Featured, from left: Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, following their respective presentations before the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, January 23, 2020, as part of a legislative forum.
Photograph By PETER SALINAS
DHR Health: Texans’ in-person access to the Texas Capitol and to the Texas Legislature will be very different in 2021, say Reps. Guerra, Canales
In-person access to “The People’s House” – the Texas Capitol in Austin – and to the 181-members and their staffs who will be part of the 87th Texas Legislature, which returns to work on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, will most likely be restricted for the foreseeable future as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, say two area state lawmakers.
Equally important, COVID-19, which as of Wednesday, December 9, 2020, is reported to have killed 23,081 Texans among the 1,283,674 confirmed cases since as early as March 16, 2020, is expected to dramatically limit the number of major legislative proposals that will be considered during the 140-day regular session, which will officially adjourn (end) on Monday, May 31, 2021.
The issues of Texans’ in-person access to the Capitol and to the 181-members of the Texas Legislature are among major concerns and hopes for the Valley’s state legislative delegation.
Those and other state policy matters were discussed by Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, during the 2021 Texas Legislative Virtual Forum, which was held Thursday, December 3, 2020, as part of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Live Stream.
“As state lawmakers are gearing up to head back to Austin, they’ll be making important decisions on the coronavirus pandemic response, the state budget, and issues that will impact our community,” said Mario Lizcano, Administrator of Corporate Affairs, DHR Health, who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the event. “Now, more than ever, it’s important for (the public) to have from your representatives’ legislative and policy priorities.”
DHR Health was a Title Sponsor of the event.
DHR Health is the flagship teaching hospital for the UTRGV School of Medicine and encompasses a general acute hospital with the only dedicated women’s hospital south of San Antonio, a rehabilitation hospital, a behavioral hospital, more than 70 clinics Valley-wide, advanced cancer services, the only transplant program in the Rio Grande Valley – and the only functioning 24/7 Level 1 Trauma Center south of San Antonio.
Among the topics featured in the forum were the following issues:
• The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decrease in the prices of oil and natural gas, and the job losses in 2021 on the yet-to-be drafted, the two-year state budget that will begin on September 1, 2021;
• The recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who says he has the votes needed to be elected on Tuesday, January 12, 2o20 by fellow House members to serve as Texas Speaker of the House;
• The House and Senate committees that Hinojosa, Canales, and Guerra wish to be appointed or reappointed when the 87th Texas Legislature returns to work at the Capitol in January 2021;
• The proposed expansion of Medicaid, which along wit the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), provide health coverage for low-income children, families, seniors, and people with disabilities;
• The immediate and future roles of telemedicine and telehealth. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services; and
• The need to increase financial support for the UTRGV School of Medicine because of the enormous economic, medical education, and health care impact it has on deep South Texas.
Anchored in southwest Edinburg, with a growing presence in neighboring McAllen, DHR Health offers some of the most comprehensive medical care on the U.S. southern border, with more than 1,400 nurses and 600+ physicians providing care in 70+ specialties and sub-specialties.
DHR Health is headquartered on a 130-acre site, with most of the facilities in southwest Edinburg but with a growing South Campus immediately across Owassa Road in northeast McAllen,
Former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen (January 2005 through June 2012), served as the moderator for the legislative forum, Lizcano added.
Gonzáles currently serves as Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She also is a member of the Board of Directors, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, and President, Board of Directors, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce
She raised statewide worries about how the Texas Legislature will deal with preventing the spread of the infectious airborne disease inside of the Capitol, which has a capacity of 5,000 people.
“We know that all sessions are unique, and all come with their own set of challenges. But it goes without saying that this upcoming legislative session will be like none other. None of us have ever been through a session in the midst of a pandemic,” she emphasized. “We know that the Capitol is referred to as the ‘’People’s House.’ With COVID-19 still surging in many parts of the state, what are the chances of being able to go to the Capitol and testify in your committees, for instance, or visit an office, or advocate for issues?”
Canales, Chair, House Committee on Transportation, said House and Senate leaders are developing plans for some level of in-person public access in the Texas Capitol.
“We know the importance of the people’s voice on any measure of legislation. That’s what we are there to do – to hear the people, to take testimony,” said the House District 40 state lawmaker. “Not only in my committee but in other committees on which I serve, I have had my opinion changed by the public’s testimony. I have walked in with one frame of mind, then heard all the testimony, and done a 180 degree on what I believed was my position.
