Cobler: New House speaker lays out challenges


The 87th session of the Texas Legislature opened Tuesday with COVID-19 encompassing every aspect of what the lawmakers do, according to new House Speaker Dade Phelan.

“COVID, obviously, it will be a blanket over the entire session,” Phelan told his hometown TV station, KFDM Channel 6, in Beaumont. “We will deal with it in every aspect of policy. It will be a huge determining factor in the budget."

Before the pandemic hit, Phelan said, legislators “were supposed to come into this budget cycle with a surplus, and now we’re coming into it with a deficit …” Money will be even tighter for the next two-year budget lawmakers write during the session, he said.

“The No. 1 goal is to get the economy back on track,” Phelan said.

For opening day, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth and chair of the administration committee, laid out safety protocols for lawmakers and visitors to follow at the Capitol, which recently reopened after closing in March because of the pandemic. The opening ceremony was scheduled to be shorter than usual to reduce time spent gathering.

“It’s always been difficult to be speaker. It’s never been easy, but going into this session, the 87th, given the budget deficit, redistricting, and the fact that we have the first pandemic in 102 years in which to operate, I’m exceptionally proud they’ve given me this honor,” Phelan said of the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that voted for him to be the new speaker.

Phelan, a Republican, stressed the bipartisan spirit of Texas and cited how well former Gov. George W. Bush worked with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock during their time serving together at the Capitol. 

“That is the Texas model. We’ve always worked that way,” Phelan said. “If you’re sitting at the speaker’s dais and you’re looking at all the chairs in the House chamber, there is no left side or right side, red, blue, like there is in Washington, D.C. We all sit amongst each other.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session until May 31. 

Trying to speed up

Texas is going big with its approach to COVID-19 vaccinations this week.

Most of the doses available this week are going to 28 larger providers that can vaccinate at least 100,000 people, Texas Department of State Health Services officials said in a statement. Some doses also will be going to smaller providers in more rural parts of the state.

“We are working hard to improve the vaccination process for everyone,” Dr. John Hellerstedt, state health commissioner, said in a statement explaining the pivot to the larger vaccination hubs.

Providers that receive the larger amounts of vaccine will vaccinate health care workers, people 65 and older, and those who have a medical condition that increases their risk of severe disease or death. They also agree to provide a registration phone number and website and to vaccinate people from surrounding areas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services surveyed vaccine providers about their capacity to operate large, community vaccination sites and on Sunday published a list of vaccine hub providers. The hubs will receive a total of 158,825 doses this week.

An additional 38,300 doses will go to 206 providers. Of Texas’ 254 counties, 104 will receive vaccine shipments this week. 

State health officials stressed that people need to register in advance for the shots and should not just show up at one of the hubs. Officials also urged patience as supplies remain limited.

Model behavior

The small city of Dickinson set an example for how to handle a close election.

The race for mayor ended in a tie, but the two candidates didn’t duke it out. Instead, candidates Sean Skipworth and Jennifer Lawrence followed state law, which calls for a random selection in the unlikely event of a tie.

Election officials in Dickinson, population 21,000 in Galveston County, put the candidates’ names on ping-pong balls placed in a tophat. Even though her name wasn’t drawn, Lawrence didn’t demand a “Hunger Games”-style trial by fire.

Mayor-elect Skipworth described a decidedly different scene to KHOU-TV: “We get up there, one of us wins, one of us loses, and we give each other a hug or whatever, say, ‘Good job’ and wish you the best. Hopefully that’s how it’s going to be in the country in the future going forward.”

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.