After conservatives sounded alarms over the Texas House’s controversial “pandemic disaster” legislation, a revised version is set to be considered in committee on Thursday.
But will the changes be enough to get Texans back on board?
House Bill 3, filed by State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R–Lubbock), has been titled the Texas Pandemic Response Act. Since its inception, the omnibus bill has been criticized for expanding and codifying the emergency powers used by Gov. Greg Abbott since the beginning of the coronavirus disaster declaration nearly one year ago.
Rather than eliminate the ability of the governor to issue edicts during pandemics, it instead establishes a new section of code to issue “pandemic disasters.” Those emergency powers are largely the same as the current disaster powers Abbott used to justify his edicts and mandates over the past year, with the “force and effect of law.”
After public outcry, Burrows drafted a revised version of the legislation, called a “committee substitute.”
The substituted version tweaks some areas that received heavy negative attention. No longer do businesses need to follow federal CDC recommendations to be eligible for lawsuit liability protection. Gone is the reference to “strengthening” the governor’s power during a pandemic; instead, the bill says it only seeks to “clarify.” And a reference to “the authority of the governor to proclaim martial law,” a power that is heavily disputed, has been scrubbed.
The biggest change, however, comes in the form of a “Pandemic Disaster Legislative Oversight Committee.”
Though each “pandemic disaster” may only last 30 days, the legislation as originally filed allowed the governor to renew the orders indefinitely. And though the Legislature may terminate the disaster, they are largely powerless to do so, given the fact that only the governor can call them into a special session when they are not meeting—which is the majority of the time, for Texas’ part-time Legislature.
While the Senate is considering legislation to allow the Legislature to stop the governor’s orders when out of session, the House’s solution is to instead leave the decision to a 10-member panel, consisting of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, and a selection of committee chairs from each chamber. The panel would be allowed to make a decision 30 days after a disaster had been declared.
Attorney and former State Rep. Matt Rinaldi says the proposed changes have rendered the legislation largely meaningless.
“The bill has been changed from a harmful one to a pointless one. It doesn’t prohibit lockdowns, travel bans, or mask mandates, nor does it give anyone standing to challenge an illegal executive order in court,” Rinaldi told Texas Scorecard. “And the civil liability protection, at best, doesn’t help any business, since any policy they adopt will be ‘willful.’ At worst, it implies liability where there was none previously. What is the point of the bill?”
The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House State Affairs Committee at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 11.
The HB 3 committee substitute may be viewed below: