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Senate begins redistricting hearings as federal count delays increase

By Richard Lee

In the middle of the first week of public regional hearings on new political maps, lawmakers found out they are going to have to wait even longer to get official numbers showing how Texas’ population has changed over the last ten years.  According to the US Census Bureau, the apportionment data, which determines how many representatives each state has in the US House, won’t be available until the end of April.  The redistricting data, those figures that drive the process of drawing new boundary lines for statehouse and congressional districts, won’t be available before the end of July.  This all but guarantees a special session on redistricting for the Legislature.

In a normal census year, reapportionment data is delivered before the end of that year, but the pandemic, legal challenges, and storms over the summer led to delay after delay.   Early estimates indicate that Texas added four million to total population since 2010, and the state should see three new seats in Congress, but legislators won’t know for sure for some months.

Despite the delays in federal data, the Senate pressed ahead this week with postponed regional hearings. Normally conducted across the state during the interim, the COVID-19 pandemic made it too risky to travel from city to city to hear from local constituents on what they want to see out of the redistricting process.  Instead, a Senate committee, for the first time, is only hearing testimony via videoconference.  This week, the Special Committee on Redistricting heard from witnesses from all over the state regarding their views on how new district lines should be drawn.  With several more hearings to go, committee chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman wants as many people as possible to participate. “My goal is to ensure these regional hearings are as safe, accessible and productive as possible,” said Huffman.  Those wishing to participate in the process can register for future meetings online at https://redistricting.capitol.texas.gov/2020s, by clicking the relevant hearing notice to find registration instructions for a particular hearing.

Also this week, some members of the Senate issued a public call for improvements in the state’s efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations.  Echoing a letter he sent last week to the panel charged with oversight over the vaccination effort, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told members on Tuesday that there isn’t enough vaccine to meet demand, even in the currently eligible groups.  The largest group, tier 1b, consists of Texans aged 65 or older, or those with certain chronic health conditions that could lead to severe complications.  There are more than 4 million people in Texas in that age group, and millions more younger people who qualify based on health history.  “If we’re getting 1.2 million [doses] a month and we have, seven, eight or nine million in the group of 1a or 1b, it could be months before they could get that [vaccination],” said Patrick.

In his letter, Patrick asked the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel to consider targeting key groups: those aged 75 and older and teachers aged 65 and older.  With 1.5 million Texans in that age group, and about 60,000 teachers older than 65, Patrick said he thinks that group could be fully vaccinated within six weeks.  For San Antonio Senator José Menéndez, focusing on teachers is key.  “We’re asking teachers to make a choice every day,” he said.  “Go to work, open our schools, and risk catching COVID, and we’re not even making them a priority.”

States could soon see an increase in vaccine supply.  The federal government announced this week that it will increase the number of vaccine doses sent to each state by 15 percent, and Johnson and Johnson released final phase data Friday showing their one dose vaccine was 85 percent effective at preventing severe disease, and prevented any hospitalizations or deaths in their trial group.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 9th at 3 p.m.