87th LegislatureState SenateDisaster Act Reform Package Approved by Texas Senate, Moves to House

A constitutional amendment to reform the Texas Disaster Act to require more legislative oversight was passed by the Senate in a 30 to 1 vote.
April 13, 2021
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When Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) introduced his proposal to require legislative approval of major disaster declaration renewals in the Senate State Affairs Committee, he noted that, “The Texas legislature was the very last legislative body in the country to convene once COVID-19 reached our nation.”

Today, the Texas Senate passed Birdwell’s legislative package, Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 45 and Senate Bill (SB) 1025, bringing the state one step closer to ensuring that in the event of another disaster declaration affecting a large portion of Texans, there will be greater legislative oversight.

At the end of March, the Senate State Affairs Committee advanced revisions of the Birdwell legislation, known as committee substitutes, without any opposition.

Both the proposed constitutional amendment and it’s enabling legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 1025, were replaced with committee substitutes.

The committee substitute for SB 1025 had several changes which Birdwell said he made to keep the bill from being decorated like a Christmas tree, full of ornate provisions — a distinction from a competing omnibus House bill that would address many issues, but only under an umbrella specific to pandemics.

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During the committee hearing, Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) criticized the committee substitute of Birdwell’s bill for its removal of a provision that specified the authority to “restrict [. . .] places of worship in this state by category or region to appropriately respond to the disaster” rests with “only the legislature.”

Birdwell agreed with the need to protect religious liberties, but said that other proposals that are making their way through the legislature to prohibit church closures during disasters would meet that need more adequately.

However, the committee substitute for SB 1025 would still leave in place the text stating that the authority to restrict or impair the occupancy of businesses in response to a pandemic rests solely with the legislature.

That provision was brought up again on the floor of the Senate, when Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) questioned why it should be left in if Birdwell was trying to avoid turning the bill into a “Christmas tree.”

“It’s a precedent that I don’t think we can let stand without the legislature speaking on it,” said Birdwell. “If we don’t speak on it in this regular session — after those events that occurred in this past interim — our silence is consent to that precedent.”

While the original bill also said that only the legislature could “suspend a provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure, Election Code, or Penal Code” in a disaster response, the committee substitute grants that authority to the governor for the initial 30 days.

But the substitute specifies that the governor could not suspend a law or rule under the Texas Disaster Act in order to keep a state agency in place, something Abbott did to keep the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners in place after the 86th Legislative Session.

Another key difference in the committee substitute is the addition of a section that prohibits local disaster declarations from “conflict[ing] with, or expand[ing] or limit[ing] the scope of” a governor’s disaster declaration.

The committee substitute for Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 45 had fewer changes.

Most notably, while the legislature would be required to approve renewals for all other large-scale disaster declarations after 30 days, the new version would extend the governor’s deadline to seek legislative approval for nuclear or radiological disaster declaration renewals to 90 days.

During the floor process, several amendments were added to SB 1025.

The first was offered by Birdwell himself, which he said would clarify “that the governor at no time may suspend an election code provision related to voter qualifications and procedures.”

With a subsequent amendment from Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), the governor would be permitted to extend the early voting period for in-person and mail ballot voting.

Another amendment adopted by the body from Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) would require the legislature to “consult with the county judge of each county impacted by the disaster, prior to making a final decision on whether or not a business will close,” though that would not give county judges any veto power over the legislature’s ultimate decision.

Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) introduced an amendment that she says would create a process for the legislature to “review and terminate a single executive order related to a state disaster declaration through the passage of a concurrent resolution.”

But ultimately, Paxton withdrew her amendment after it was met with some opposition from other members who contended that the majority threshold needed to strike down an executive order was inconsistent with the legislature’s ability to override a veto with a minimum of two-thirds support.

Now that the legislation has passed out of the Senate, it moves to the House. Being a constitutional amendment, if approved by the lower chamber, Texans would then decide if it becomes law at the ballot box this fall.

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.