Rapid testing tents were set up on the north side of the Texas Capitol on Tuesday morning as the 87th Legislature commenced.
UNDER THE ROTUNDA
The Texas Legislature on Tuesday gaveled in what’s sure to be one of the most unique sessions in its history, with both the House and the Senate making quick work of their first day before adjourning.
In fact, this will be a quick week for lawmakers, followed by a nearly two-week recess. In what may be one sign of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the next four-plus months at the Capitol, both chambers will continue their work today and Thursday, then adjourn until Jan. 26.
A number of the factors that shape each session – such as committee assignments for lawmakers – won’t be determined until after each chamber reconvenes in late January. However, the legislature is squaring away some of its most basic structural business before it quits for the week.
Phelan Chosen as Speaker: The most significant piece of business from Monday’s mostly ceremonial activity was the election of a House speaker. As expected, the lower chamber chose Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont). He was nominated by Rep. Will Metcalf (R-Conroe), who in part cited his colleague’s “selfless actions” coordinating relief during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“He has been asked to step up and lead this body to probably what will be the toughest session any of us have ever experienced,” Representative Metcalf said on the House floor.
Representative Phelan was elected by a 143-2 vote, with four House members abstaining. When he addressed fellow lawmakers for the first time as speaker, he stressed the importance of focusing on education and the detriments to it caused by the pandemic, as well as getting Texans back to work by protecting citizens’ health and safety and revitalizing the economy through reduced regulatory burden.
Rules, or “What Will This Look Like?”: With the pandemic inevitably creating restrictions on the legislature’s normal course of business, both chambers are planning to debate and finalize their rules for this session in the coming days. The Senate plans to finalize its rules today, the House on Thursday.
Most important: how each chamber will conduct its committee hearings and in what manner they may be split between in-person testimony and remote appearances.
Budget Outlook Improves
The only thing the legislature is required by law to do each session is pass a two-year budget. Coming just ahead of Tuesday’s session kickoff was a state revenue budget estimate that looks a little better than the last one Comptroller Glenn Hegar issued.
On Monday, the comptroller’s office released its projection that the state has $112.5 billion available for the 2022-23 budget. It’s a decrease of 0.4% from the state budget currently in effect, but it’s a couple billion more than Comptroller Hegar estimated in July 2020. The comptroller’s office says the decline from the current budget is a direct result of the pandemic. The comptroller also is evaluating whether leftover federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act can help fill state budget shortfalls such as in the Medicaid program.
The state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the rainy day fund, will have a projected balance of $11.6 billion by the end of fiscal year 2023, also an increase. And the projected deficit fell from about $4.6 billion in the last estimate to about $1 billion in the new projection.