Services and Public Health committees and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, only 15 reported having received the vaccine.

Several of these lawmakers noted how simple and available the vaccine has been for legislators and their staff since the state opened eligibility for anyone over the age of 16. The Texas House Administration Committee partnered with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to offer shots at the Capitol building.

“So, the process was relatively easy at that point. However, the Representative acknowledges this is not the case in many communities across Texas, especially with the inconsistencies in the registration process and access to waitlists and appointments,” said a spokesperson for State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told KXAN he opted to get the shot “publicly and on-camera specifically to help address the issue of vaccine hesitancy.”

“A lot of them are leading by example,” said political strategist Ray Sullivan.

Several lawmakers posted pictures on social media after their vaccinations. Others chose to share vaccine appointment and clinic information for their followers and constituents.

It’s not a new concept, Sullivan explained. When he worked in former Gov. Rick Perry’s office, Sullivan said Perry often received his influenza vaccine in public at a media event, “to show the public that vaccines are important.”

The former governor’s wife, who worked as a nurse, would often administer his shot.

“You’re never quite sure how painful a shot is going to be when your wife gives it you,” Sullivan laughed. “It was a good way for the governor and the first lady to talk about the importance of vaccines.”

Sullivan has worked on three presidential campaigns, plus he served as the spokesperson for several legislators and two Texas governors. After years in the political sphere, he said things have changed both locally and nationally — especially regarding the handling of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen, in recent years, everything has become so political and more divisive,” he said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that members on either side of the aisle want to keep those decisions private.”

After three emailed requests and several phone-calls to each legislative office over a month, a dozen lawmakers, and their staff, had not gotten back to KXAN investigators at the time of this report. Two lawmakers, State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and State Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, told KXAN they had “no comment.”

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, sit on the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel — the group deciding who’s eligible for the vaccine and how many doses providers get each week. KXAN did not receive a response from either lawmaker.

According to a report by the Washington Post, there’s similar uncertainty about the vaccination status of federal lawmakers, reportedly affecting the Office of Attending Physician’s decision to fully “reopen” legislative procedures in Washington D.C.

Their report explains that a letter from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, noted that 75% of the members in the U.S. House had received a vaccine. The Washington Post contacted 42 congressional offices, and just 24 said whether the member had been vaccinated. Nine Republicans said they had not received a shot.

However, at the state level, Sullivan noted the “part-time” nature of the Texas Legislature as another reason he wasn’t shocked by the lack of response.

“These are folks that come here and work for 140 days every other year, and then go back and have normal jobs and normal lives. Like everybody, it is up to them on how private or how public they want to be about their vaccines,” Sullivan said.

KXAN investigators took a look at vaccination rates in the counties represented by lawmakers on the the House Human Services and Public Health committees and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services.

According to state data from early May, most of these counties have reported somewhere from 30% to 40% of their population fully vaccinated. Collin County, represented by Rep. Candy Noble, has reported a higher vaccine rate, at 46%. Meanwhile, counties like Van Zandt and Fannin were reporting numbers closer to 26%. They are represented, in part, by Sen. Bob Hall R-Edgewood. Other portions of Hall’s district, like Rockwall County, have reported higher vaccination rates.

Managing the risk as mask and distancing guidelines ease

The Centers for Disease Control lifted its mask and distancing recommendations for people who have been fully vaccinated. But with polling showing that a significant minority of Texans are choosing not to get vaccinated, how big is the risk for them and for the rest of us?

We posed that and other questions to Dr. Gerald Parker. He’s the director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“The flip side of that coin, there’s a lot of people that are being vaccinated too in Texas,” Parker said responding to concerns about vaccine reluctance. “We have almost 80% of those who are 65 and older, the most vulnerable, have received at least one dose. And I think that’s contributing to a lot of the decrease in severity and deaths that we see in Texas, and actually across the United States.”

The CDC guidance that fully vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks nor follow social distancing rules has led some businesses to lift their mask rules. Parker expects that trend to continue, even though few places have implemented ways to confirm whether an unmasked person is vaccinated.

“And then that’s going to put a lot of responsibility on us, where it should be,” Parker said. “Personal responsibility is an important aspect of this in our daily lives for anything, and we have to learn how to manage risk and what’s comfortable for us and so forth.”

Even before the new CDC guidance, events with large crowds of people had begun to resume in Texas. The Texas Rangers had a near-capacity crowd for their season opener. Last weekend, a crowd of 73,126 packed AT&T Stadium for a boxing match. Football season and the return of live music concerts will likely bring more people together in the coming months.

“I think everybody needs to, you know, make some of their own kind of risk benefit analysis about whether they attend or not attend. And each of us have a different risk tolerance,” Parker said. He pointed to data that shows the virus risk is “very minimal” in outdoor settings.

As for indoor settings, Parker says each person needs to “make a risk calculation” based on their own level of comfort.

Moving forward, health experts like Parker will be looking at the lessons from this pandemic, aiming to improve the response the next time around.

“We’re going to have to take stock of everything that’s happened,” Parker said. Why did SARS-CoV-2 emerge in the first place? Why weren’t we more prepared to respond earlier?”

“So there’s a lot of what I call lessons observed, that we’re going to take have to take stock of these lessons observed so that we can turn those observations into real long lasting lessons learn because this will not be our last pandemic or major epidemic and we have to be better prepared to the future,” Parker concluded.

Remembering Julian Read

A man who helped shape the political landscape in Texas was laid to rest Thursday at the State Cemetery. Julian Read died last weekend at the age of 93.

Read was a press aide for Texas Gov. John Connally. That job placed him in the motorcade in Dallas when an assassin shot President John F. Kennedy. Read gave the first media briefing after the assassination.

Read also made a mark in the field of public relations. He founded Read-Poland Associates, an influential firm that advised scores of business and political clients. Read did campaign work for several candidates, including campaigns for six presidents.

Friends, like former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, remembered Read for his expertise and his kindness.

“Julian had the physical stature of John Wayne, tall and big and, and Texan. But he had the heart and compassion of Mother Teresa,” Barnes said, speaking to reporters after Read’s service.

“He was truly a bipartisan man. He wanted to run and you’d run against your opponents and, and and to have political combat. But he wanted you to be kind,” Barnes continued. “He wanted you to try to understand and to walk in your opponent’s shoes, or walk in your adversary shoes, or walk in your neighbor’s shoes to try to understand better what they were having to deal with.”

Luci Baines Johnson spoke to reporters after the service, sharing her thoughts on Read’s impact. “I also think the legacy will be that he was a gentleman, a man who cared about historic preservation, a man who participated in making history, a man who wanted to be a friend, and to befriend all.”

Read is survived by his two daughters and three grandchildren.

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