In their rules, both chambers stipulated special protocols in response to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
Those measures require face coverings in both galleries and also a mandatory same-day coronavirus test to access the Senate gallery and committee hearings.
By now, most Texans are accustomed to the masks required by Governor Greg Abbott’s seven-month-old executive order, and 15-minute COVID-19 tests are being provided free of charge to the public at the north entrance of the state Capitol.
But the regulations created by the legislature are creating difficulties for some constituents to engage in the legislative process because as enacted, they provide no exemptions — something in conflict with even Abbott’s mask mandate.
Ashley Burke, the director of We the Parents, a parental rights advocacy group in Texas, has raised concerns to state officials that many parents with toddlers or children with special needs will have difficulty in testifying at committee hearings because of the mandates.
“Most of our parents have children with severe autism that go to the Capitol, and the other half of our moms have toddlers and babies that they take to testify on bills,” Burke told The Texan.
With the mandated testing and no exemptions, the only options for those parents could be to testify without their children with them or not testify at all.
Allison Rogers, a mother of six who has been involved with the organization Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA), told The Texan that she brings her oldest son who is severely autistic and nonverbal to committee hearings.
“I need lawmakers to see my eldest son so that they understand — they get a little glimpse of a window — what my life is like,” said Rogers. “And then of course, I have a breastfeeding infant. [. . .] I can’t leave an infant for long stretches of time at home, and if I can’t bring him with me, I can’t be involved.”
Under Abbott’s executive order, Rogers’ children are exempt from the mask mandate — no one under the age of 10 or “with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering” is required to wear a mask in public.
Other exceptions to the mask mandate include when a person is actively consuming food or drink or “giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience.”
Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) filed an amendment to the House COVID-19 regulations that would simply align the measures in the lower chamber with the exceptions provided in the governor’s statewide mandate.
But when it came to voting, his proposal was shot down with only 23 Republicans behind it.
Following the House vote on the coronavirus regulations, Burke said she reached out to the offices of Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan to see if there would be any exceptions for toddlers or children with special needs.
“Every office I spoke to said the same, even one day old babies will be required to wear a mask at the capitol and to access the senate, they will also have to submit to a Covid-19 test,” said Burke.
Since then, officials at the Capitol appear to have shifted slightly in their positions to provide a little more leeway.
The secretary of the Senate, Patsy Spaw, told The Texan that “The Senate will be following CDC guidelines for children under two years of age and people with certain disabilities regarding mask requirements.”
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that masks should not be worn by children under two years old or a “person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, for reasons related to the disability.”
However, with respect to the other mandate in the Senate, Spaw said, “COVID testing is required for anyone entering Senate committee rooms or the Senate Gallery, though it is not required to enter the Capitol Building.”
That testing requirement also poses an issue in some cases.
Like Rogers, Debbie Branch has an autistic son and frequently advocates before lawmakers, going to the Capitol usually around 10 times per legislative session in previous years.
“Scott is a very large, severely affected young man with autism. He can be very aggressive and combative when he is confronted with things that he doesn’t understand or that he’s fearful of,” Branch told The Texan.
She said that because of her son’s sensory defensiveness, he needs to be sedated at his infrequent visits to the dentist.
“We’ve had to go to the hospital for sedation to just clean his ears out when they were clogged with earwax,” said Branch.
With the coronavirus testing at the Capitol, where her son could not be sedated, Branch says, “I don’t want to traumatize him and have that impact him for the rest of his life because somebody felt it was necessary to put a Q-tip two inches up my son’s nose when he’s perfectly healthy and I would never bring him in if he wasn’t.”
One possible option for lawmakers to provide more accommodations for parents in this situation is to allow remote testimony through video conferencing, though even that has its limitations.
In a statement to The Texan, Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the chair of the Administration Committee, noted that the unanimous agreement in the Senate Caucus on the rules included a provision to allow “virtual testimony for unique aspects of redistricting.”
When approving that measure, senators were clear that the permission for virtual testimony was only for the unusual circumstances of this session and not meant to establish a precedent to abandon the traditional in-person hearings.
Aside from the Finance Committee, which has only received testimony from government officials relating to the budget, only the Senate Redistricting Committee has held public hearings and constituents from across the state have all participated through virtual testimony.
“The decision for virtual testimony is still to be decided regarding committees,” said Schwertner. “The rules are going to be revisited approximately 60 days after the beginning of session with further relevant data that will be taken into account.”
Burke said that providing testimony in virtual hearings would work to accommodate the constituents who are facing the unique challenges, but added, “I’ve been told by several legislators who have asked Speaker Phelan if they could do that, and he is completely against it.”
Even if virtual hearings were expanded, the same effect would not be had for parents who testify for issues related to their children if they could bring them to the Capitol in person.
Branch said that while she could provide testimony, her son could not since he is not able to converse.
“Basically, it is his presence that is his testimony,” said Branch. “The impact that he has on everybody cannot be measured in words.”
Burke and We the Parents are currently gathering signatures on a petition “demanding Texans have unregulated access to the political process this session.”