(AUSTIN) — Cities and counties would be prevented by statute from implementing vaccine or mask mandates, or from closing schools or businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or its variants under a bill considered before the Senate State Affairs Committee Monday. Currently, local governments are barred from doing so by executive orders issued by Governor Greg Abbott under an ongoing state disaster declaration. When that declaration goes away, however, it could lead to a patchwork of local mandates, said bill author and Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell. “If the state disaster declaration is not renewed, then these executive orders will lack the effect of law and local governments across Texas would have the ability to restrict Texans’ freedoms in the name of protecting them from COVID-19,” he said. The bill, SB 29, would only apply to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and its variants and would not preclude such laws in the event of a pandemic caused by a different virus. Abbott identified such legislation as an “emergency issue” in his February 10th State of the State Address.
The concept of emergency issues exists because the state constitution prevents the legislature from taking up and considering legislation prior to the 60th day of the session. Only legislation related to issues granted the “emergency” tag by the governor can be passed by the legislature during this period, and Birdwell noted that Abbott didn’t hand down this list until more than 30 days into the session. Taking 60 days away from the 140 biennial session means that lawmakers can only act on legislation for 80 days out of the 760-day biennium, said Birdwell. So, he is proposing a constitutional amendment that would remove this period, allowing lawmakers to begin to act on laws as soon as they arrive in Austin at the beginning of session. “It will provide the legislature with the opportunity to consider items in an appropriate time frame and it allows the legislature to fully be the legislature and the legislative branch for the full 140 days of a 760-day biennium,” said Birdwell.
That was only one of a number of constitutional amendments proposed by Senator Birdwell on Monday. Another would create a mechanism by which the legislature would automatically be called into a special session if the governor issues a lengthy emergency declaration. Birdwell said that the Texas Legislature was the last legislature to meet in session following the COVID-19 pandemic, which he says left the voice of the people out of the conversation. “The legislative branch, by design, is the most representative proxy for the will of the people,” he said. “The people’s will was generally silenced during some of the most turbulent trials our state has endured in recent history.” Birdwell’s proposal would ask voters to approve an amendment that would require the governor to call the legislature into special session when an emergency declaration lasts thirty days and either affects half of the state population, two-fifths of the 254 counties in Texas, or two-thirds of the counties in three or more of the state’s emergency service districts. Once in session, said Birdwell, the legislature could simply concur with the governor’s declaration and administration of ongoing disaster efforts, or it could impose its own changes. The amendment’s enabling legislation would permit only the legislature to authorize closing businesses.
Another amendment offered by Birdwell would ask voters to enshrine in the state constitution a provision that says only citizens may cast votes. Texas law already requires this, but Birdwell noted that statutes are a lot easier to change than the state constitution. “A constitutional amendment is a process of greater rigor, requiring a two-thirds affirmative vote from both chambers, signature from the governor, and approval from Texas voters,” he said. “In efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections and affirming in the state constitution that only citizens have a right to vote, we will create an additional safeguard to keep our Texas elections secure.”