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During a legislative session that began at the height of the Texas pandemic in January, state lawmakers sent a list of bills to the governor aimed largely at protecting the rights of Texans from a response from the state to the pandemic that conservative leaders said went too far.
Lawmakers have passed bills that, among other things, ban vaccine passports and ban the mandatory closure of churches and gun stores during a declaration of emergency.
“Let freedom ring!” State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, tweeted on Sunday after the Legislature approved bills that included banning government entities and businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for products or services.
Lawmakers have also passed legislation that requires the state to contract with U.S. companies for personal protective equipment (not foreign companies) where possible, requires the creation of rules allowing clergy visits to patients during a public health emergency, allows you to visit residents of long-term care facilities during emergencies, and allows sick and dying COVID-19 patients to have a visitor – tackle the devastating reports that loved ones are dying alone in hospitals with family members unable to say goodbye.
Many of these measures were a direct response to orders issued by Governor Greg Abbott under the direction of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by local health authorities imposing restrictions such as mask requirements, visitation restrictions and school protocols to slow the spread of the virus.
Left in the ashes of the session, which ended on Monday, were proposals that would have updated the state’s immunization registry, created an emergency mass immunization and distribution plan, prioritized first responders in vaccine deployment and funded research on health equity issues to address racial inequalities in the system that have been exposed by the pandemic.
More … than 150 bills and resolutions relating to the pandemic have been tabled by lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About twenty of them passed.
Another notable casualty of the controversial session, dominated by top conservative priorities such as abortion and voting restrictions, was an effort to curtail the governor’s powers in the event of a disaster.
“The results of this session have been mixed,” said James Quintero, director of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Some conservative victories, he said, included the closing of what he described as a tax loophole that allows cities exceed the limits for statewide property tax increases during a disaster. He also applauded a new law requiring public health orders to be periodically reviewed by local elected officials.
Quintero said lawmakers missed an opportunity to restrain both state and local executive authority, decriminalize violations of emergency health ordinances and instead impose fines for violations, open government issues that arose during the pandemic, including a move that would have sped up requests for public information during a quarantine, he said.
“We have taken a few steps in the right direction this session, but there is clearly more work to be done,” said Quintero.
Hospitals, which saw their intensive care units swarming with COVID-19 patients when cases increased, applauded the passage of Senate Bill 6, which protects them from prosecution if they acted in good faith during the pandemic.
“Hospitals have been on the front lines in combating the devastating effects of COVID-19, treating patients during outbreaks and with limited capacity. They put themselves at risk by treating those in need, ”said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association. The bill “does not protect bad actors who are reckless or who engage in intentional, willful or gratuitous misconduct.”
While the Republican leadership’s priorities focused primarily on freeing Texans from government disaster restrictions, lawmakers also passed measures that addressed transparency and accountability regarding the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. , as well as any future health emergency or disaster.
“Lawmakers and the public have watched government agencies react with sweeping statewide policies to reduce the impact of the virus,” Kolkhorst, author of some of the legislation, said in a statement. March. “Sometimes these measures have struggled to strike the right balance between public health and our individual rights. We must now use the lessons learned over the past year to improve the state’s response to any future health event. “
Sweeping Senate Bill 968 by Kolkhorst creates the Office of the Chief Epidemiologist within the Texas Department of Health Services to respond to outbreaks and coordinate with the Texas Emergency Management Division.
It also creates an expert group, made up of five doctors and four health care providers, who will be responsible for providing recommendations to the chief epidemiologist during emergencies or declared disasters.
And the bill also requires health officials to report on the successes and failures of the state’s response to the coronavirus.
Lawmakers have also passed bills that address shortcomings in data collection systems between the state and health facilities. A faulty state computer system hampered efforts at the start of the pandemic to track and manage the coronavirus in Texas and left policy makers with incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data on the spread of the virus.
A bill allowing home health and hospice workers to administer the vaccine was also successful, solving a problem that emerged during the pandemic when homebound elderly and frail Texans were unable to leave their homes to be vaccinated at the start of the deployment.
The legislation aimed to limit the governor’s emergency powers in the event of a disaster, an idea that enjoyed bipartisan support, was the victim of infighting between the House and the Senate and was not passed.
Senate Bill 1025 would have prohibited the governor from issuing disaster orders that close businesses or impose limits on occupancy or hours of operation, reserving that power to the legislature. He died in a House committee.
And a Senate bill that would have required the governor to call the legislature into extraordinary session in order to declare a state of emergency that lasts longer than 30 days also died in a House committee.
Meanwhile, the House’s priority bill on the matter, Bill 3, died in a conference committee after the two houses failed to resolve their differences. As passed by the lower house, the legislation would have given the legislature more control over the governor’s emergency powers in the event of a health emergency.
House Speaker Dade Phelan said negotiations on this sweeping bill had collapsed over the idea of calling a special session to deal with any declaration of natural disaster, not just a pandemic.
The Senate wanted wider limits for Abbott, while the House felt it went too far, Phelan told the Texas Tribune earlier this week.
“There is no reason to have a special session to talk about a hurricane,” said Phelan, whose district sits on the Gulf Coast northeast of Galveston. “If you have a hurricane, you don’t have to be in Austin. I need to be boots on the ground.
Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The National Conference of State Legislatures, the Texas Hospital Association, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.