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Today Was Opening Day Of The 2021 Texas Legislative Session. Here's What Happened.

Tuesday was opening day of the 87th Texas legislative session. Lawmakers convened at noon in the state Capitol, where new senators and representatives were sworn in.

One of the first orders of business for the Texas House of Representatives was electing the next speaker, which is expected to be Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

Between the coronavirus pandemic and last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, many lawmakers were concerned about safety. Some were nervous about a pro-Trump rally that's planned for the day.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said it would have additional personnel on Capitol grounds, and lawmakers had been told that members of the National Guard would be in Austin to assist with security.

The department also said that for safety reasons, the public would be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the Capitol. The House and Senate had also establishedrules for the day regarding COVID-19, including limiting how many guests lawmakers could bring.

Update 3:15 p.m.

Advocates are asking state legislative leaders to accommodate remote public input during this year’s legislative session because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The League of Women Voters of Texas wrote in a statement that it wants Texas House and Senate leadership to “provide a plan for public participation in the 87th Legislature that will protect the health and well-being of all Texans” as COVID-19 cases surge around the state.

“People must be able to engage with their elected officials to express their views on public policy decisions that will impact them on a daily basis,” League officials wrote. “We ask our elected officials to maximize transparency and facilitate remote public participation and to uphold their commitment to open government.”

Some of the League’s suggestions include creating a method for virtual participation or written participation, as well as guidance to the public on how to use those options.

The League is asking state leaders to “provide a way for the public to access live broadcasts of committee hearings and post notice of such hearings in advance” and “that they post any written materials that are being discussed.”

— KUT's Ashley Lopez

Update 1:55 p.m.

After being elected speaker of the House, Dade Phelan launched into the traditional opening session speech on goals and themes for the new session. It included talk of education, revitalizing the economy, getting COVID-19 under control and — in a moment of levity — alcohol to-go.

Bars and restaurants were given the ability to sell alcohol to-go during the pandemic. Phelan said, “51 years after putting a man on the moon, we figured out how to sell margaritas to-go.”

Following on that theme, Gov. Greg Abbott began his opening remarks to the House saying, “It is essential to me that the speaker is in favor of keeping alcohol to-go.”

The House plans on taking up its rules for the session on Thursday. Once that business is done, Phelan said he plans to adjourn the House until Jan. 26.

The Texas Senate announced it would also pass its rules later in the week and then adjourn until Jan. 26. That would keep lawmakers away from the Capitol during possible protests on Jan. 17 and 20.

Conservative social media sites have been promoting protests on Jan. 17 at the U.S. Capitol and state capitols across the country. Jan. 20 is Inauguration Day.

The House and Senate have ended their work for Tuesday.

Update at 1:45 p.m.

Among the complaints from demonstrators outside the State Capitol Tuesday: censorship from “Big Tech.”

In recent days, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have shut down the president’s accounts, while also cracking down on people and groups deemed to be inciting violence in violation of the companies’ terms of service.

One of those who said they’ve been unfairly de-platformed is activist Sarah Jessica Fields, 35, who as of Tuesday afternoon was suspended on Facebook.

Fields said she was told she violated “community standards violations,” though she did not speculate what may have caused the suspension.

“The fact that people are being de-platformed and silenced is preventing us from being able to communicate with each other, because unfortunately Facebook has become one of the main forms of communication for everybody,” Fields said.

Brian Bodine, the 39-year-old former state chair of the Texas Young Republicans, said plans to demonstrate outside the State Capitol had been in place since November, and he himself had organized a Facebook group and two events for Tuesday’s beginning of the session with language indicating they would be “marching on the Capitol.”

After the violence in Washington, and once Facebook began cracking down on accounts, Bodine said he tried to change the language associated with the group and events to something “more vanilla.” The posts were deleted anyway, he said.

Bodine described Tuesday’s gathering less as a “pro-Trump” rally and more as a call to curb the governor’s emergency powers, which he said led to “unconstitutional” vaccine mandates. He also said those gathered were largely protesting for “election integrity,” while others were pushing for constitutional carry — though he acknowledged that most or all in attendance were in support of the president.

