Lawmakers face virus, economic challenges as session opens

Amid masks and newly erected Plexiglas barriers in the Senate chamber, Governor Greg Abbott called on legislators to work together to address the unprecedented challenges facing them as the 87th Legislative Session began Tuesday.  With the pandemic still raging and a nation facing uncertain economic future, Abbott said the country needs Texas to lead.  “That means tackling COVID challenges and ensuring better access to healthcare for all Texans,” he said. “It means supporting our law enforcement officers and keeping our communities safe.  It means safeguarding freedom for all Texans and it means getting Texans back to work.”

Normally a bustling, boisterous day with thousands of constituents, family members and well-wishers packing the Capitol building to mark the beginning of a new 140-day session, this year saw a far more muted occasion.  COVID-19 precautions mean empty hallways and vacant galleries in both the House and Senate chambers.  Rather than their entire families, Senators were limited to a single guest on the floor.  Despite the pandemic, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told members he was committed to providing access to citizens while protecting all who enter the Capitol.  “We want our Capitol open this session,” he said. “We want the public to be here, to be able to testify, and have your voice heard in committees, to visit your representatives…We’re going to be open to the best of our ability this session.”  The Senate is expected to vote on rules, which will include COVID mitigation protocols, later this week.

Because of the twin crises of COVID and a collapse in the price of oil, lawmakers arrive in Austin facing a $950 million budget shortfall, much less than the $4.8 billion beginning balance they expected.  State Comptroller Glenn Hegar laid out the situation during his biennial revenue estimate press conference Monday, telling legislators how much revenue they have to work with as they prepare to pay for state services in 2022 and 2023.  “The pandemic, which resulted in steep declines in key sources of revenue in the later half of fiscal [year] 2020 and has continued to drag down collections in fiscal [year] 2021 wiped out a projective positive ending balance and has turned it into a currently projected deficit of nearly $1 billion,” said Hegar.  His office estimates that the state will collect $112.53 billion in general revenue over the next two years, down slightly from the current biennium.

Hegar said the state could see a robust recovery in the back half of the calendar year.  “The prospect of effective and widely administered vaccines generates hope for a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity in the next year,” he said.  Though the recent resurgence of infections in Texas could slow economic activity in the near term, Hegar said he does not anticipate an economic contraction similar to the one that happened this spring.  As Texans spent less during the pandemic, they put more in savings and paid down more debt.  “These and other factors suggest there may be capacity for a substantial surge in consumer spending once pandemic concerns have receded,” said Hegar.

Last session, the state invested about $4.5 billion in new education funding, but the economic downturn has raised concerns that Texas won’t be able to maintain that level of spending.  Hegar said that he has had many meetings with state lawmakers worried they wouldn’t be able to hold to the commitments made in 2019.  “I think the position that we’re in today…they’ll be able to continue to maintain those commitments this legislative session,” he said.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, January 13 at 1:30 p.m.

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