87th LegislatureState HouseState House Approves Texas Pandemic Response Act

The Texas House approved a bill to outline how the state government can handle a pandemic disaster in the future.
May 10, 2021
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The Texas House approved House Bill (HB) 3, Rep. Dustin Burrows’ (R-Lubbock) “Texas Pandemic Response Act,” in a 92 to 45 vote on Monday.

Legislators in the lower chamber will need to vote on the bill again before it is sent to the Senate.

HB 3 is the most comprehensive piece of legislation the House has acted upon this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and would set a section in code next to the Texas Disaster Act — the basis of the governor’s coronavirus-related executive orders — outlining how the government should respond specifically to a pandemic situation.

While the bill as initially filed appeared to be a codification of Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the recent pandemic, the version of the bill that went to the House floor on Monday would have required legislative approval for the continuation of Abbott’s most sweeping orders.

“Many legislators — myself included — have questioned legislative oversight,” said Burrows in laying out the bill. “These questions may take the form of wanting to reverse decisions made or they may be prospective, making sure future governors do not have the authority to bypass the legislative process in the interim.”

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Specifically, the new version of the bill added a provision that requires the governor to convene the legislature to approve an extension beyond 30 days for orders that have the effect of closing or placing capacity limits on businesses, mandating masks, or limiting surgeries.

That check comes in addition to the “Pandemic Disaster Legislative Oversight Committee” composed of the lieutenant governor, speaker, and several key committee chairs, which is authorized to review declarations from the governor 30 days after they are renewed.

The changes in the legislation from when it was first introduced were well received by at least one member — Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) — who said as much when Burrows introduced it.

Tinderholt said that three months ago, he had “15 items” that he wanted to see changed or added in the bill and told Burrows, “somehow you’ve managed to make it so that all 15 of those items are in there as well as probably dozens from the rest of the House.”

During the debate on the House floor, a number of amendments were also added to the bill, including:

  • A clarification that the civil liability protections does not “create any new legal duty for a negligence claim or a new cause of action;”
  • A requirement for the governor to call a special legislative session in order to renew the pandemic disaster beyond 120 days;
  • The creation of the “Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute,” which would advise and make recommendations to the legislative oversight committee;
  • The clarification that local officials may issue disaster declarations for the purpose of receiving funding;
  • A prohibition on the governor to issue an order under the pandemic response act to prohibit “nonelective medical procedures,” close golf courses, or close state parks;
  • A clarification to prohibit local executives from closing businesses more broadly, not “specific” businesses as previously worded;
  • A protection for caregivers to visit nursing homes;
  • An expansion on the size of the legislative oversight committee to include more input from ethnic minorities;
  • A clarification that neither beaches nor access to the beaches can be prohibited in accordance with the state constitution;
  • A clarification that the proposed act does not permit a government to force a business to close;
  • A provision to allow hospital patients to receive at least one visitor;
  • And a provision to give more members the ability to participate in, or audit the actions of, the legislative oversight committee.

An amendment from Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) would have also prohibited the governor from issuing a mask mandate via executive order under the proposed act.

While it passed without objection when first laid out by Vasut, Burrows brought it back for reconsideration at the apparent pressing of some members who opposed the measure but failed to object to it. Ultimately, the chamber opted against adding the amendment in a narrow 71 to 72 verified vote.

Another amendment that was shot down by Republicans was one offered by Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), which would have required the legislative oversight committee to comply with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or provide a written justification for acting against the federal recommendations.

HB 3 is not the only major bill passed by a chamber to address the Texas Disaster Act.

In April, the Senate approved a constitutional amendment and corresponding bill to require the governor to call a special session in order to renew any wide-sweeping disaster declaration.

That legislation, however, has been held up in the House State Affairs Committee where it has not yet received a hearing.

May 22 is the last day the committee will have to report the legislation, and the House as a whole must vote on it by May 25 in order for it to have a chance of becoming law.

The Senate has fewer deadlines but will still have until only May 26 to act on HB 3.

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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.