“It’s got to be less and less about the politicians and more and more about ‘We The People,’ and taking back our government and ensuring that our government works for us,” Bodine said. “A lot of us activists who have kind of woken up here in the past year, we’ve woken up to realizing that they’re not doing a very good job of working for us. Way too many of them. And that includes a lot of Republicans, unfortunately.”

— Houston Public Media's Matt Harab

Update at 1:30 p.m.

The Texas House has elected Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to be speaker of the house. Only two state representatives voted against his nomination. Another four did not vote.

Update at 1 p.m.

While much of the first day of any legislative session is focused on the pageantry of swearing in ceremonies and opening speeches, there are a few major things to watch.

In the House, state representatives will elect a new speaker. This person will be elected from the 150 members of the House to run that chamber’s activities. Speaker Dennis Bonnen decided to not seek reelection to his state House seat after a recording surfaced of him saying disparaging things about some members of the House.

Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, is expected to be elected to the position today.

The House and Senate could also bring up, debate and pass the rules they will use for the session. That includes how committees will be structured and how hearings will be held, which is a big deal in the time of COVID-19. Currently the only way to give your opinion during a committee hearing is to be at the Capitol and deliver your message in person. The chambers could vote on rules to allow virtual participation.

And in the Senate, there’s a little rule called the three-fifths rule. It says three-fifths of the senators must vote to bring up any bill for debate, even though you only need a simple majority to pass the legislation once up. The idea is to make senators look for consensus and broad support before passing legislation. For years, it had been a two-thirds rule. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed to change it to three-fifths so Republicans would be able to bring up legislation without any votes from Democrats.

Now that Republicans control less than three-fifths of the Senate, Patrick says he wants to drop the rule to a simple majority, again allowing the Senate GOP majority to bring up bills without input from Democrats.

Update at 11 a.m.

These planned demonstrations come amid warnings of armed protests across the country. In an internal FBI bulletin obtained by ABC News, the agency said all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Capitol could see such protests through Inauguration Day, and advised increased security.

As the day began, state troopers and national guard members roamed the grounds of the State Capitol, many in full riot gear. Marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles were parked around the building. Anti-vaccine demonstrators were the first to arrive, placing protest signs on the steps of the Capitol.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said that for safety reasons, the public will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the Capitol. The House and Senate have also established rules for the day regarding COVID-19, including limiting how many guests lawmakers can bring.

More people began to trickle in the area shortly before 10 a.m., with armed members of Patriots for America and Texas Militia joining members of Texas for Medical Freedom, a group protesting COVID-19 laws and restrictions across the state.

Samuel Hall, 39, with Patriots for America, was escorted off the Capitol grounds Tuesday morning for carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, which isn't allowed on the premises. Hall and others were protesting legislation curbing "stand your ground" laws.

“We have an organization that can make a difference and be a voice, and we want to protect these protestors out here,” Hall said. “We believe in First Amendment rights, we believe in Second Amendment rights. We don’t want any violence. We want to quell any violence.”

After the insurrection in Washington, D.C. last week, Hall said he instructed members to obey the law so as not to be lumped in with other groups.

“It's a very intense political environment right now,” Hall said. “You have to be savvy to that. You have to have discernment, and know that you are under a microscope and especially with what happened in D.C. we have to be explicitly careful.”

Follow along for coverage of the day’s events.

The legislative process can be confusing. Here are some resources we've put together:

(And in case you were wondering: Yes, white men are still overrepresented in the Legislature. According to a demographic analysis by The Texas Tribune, 61% of lawmakers this year will be white, even though white people make up 41% of the state’s population. Women will make up just 27% of the Legislature.)

Update at 8:55 a.m.

Houston Public Media's Matt Harab is outside the Capitol. He says it's quiet now, but law enforcement is clearly preparing for demonstrations today.

He also notes that two tents are set up in front of the building today for COVID-19 testing, which is now required before entry.
Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5.