By Alex Samuels, Cassandra Pollock, Patrick Svitek
The 2021 session of the Texas Legislature will commence Tuesday under pervasive uncertainty.
Lawmakers have been waiting for months to see how it will be conducted safely as the coronavirus pandemic rages.
And after a pro-Donald Trump mob rushed into the U.S. Capitol last week, leaving five people dead and leading to dozens of arrests, some Texas lawmakers are on edge about the potential for unrest in Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety is deploying additional resources and personnel to the state Capitol, and Gov. Greg Abbott promised Monday that DPS will "continue to remain on top of" safety at the building.
Meanwhile, three clear top priorities have emerged for the agenda: the budget, redistricting and the pandemic. But it remains to be seen how much space — or political appetite — there will be for more polarizing proposals, especially among Republicans coming off a successful November election.
Given all that, here are the five things to watch as the session kicks off:
State legislatures across the country are looking for ways to conduct their business in spite of restrictions on indoor gatherings because of the coronavirus.
Already, two Texas House Democrats — Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson — have said they will not attend the opening day of the legislative session, calling the gathering of 150 House members a "superspreader event."
For Tuesday, the Texas House and Senate have put in precautions for members and invited guests in each chamber; it's unclear if leadership will relax such measures if the vaccine becomes more readily available.
In a last-minute change, the Department of Public Safety announced Monday that anyone who wants to enter the Capitol will be required to take a coronavirus test.
Beyond opening day, State Rep. Dade Phelan has asked a group of lawmakers to make recommendations and solicit input from members on what changes should be made to the chamber's rules. The Senate, meanwhile, has been more tight-lipped on what precautions will be in place during the legislative session.
Since the Capitol closed in mid-March, both Democrats and Republicans from each chamber have raised questions about the accessibility of the legislative process. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, asked the attorney general to weigh in on whether the Legislature has the power to close the Capitol and whether members could debate or vote on legislation from outside the chamber.
Some disability right's advocates, meanwhile, have raised concerns about the uncertain rules on testifying in committee hearings remotely and have expressed hesitancy about going to the Capitol in person.
Tackling the state's current two-year budget — and writing the next one — will be one of the largest items on the Legislature's plate, though lawmakers received better-than-expected news Monday when Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar unveiled the biennial revenue estimate.
On top of that, the Legislature will also need to redraw the state's political maps, which is often a polarizing and draining process for lawmakers.
Lawmakers will also have to respond to the ongoing pandemic and address other policy issues that have been focal points throughout the pandemic, such as public education funding and health care. In 2019, the Legislature overhauled the state's school finance system, infusing $6.5 billion more into public schools and roughly $5.1 billion to lower Texans' property tax bills. State leaders have already said the Legislature will remain committed to continuing to fund those massive investments, regardless of the tough economic forecast.
Beyond that, debates over police funding and reforms following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody, are expected to play a central role during the legislative session.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus has already unveiled the George Floyd Act, a sweeping reform proposal that would, among other things, ban chokeholds across the state and address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation. Meanwhile, Abbott has said he is considering a measure that would put the state in charge of policing a large area of Austin, including the Texas Capitol and the University of Texas at Austin — a move that came during a political fight against the capital city over its decision to trim its police budget.
After some Republicans argued that Abbott overstepped his authority over responding to the pandemic, proposals at the Legislature were filed to curb the emergency powers of a governor during a declared disaster. The more conservative faction of the GOP is also expected to again push a bill that would ban cities and local governments from using taxpayer dollars to lobby the state government after the measure failed during the 2019 session.
Lawmakers from both parties may also push election-related matters after fights over voter access and ballot integrity largely defined the lead up to the November presidential election.
And yearslong conversations over new revenue sources — such as legalizing casinos or marijuana — have also seemed to get a renewed focus, though it's unclear how seriously lawmakers will consider such options after Hegar's news Monday with a better-than-expected economic picture heading into session.
A new speaker
One of the House's first orders of business Tuesday will be to formally elect Phelan as speaker. Phelan, who has served in the lower chamber since 2015, announced he had the votes to win the gavel in the hours after Election Day, after Republicans maintained control of the House.
He's described among colleagues as a straight-shooter who's familiar with the legislative process and the policies at play, and who intends to lead the chamber by letting the members drive its business.
