Texas lawmakers responded to the pandemic by limiting what the government can do in response to a pandemic

Texas lawmakers responded to the pandemic by limiting what the government can do in response to a pandemic
Texas lawmakers responded to the pandemic by limiting what the government can do in response to a pandemic

A state trooper stand guard outside of the door to the House chamber on opening day of the legislative session on Jan. 12, 2021.

A state trooper stands guard outside the entrance to the House chamber on the opening day of the legislative session.

Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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During a legislative session that kicked off at the height of the pandemic in Texas in January, state lawmakers sent a slate of bills to the governor aimed largely at protecting Texans’ rights against a state pandemic response that conservative state leaders believed went too far.

Lawmakers passed bills that, among other things, prohibit so-called vaccine passports, and ban the mandatory closure of churches and gun stores during an emergency declaration.

“Let freedom ring!” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, tweeted Sunday after the Legislature approved bills that included the ban on government entities and businesses requiring proof of vaccination for products or services.

Lawmakers also passed legislation that requires the state to contract with U.S. companies for personal protective equipment (and not with foreign companies) when possible, requires the creation of rules allowing clergy visits to patients during a public health emergency, allows visitation to long-term care facility residents during emergencies, and allows sick and dying COVID-19 patients to have one visitor — addressing devastating reports of loved ones dying alone in hospitals with family members unable to say goodbye.

Many of those measures were in direct response to orders issued by Gov. Greg Abbott under guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by local health authorities imposing restrictions such as mask requirements, visitation restrictions and school protocols to slow spread of the virus.

Left in the ashes of the session, which ended Monday, were proposals that would have updated the state’s immunization registry, created an emergency mass vaccination and distribution plan, prioritized first responders in vaccine rollouts, and funded research into health equity issues to address racial inequities in the system that were exposed by the pandemic.

More than 150 bills and resolutions pertaining to the pandemic were filed by lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About 20 of them passed.

Another notable casualty of the contentious session, which was dominated by top conservative priorities like abortion and voting restrictions, was an effort to curtail the governor’s powers during disasters.

“This session’s results were mixed,” said James Quintero, a policy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Some conservative wins, he said, included the closure of what he described as a tax loophole that allows cities to exceed statewide property tax increase limits during a disaster. He also applauded a new law requiring public health orders to be periodically reviewed by local elected officials.

Quintero said lawmakers missed an opportunity to rein in both state and local executive authority, decriminalize violations of emergency health orders and instead impose fines for violations, and address some open-government issues that came up during the pandemic, including a measure that would have sped up public information requests during a quarantine, he said.

“We took some steps in the right direction this session, but there’s clearly more work to be done,” Quintero said.

Hospitals, which saw their intensive care units overflowing with COVID-19 patients when cases surged, applauded the passage of Senate Bill 6, which protects them from lawsuits if they were acting in good faith during the pandemic.

“Hospitals have been on the front lines battling the devastating effects of COVID-19, caring for patients during surges and with limited capacity. They put themselves at risk while treating those in need,” said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association. The bill “does not protect bad actors who are reckless, or who engage in intentional, willful or wanton misconduct.”

While the Republican leadership’s priorities were mainly focused on releasing Texans from government restrictions during disasters, lawmakers also passed measures that addressed transparency and accountability regarding the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as any future health emergencies or disasters.

“Lawmakers and the public alike have watched as government agencies responded with sweeping statewide policies to reduce the impact of the virus,” Kolkhorst, who authored some of the legislation, said in a March statement. “Sometimes these measures struggled to find the right balance between public health and our individual rights. We must now utilize the lessons learned over the past year to improve the state’s response to any future health event.”

The sweeping Senate Bill 968 by Kolkhorst creates the Office of the Chief Epidemiologist within the Texas Department of State Health Services to respond to disease outbreaks and coordinate with the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

It also creates an expert panel, composed of five doctors and four health care providers, that will be charged with providing recommendations to the chief epidemiologist during declared emergencies or disasters.

And the bill also requires health officials to produce a report on the successes and failures of the state’s coronavirus response.

Lawmakers also passed bills addressing shortcomings with the data-collection systems between the state and health care facilities. A glitchy state computer system stymied efforts in the early days of the pandemic to track and manage the coronavirus in Texas and left policymakers with incomplete, and at times inaccurate, data about the virus’ spread.

A bill allowing home health and hospice workers to administer the vaccine also passed, addressing a problem that emerged during the pandemic when homebound older and frail Texans were unable to leave their homes to get vaccinated early in the rollout.

Legislation aimed at limiting the governor’s emergency powers during disasters, an idea that had bipartisan support, fell victim to infighting between the House and Senate and didn’t pass.

Senate Bill 1025 would have prohibited the governor from issuing disaster orders that close businesses or impose limits on occupancy or hours of operation, reserving that power for the Legislature. It died in a House committee.

And a Senate bill that would have required the governor to call the Legislature into a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days also died in a House committee.

Meanwhile, the House’s priority legislation on the issue, House Bill 3, died in a conference committee after the two chambers failed to hash out differences. As passed by the lower chamber, the legislation would have given the Legislature more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during health emergencies.

House Speaker Dade Phelan said the negotiations on that wide-ranging bill broke down over the idea of calling for a special session to deal with any natural disaster declaration, not just a pandemic.

The Senate wanted more broad limits on Abbott, while the House felt that went too far, Phelan told The Texas Tribune earlier this week.

“There’s no reason to have a special session to talk about a hurricane,” said Phelan, whose district is on the Gulf Coast northeast of Galveston. “If you have a hurricane, you don’t need to be in Austin. I need to be boots on the ground.”

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The National Conference of State Legislatures, the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas lawmakers responded to the pandemic by limiting what the government can do in response to a pandemic
Source: Texas Tribune