Texas Capitol Gears Up With COVID Spectre Looming
“It’s important to note that this revised estimate carries unprecedented uncertainty...We’re assuming the state will effectively manage the outbreak and that infection rates won’t overwhelm our health care system." - Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar
Today, Glenn Hegar announced an estimated $4.6 billion budget deficit in Texas due to COVID-19 and its unintended consequences in oil & gas and sales tax revenue collections.
While this is a shockingly high number, keen observers will remember that as of May 2020, the state's Economic Stabilization Fund (commonly referred to as the Rainy Day Fund) currently sits at around $10.2 billion.
Some of that money is already earmarked for flood mitigation and Hurricane Harvey relief, however, so the more accurate number leading into the 2021 legislative session is more like $8.5 billion - more than enough to cover the $4.6 billion deficit. Now, whether the Legislature will agree to spend the ESF down that far remains to be seen.
Last week, the Texas Education Agency issued new guidance to public schools around the state on reopening procedures. Soon thereafter, a joint letter was issued by the Big Three (Speaker, Lt. Gov, & Governor) and the chairs of the Education committees to all members of the House and Senate. The letter, attached below, lays out specific guidance on the public school plan for the 2020-2021 school year.
Key points include:
Local discretion to utilize virtual learning for all students, without a loss of funding, for up to the first FOUR WEEKS of the fall semester. The school district may choose to go back to in-person learning earlier, but the option is there to go fully virtual for the first month.
The school district can also request to extend that waiver for full funding for an additional four weeks (total of EIGHT WEEKS) to continue virtual-only learning if they choose.
TEA will provide minimum health protocols, but that will only be a starting point for schools and the schools will have the flexibility to set their own safety protocols in addition.
If there is a positive case of COVID at a school, the school may be closed for up to five school days without a loss of funding as long as virtual learning is provided and attendance is taken.
The state will provide personal protective equipment, including face shields, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and thermometers to all local school districts. These will be paid for by the state, not the district.
Additionally, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance late last week stating that religious schools in Texas can reopen in the fall for in-person classes notwithstanding any local public health orders:
“As the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed just last week, there are robust constitutional and statutory protections unique to religious individuals and communities, specifically including religious private schools,” said Attorney General Paxton. “In accordance with the protections granted by the First Amendment and Texas law, this guidance allows religious private schools to determine for themselves when to reopen free from any government mandate or interference.”
House Committees Meeting "Virtually"
The House Speaker's office sent guidance out to the capitol last week regarding committees and how they could resume hearings "virtually." They note that House rules do not allow for virtual meetings and that any official committee meetings must take place in person either at the capitol or in a remote physical location (such as redistricting hearings that take place around the state).
As such, they outline three options for committees to meet and collect information on their interim charges:
Post updates, bulletins, staff reports and other documents on the House committee webpage
Issue a formal request for information to stakeholders/agencies/public. These would also be posted on the state website and the responses to the requests would as well.
As long as they don't call it a "committee meeting" the committee chairs may conduct webinars, townhalls, zooms etc... to hear from experts or give updates. These events do NOT require the chair to invite other House members (including committee members), but if any house members are invited, they must invite ALL members of the House to participate.
Procedurally, this is going to be a nightmare for committee staff and for anyone trying to follow the hearings, but clearly preparations are being made at the capitol to start trying to have hearings of some kind very soon.