Phelan is the 78th House speaker since Texas joined the Union in 1845.
He told the body after grasping the gavel, “Now, the difficult recovery begins. And it begins with a very short runway. Texans are resilient, flexible, and capable of incredible feats when they are allowed to operate their lives as they see fit.”
In his speech, Phelan highlighted education, revitalizing the economy, and balancing the budget as among his top priorities this session.
Phelan outmaneuvered eight other candidates for the speakership, solidifying his ascent with a 143-2 vote on Tuesday.
The two “no” votes were newly-sworn in Reps. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) and Jeff Cason (R-Bedford).
The legislature will have its hands full this session with a lingering pandemic, fiscal turmoil, and redistricting.
Phelan’s first responsibility will be to oversee the passage of the chamber’s rules for the session. Those will dictate how the body operates these next 140 days. Questions have arisen within the bodies concerning public entry into the capitol, availability of the chamber galleries, and testimony in committee hearings.
Constructing a guardrail for these decisions, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued non-binding legal guidance on Tuesday stating that “reasonable” foot traffic regulatory measures may be taken within the capitol. He also all-but-rejected the idea of remote voting for the members.
Phelan told the Texan Tribune yesterday that all those decisions will be fleshed out on Thursday.
As the conversation turned to policy, Phelan remained vague on some and was decidedly specific regarding others. He reiterated Governor Greg Abbott’s “there will be no more shutdowns” statement, but did not address that under the governor’s current order businesses may still be closed based on a hospital capacity metric.
The legislature faces a difficult fiscal road to a balanced budget this session as a projected $950 million shortfall looms at the end of this biennium. Phelan acknowledged the troubles, and stated that nothing was off the table in terms of budget cuts. He further stated, “I don’t see new taxes or fees being acceptable to the legislature.”
Asked about the renewed push for Medicaid expansion, Phelan maintained relative ambiguity, stating, “We can have a robust discussion on a Texas solution that is revenue neutral and doesn’t tie us to billions of dollars in future expenditures.”
The speaker indicated opposition to a broad reformation of emergency powers, even defending the governor’s actions this year as between a rock and a hard place. He did point to pandemic-specific changes, but largely balked wide-ranging reform. Efforts among the body to constrain the governor’s disaster authority have significant appetite among members on both sides of the aisle.
Another pressing question for a Phelan speakership focused on whether Democratic members would be appointed to committee chairmanships. He stated plainly that some committees would be chaired by Democrats, but did not specify which ones.
A few weeks ago, a group of GOP members called on Phelan to appoint only Republicans to committee chairmanships that would oversee the party’s legislative priorities. That won’t materialize until weeks into session.
The new speaker must navigate strange and choppy waters this session, but as with every odd year since 1845, the state’s business must be done.