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87th legislative session opens amid virus, economic worries

It was a muted start to this year’s legislative session in Austin Tuesday as lawmakers returned to tackle the biggest public health crisis in living memory and the economic downturn it caused.  The normal raucous hallways and packed galleries of past opening days were replaced by quiet on a day usually filled with ceremony and celebration as the pandemic kept constituents and well-wishers at home.  One day before, state Comptroller Glenn Hegar laid out his projected forecast for state revenue for the next two fiscal years, telling lawmakers how much they’ll have to work with as they look to pay for state services over the upcoming biennium.  “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.

Though COVID restrictions and a crash in the price of oil this spring led to concerns about a much larger budget deficit entering session, an increase in on-line sales tax collections as well as a stronger-than-expected economy coming into 2020 helped blunt the impact.  Hegar told reporters that with the prospect of effective vaccine distribution, Texas could see a robust economic rebound in the second half of this calendar year.  Additionally, reduced consumer spending during the pandemic led to increases in personal savings and reductions in personal debt, which could mean a strong recovery once the economy is fully reopened.  “These and other factors suggest there may be capacity for a substantial surge in consumer spending once pandemic concerns have receded,” said Hegar.   In all, he projected state revenue collections through August 2023 to total $112.53 billion, slightly down from the amount available to state budget writers when they came into Austin last session.  The revenue forecast doesn’t include five percent across-the-board agency cuts requested by state leadership over the summer or any forthcoming federal aid packages.

In Austin, the COVID pandemic has reached new highs, with a record number of cases announced on Wednesday and hospital capacity reaching its limit.  That meant a quiet opening day and new rules for COVID prevention in the Senate.  Rules adopted Wednesday require Senators and staff to be tested daily for the virus.  Members of the public who want to watch proceedings from the gallery or attend a committee hearing will also have to test negative for COVID.   While not required to enter the Capitol building itself, testing is offered at no charge outside the north entrance of the Capitol.  Those who test negative will get a wristband verifying that status, as will those who can demonstrate proof of vaccination against COVID.

Testing was required to enter the building on opening day Tuesday, and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said it demonstrated that people understand the risks and the need to prevent the spread of the disease at the Capitol.   “We had over 800 people tested and only one objected,” he said.  “The people know, if we want to have session, if we want to protect lives and life, if we want to conduct the people’s business with the least restrictions, then testing is the answer.”  Patrick said he hoped that the Texas House would follow the Senate’s lead, and called for testing anyone who wants to come into the Capitol building.

Other mitigation protocols approved this week would limit seating in the gallery, reduce staff levels on the Senate floor and require mask wearing in most public spaces under jurisdiction of the Senate.  In the event of a positive test, a person is required to leave the Capitol complex and cannot return for at least 10 days.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, January 26th at 3 p.m.

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