Analysis: The Opening Line in Every Texas Political Debate

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Gov. Greg Abbott shows off his reopening plan during a recent press conference. - INSTAGRAM / @GOVERNORABBOTT
  • Instagram / @governorabbott
  • Gov. Greg Abbott shows off his reopening plan during a recent press conference.

Texas legislators have been shut out of the decisions about whether to open or close business, government and cultural spaces during a pandemic — a debating topic that now includes public schools.

Maybe that’s just as well. While some of them have railed at Gov. Greg Abbott — or even sued him — over his coronavirus-related actions, they can’t even decide among themselves how to hold committee meetings.

A legislative panel that periodically looks at state agencies, and decides whether to keep, overhaul or close them, met this month to decide whether Texans who want to testify will do so virtually or in person.

The Sunset Advisory Commission has a dozen members: two from the public and five each from the House and the Senate. They met in person to talk about it. The members and the agency staffers who do the research for the members’ work were scattered all over a big committee room in a state office building near the Capitol — social distance protocols being what they are. Most of the worker bees wore masks. Most of the legislators did not, though most put masks on when they got up to walk around.

After two hours, members couldn’t agree whether to let people testify in person or online, or choose between the two options. Their unpleasant meeting was a miniature version of the argument we’ve all been watching for months. They’ll sort it out.

But they were wrestling with the same issues the governor and other policymakers have confronted since the pandemic’s early days. The political business of the moment is the lives of social creatures, and how many of them can safely be in one place at a time.

We’ve been calling it social distancing, taking our cues from the disease experts, but the political tensions here — we are within 90 days of an election, after all — circle around fear, contagion and exposure. Personal space and public space. Masks.

School openings, government hearings, going to bars, voting, shopping, even the doings at the Texas Capitol hinge on whether it’s safe to gather, and how to go about it.

This is the concern behind opening public schools between now and the elections; many of those schools are slated to start up this month. It’s a big question about in-person voting, and whether standing in line in October is going to mean choosing between your health and your franchise. It is an issue for legislators themselves, trying to decide how they’re going to meet in January, when their regular session begins, and even before that, how and when to hold public hearings in advance of that regular session.

August is when cities, counties, school districts and other local government bodies set their budgets and their property tax rates. Public hearings are part of the proceedings. It’s where the people who want to argue about police budgets, school spending, roads and parks get their say, next to those who have opinions about the size of their property tax bills and the programs and services those taxes allow.

Those hearings are important. Hollering at your elected officials is one of the great pleasures of a democracy. Getting heard is even better. It’s arguably more satisfying to confront them in person, staring down council members, commissioners and legislators while you speak.

It’s just a question of how many people you can safely put in a room during a pandemic. The sunset commissioners talked about where citizens would wait to testify, whether the lines or holding areas could be accommodated, whether people who want to testify but fear the pandemic might stay home instead.

Opening schools opens the same issues on a much larger scale. The 5.5 million public school students in Texas aren’t looking at a couple of hearings between now and the end of the year. They’ll be in class, virtually or in person, five days a week. The proposals for how to do that have changed several times in the last weeks, as state and local officials try to settle on safe ways to educate young Texans.

The beginning weeks of the school year overlap the weeks leading up to the election — offering Texans a real-time demonstration of the official responses to the pandemic, just as those voters are making their decisions.

It could work as a referendum. Those legislators who couldn’t decide how to hold a public hearing might learn in November what their voters think.

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