With Covid-19 restrictions at the Texas legislature grass roots are more important than ever

Thanks to the pandemic, the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature will be vastly different than any session we’ve seen before.

By Mike Hodges and Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

With opening day only two weeks away, we still don’t know exactly what the rules will be. But at this juncture these factors seem likely:
Committee hearings will be less physically accessible to the public. Hearing rooms overflowing with passionate citizen witnesses will be a distant memory. Admission may be limited to legislators and staff, with most or all witnesses testifying remotely. Some committee members themselves may opt to participate via computer rather than in person.
There will be fewer committee meetings than in the past. This means fewer bills will get hearings, so fewer bills will pass. That’s good if you’re trying to kill a bill, bad if you’re trying to pass one.
Office meetings with legislators will be few and far between. Citizen groups, individual members of the general public, the working press and public policy groups such as transparency advocates will find it harder than usual to get face-to-face meetings with legislators.
Depending on the individual lawmaker’s risk tolerance, those who do get personal meetings may be required to pass fresh COVID tests before getting access to the inner sanctum.
With so much of the give-and-take of legislating conducted online, anyone with limited digital access will be at a distinct disadvantage. 
So what does all this mean for the Texas Press Association? How do we get lawmakers to listen to our concerns about the First Amendment, public notices, public meetings and public records?
We double down on what we do best, that’s how. We engage publishers with their lawmakers when important legislation is in play. We urge publishers to reach out to legislators by phone, by text or by email, or buttonhole them when they come home for the weekend. We suggest columns and editorials explaining how these issues affect readers. At times it might be helpful to call on them by name in print and on social media platforms, urging them to keep our government open and accountable to the people it serves.
As in sessions past, The TPA staff and the Legislative Advisory Committee will keep members abreast of what’s happening. We’ll send calls to action as needed, providing you talking points to use when contacting your lawmakers. And we’ll provide you an op-ed piece should the situation call for it.
If you don’t have a relationship with your state representative and state senator, you need to develop one for the sake of your newspaper and your community. The stakes are high. Not having a relationship with your lawmaker could be the difference between keeping public notice in newspapers and losing it…or in seeing access to public records diminished. 
Texas Press doesn’t make campaign contributions, so we must rely on the connections and influence of our members to get legislators’ attention. This grassroots approach has worked well for us in the past and it can work again — even in a pandemic — if our members are engaged.
We know you’re busy, and we promise we won’t waste your time. We will ask for your help only when it’s really needed.
As always, thank you for what you do for your community, for Texas and for your Texas Press Association.