March 12, 2019

Closed for Business

Governor Could Move 2021 Regular Session to Middle of Nowhere
By Declaring Killer Illness as Official Enemy to Minimize Spread

MIKE HAILEY

The Texas Legislature could be homeless when it's scheduled to convene again 10 months from today if the state Capitol is shut down at some point before then as a potential consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

While no one has a clue how long the worst public health crisis since 1918 could go on, it's not inconceivable to think that Texas lawmakers could be casting votes on home computers in 2021 in the first regular session to ever be conducted on video conference.

There's simply nothing that's no longer unfathomable in the infant stages of a highly-contagious and lethal disease that's prompted the suspension of the NBA season, the cancellation of major events like South by Southwest and the Houston Rodeo and the transformation of universities into ghost towns. Spectators have been banned at college basketball playoff games and events like the World Golf Classic in Austin two weeks from now.

The White House is scrambling to make up for a lackadaisical initial response by acknowledging today that President Donald Trump has been putting out false information amid erroneous claims about having the situation under control. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence could have been infected with COVID-19 after posing arm-in-arm with a Brazilian official who's tested positive for the virus.

But the show is supposed to go on as far as Texas lawmakers are concerned. The Texas Constitution requires that legislative sessions to be held in Austin. But it also gives the governor the power to suspend that particular mandate for the sake of staging a session outside the Capitol City in times of emergency brought on by the threat of an "enemy attack" in the Lone Star State.

That raises the question on whether Governor Greg Abbott could declare the coronavirus to be an official enemy as a way to have the Legislature meet in a more secluded setting than the heart of the nation's 11th largest city.

But the physical location for the critical redistricting session in 2021 could be irrelevant if one or more of 150 state representatives and 31 senators happened to have the virus in chambers where colleagues are sharing and breathing the same air. Legislators who might be infected without their knowledge would be spreading it to constituents under such a scenario if they returned home without being tested first.

Abbott would be required to consult with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen before temporarily invalidating the constitutional restriction of sessions in Austin as the formal "seat of government" here.

But the Republican governor could suspend the session location requirement regardless of what the presiding officers think. Abbott would have the authority to pick a different place to have the session take place during the period of emergency that he would have to officially declare.

The House and Senate would be able in such an event to suspend all of the procedural rules by voting to concur in the governor's emergency proclamation. Abbott could also decide on the time and date for a relocated session with broad powers for the implementation of security precautions and how much information that could be made public.

Abbott could shift the 2021 regular session to some remote outpost in West Texas - the state's most sparsely populated region. The safest session, however, would presumably be online to minimize the spread of COVID-19. That's what Texas college and university leaders decided in the past few days when they started telling students not to return to campus after spring break and to prepare to resume their studies in classes on the Internet for the time being.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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