This article originally appeared in Texas Lawyer and is republished here with permission.
For businesses that are impacted by state, local and federal government regulations, it’s time to get involved. As crises occur, governmental entities tend to engage more in business and free markets to control their own destiny. Bailouts have been delivered. New mandates are in place. Texas businesses need to engage to protect themselves. Regulator impediments can be the failure of businesses if action is not taken.
Having been involved in governmental affairs lobby work through three economic recessions, we’ve seen how these crises forever change society. From how we move about, to how much information we need and at what cost, to how we prepare our own homes and families.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown an even heavier hand at some levels of government and it’s not over. While Texas is among the first states to begin reopening businesses after the initial surge of COVID-19 infections, the response to the virus will be a long-lasting challenge to continue to minimize its effects and make society as safe as possible in the year to come. Legislation around social distancing, thorough sanitation, internet access and other flaws that have come to light during the pandemic will undoubtedly extend into the Texas Capitol building where legislators will work to blaze a path forward and reckon with the COVID-19-striken state during the 2021 session.
This unique situation offers numerous questions about what the legislative session will look like for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, and what laws and procedures COVID-19 will change forever. Oftentimes, government moves slow, and legacy practices take precedent. However, people have found new ways to connect during this time. They’ve found it’s possible to support one another in a digital world. But what does that look like in a process so many citizens already find challenging?
Under normal circumstances the Capitol is buzzing with interim hearings. However, the Texas House and Senate have not held a hearing since March 10th when the House Committee on Public Health met to discuss the state’s preparedness to handle the coronavirus. As the legislature prepares to convene, we will get a first-hand look at the new “pandemic/virtual” committee process as interim hearings are held in the months to come.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “…legislative chambers in at least 23 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico have introduced or adopted bills or resolutions that relate to legislative operations, including changes in bill deadlines, recess periods or other changes…. Many state constitutions require legislatures to meet in person and thus could require a constitutional amendment rather than a resolution to allow for remote meetings or voting.” Texas does not provide for the specific flexibility to allow for remote voting.
Many of our colleagues are trying to determine how the future will change our advocacy for clients. We’ve all watched CSPAN or a city council video hearing and while these video broadcasts are helpful, there is a whole level of verbal, nonverbal and visual communication one cannot see in a virtual setting. A virtual setting should concern us all. Government can be a very shrewd place to operate and a virtual setting limits an average person’s ability to engage in the process and protect their business. There are a number of laws and legislative rules, which generate a more transparent environment at all levels of government. Currently, the Texas Capitol is closed to the public. One question being asked is, at what level may restricted access be maintained? Will members vote in some sort of remote fashion at the committee level?
In the meantime though, as businesses re-open, the legislature will consider a new path. As a lobbyist, issues have become even more critical and lobbying engagement will considerably impact many business’ bottom line. We will continue to adapt to the new normal and provide meaningful contributions and public policy advocacy goals that benefit both our clients and the state. Many of our clients are eager to be part of the solution and we have spent these past few months emphasizing their solutions and capabilities that have greatly benefited the public during this crisis.
COVID-19 has exposed some faults in systems everywhere and Texas lawmakers will strive to fix these problems during next year’s session. Many Texans are looking to government for answers to their current financial situation. Whether directly combating COVID-19, with funding and social distancing measures, or solving some of the underlying issues that pandemic has exposed, this session will have lawmakers, lobbyists and everyone else exploring issues from a new perspective. Plenty will happen before January 12th, but one thing is for sure – the 2021 legislatures will look very different thanks to COVID-19.