Beyond the budget and redistricting, Phelan said during an interview Monday with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith that public health issues that the pandemic has "put a highlighter" on what will be a focus this session, such as expanding telemedicine and telehealth and "improving rural health care options for Texans."
GOP family fights
Texas Republicans are beginning the session two months after a November election in which they beat expectations up and down the ballot, including holding on to their majority in the state House. Emboldened by the election results, will there be a renewed appetite among the most conservative in the party for hot-button issues, or will the Legislature continue on the middle-of-the-road policy path it stuck to for the 2019 session?
Early indications are that the Big Three — Abbott, Patrick and Phelan — are not spoiling for much intraparty conflict this session. That seems especially true with the trio of must-do issues already topping the legislative agenda: the budget, redistricting and responding to the pandemic.
Still, there is potential for some GOP family fights. Texas GOP Chairman Allen West plans to make an aggressive push for the party's eight legislative priorities, which include election integrity, the abolition of abortion and constitutional carry, or licenseless carry of firearms. Some of the priorities enjoy broad GOP support, others not as much.
Rallying support for the priorities Saturday outside the Capitol, West told Republicans he was preparing them for an "ideological battlefield" and that they needed to pressure lawmakers "so that you can become a powerful force and let people know in that building that they work for you, that you don't work for them."
West himself has been a critic of Abbott's coronavirus decisions, and the former Florida congressman is already being discussed as a possible challenger to the governor.
To that end, the 2022 primary season could also loom large over Republicans this session. Most statewide officials are up for reelection, including Abbott and Patrick, and their agendas could reflect how they would like to position themselves for March 2022.
One issue that could impact whether the GOP engages in such a fight is whether it holds onto its complete control of the Senate.
Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, there are only 18 Republicans in the chamber.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, however, has announced his intention to lower the threshold to align with the size of the GOP majority — a move that effectively strips Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.
Patrick doesn't have unilateral control of the Senate threshold's fate. Such a change requires a simple majority — 16 senators — to go into effect. It's not immediately clear how many Republican senators are in favor of such a move, while some Democrats have already denounced Patrick's latest procedural proposal.
To be clear, this isn't the first time Patrick oversaw a decrease in the threshold. During his first session as lieutenant governor in 2015, the Senate dropped the threshold from two-thirds, or 21 members, to three-fifths, or 19 members. At that time, there were 20 Republican senators.
More on the legislative session:
It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
- New nonstop flights for Shot Girl Summer: Take our news quiz ... ›
- Rejoining the dating world: Making out with high school ex in Austin ... ›
- Austin's four richest self-made women in America, Forbes - austonia ›
- Bumble: 2 out of 3 people say you can fall in love before meeting ... ›
- Rejoining the dating world: Making out with high school ex in Austin ... ›
- Austinites are getting back into in-person dating in 2021 - austonia ›
- Why Bumble's IPO means Austin will get a billion dollars richer ... ›
- Pandemic dating is no walk in the park, Austin residents say - austonia ›
- How dating app The Round launched during the pandemic - Austin ... ›
- Austin Is Nation's Best City For Dating Amid Pandemic: Report ... ›
- PANDEMIC DATING: Outbreak has dating app makers like Austin's ... ›
- The Austinites Guide to Better Dating | by Kristina Modares | Austin ... ›
- Is Austin really the worst city when it comes to ghosting? | KXAN Austin ›
- A frank view of Austin dating in HBO documentary 'Swiped' - News ... ›
With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
- Most patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated - austonia ›
- Unvaccinated Austinites at risk of Delta variant with hospitals seeing ... ›
- UT warn of full-capacity ICUs, up to 11,000 more hospitalizations ... ›
- COVID hospitalizations reach Stage 4 threshold - austonia ›
- Delta variant, unvaccinated fuel rise of Austin COVID cases - austonia ›
Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
- Austin City Council drags on homeless camping ban reinstatement ... ›
- Conservative Jennifer Virden announces run for Austin mayor ... ›
- No homeless public camping vote on November ballot for Austin ... ›
- Save Austin Now sues city of Austin over camping ban petition ... ›
- City files response to Save Austin Now lawsuit - austonia ›
- Save Austin Now tries again to reinstate camping ban - austonia ›
- Save Austin Now calls on attorney in fight over Austin no-camping ... ›
- Save Austin Now relaunches petition to reinstate camping ban ... ›
- Save Austin Now submits police staffing petition - austonia ›
- Save Austin Now launches petition against crime - austonia ›