“It is imperative, it is paramount, it is the cornerstone of democracy to have people testify,” Canales proclaimed.
Guerra echoed similar sentiments and provided a possible vision on how the House of Representatives may operate under the coming leadership of the soon-to-be Speaker of the House Phelan, who currently serves as Chair, House Committee on State Affairs.
Phelan was in the Rio Grande Valley on Monday, November 23, 2020.
“Chairman Phelan, when he came down, did tell us is that this is going to be a very different session because of the fact that we are dealing with COVID. The Capitol is going to be a different place. People are not going to be able to just walk in like they’ve done in the past,” Guerra predicted. “There’s going to be certain restrictions. Our offices are going to be open, but from what I understand, appointments will have to be made, and things of that nature.”
As for the volume of legislative proposals that are even considered by House committees, such as the House Committee on State Affairs, which heard testimony on more than 500 bills in 2019, Guerra believes such numbers will see significant decreases.
“Chairman Phelan made it very clear that we are not going to be doing that this upcoming session. I already see state legislators filing all these bills, but I can almost assure you that all of those bills, when he (Phelan) selects his chairs of the House committees, he is going to sit them down and tell them, ‘Look, we don’t have time to be fighting over silly things, and we don’t have time to be hearing as many bills as we have traditionally heard.’”
Rather, state lawmakers will focus on the two duties required by the Texas Constitution: the state budget and redistricting.
“We have to pass a state budget, and redistricting,” the House District 41 legislator said. “Redistricting involves redrawing the congressional, state senate, and state representative maps. That’s going to eat up a lot of time. Will there be much time for other things during this pandemic? I dare say not. We are going to focus on those issues that are going to help Texans get back on their feet.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. There is no substitute for public input. We are going to have to ensure that the public is part of the process,” Canales said. ‘The reality is this – we’ve got the balance the danger of COVID-19 and the public health concern, with the value of (the public’s access to the Texas Legislature). This may not be the session to hear certain types of bills. We’re going to have to prioritize what we hear because we are living in a different time.”
According to the Texas Tribune, in an article by Cassandra Pollock published on Tuesday, December 1, 2020:
“In the most detailed public glimpse yet at how the 2021 legislative session might play out during a pandemic, the chair of the committee that handles administrative operations in the Texas House told a group of lobbyists Tuesday that masks may be required in all public parts of the Texas Capitol and that a limit could be placed on the number of people allowed inside the building.
“State Rep.Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, listed a number of details during a presentation to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbyist, and government affairs group. He also said that the House was looking at remote voting options for the chamber’s 150 members, which would allow lawmakers to vote on bills from elsewhere inside the building if they decide to not be present on the floor.
“Geren said people entering the Capitol during the session will likely be tested and that lawmakers might require visitors to schedule appointments before arriving. They can limit the risks, he said, but can’t expect to completely prevent COVID-19 cases.
“We’re going to plan for an outbreak in the Capitol,” he said. “I think we have to.”
On Saturday, December 5, 2020, the Texas Tribune’s Pollock provided a key update:
“As the latest discussions over how the Texas Legislature should operate during a pandemic continue to surface, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told members of the Texas Senate this week that people wishing to testify on legislation before a committee may need to register days beforehand and take a coronavirus test ahead of the hearing.
Patrick, the Republican head of the upper chamber, mentioned a number of possibilities to the Senate Democrat Caucus during a conference call Friday (December 4). Patrick said people may have to register online three days before a committee hearing to testify and take a rapid test for the virus 24 hours beforehand. People have typically been allowed to sign up to speak on a piece of legislation the day of a committee hearing.
Patrick said that the National Guard could test between 10 to 12 people at the Capitol in an hour. Once results are back, which could take up to an hour, persons cleared would be allowed into the building. He also mentioned that most committee hearings may only take place Tuesday and Wednesday — at least for the first 60 days of the 87th Legislature, which convenes in January.
Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, told The Texas Tribune on Saturday that conversations are still ongoing about specific protocols and that Patrick and Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan, the likely next House speaker, have been in talks and “hope to be able to make an announcement regarding the Session shortly.”
The full video of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs 2021 Texas Legislative Virtual Forum is available online at:
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).