As I write this, most families are readying themselves for the upcoming holiday and new year.
However, many of us in the Texas newspaper industry are readying ourselves for Jan. 12 — the beginning of the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature.
This session will be different from any session we have seen in the past—but how different?
Well, this remains an open question.
Initial information coming to us from lawmakers was that we’d have almost no access to the Capitol, and most lawmakers would have their offices closed to the public.
The reality, however, is we will likely not know exactly what rules and protocols will be in place until opening day of the session.
Many groups nationwide have pushed back on lawmakers who are holding sessions without public access to their chambers, in spite of the serious health risks to lawmakers and the public that come from large crowds gathering amid a pandemic.
That pushback is starting to happen in Texas, and we don’t know if lawmakers will have the political will to protect themselves and their staffs and members of the public during this pandemic if that way of thinking prevails.
The rules adopted by both chambers of the Lege and the Texas Preservation Board will ultimately govern the session.
I believe it is likely reasonableness and public health will prevail, and Capitol access and access to lawmakers will be tightened.
With that the likely — but not certain — case, here are some tips I’ve received from Capitol staffers on how best to interact with our legislators during this time:
1.) Get to know the chief of staff and legislative director for the members that represent you. Ask if they or someone else will be responsible for bills on various topics relating to newspapers. Ask these staff how best to communicate with them “in the moment” while a bill is on the floor or in committee. Some staff are sharing cell numbers with constituents or lobbyists pushing certain bills to make that access easier. Some are not. Find out what works with your rep and Senator.
2.) Do the same with legislators who are carrying specific bills you need to monitor.
3.) Don’t just depend on phone communication: email or fax in your comments. Phone lines may be pretty tough to get through this session if there is no in-person contact. Emails and faxes received by legislative offices are logged — especially if for or against a bill. When you email or fax correspondence, write in the letter or email that you wish them to log the correspondence in the constituent communication management system and record you as a supporter/opponent of a particular bill, so the member can be aware of your position.
4.) Set up a time to Zoom or conference call with your legislators NOW. Don’t wait until session starts. It is important, in a session where we likely won’t see our lawmakers in person, that you have contact with them at the outset of session to let them know although you can’t be there in person, you will be paying attention.
As I’ve noted before in this space, the state will be short on revenue this year, and everything from public notices to a tax on print newspapers or newspaper ads could be considered by budget writers to create more revenue.
The two revenue elephants-in-the-room — recreational marijuana and casino gambling — would be tough to pass in any session, and there just aren’t likely the votes to pass either this session, in spite of the state’s desperate need for cash.
That means the legislature will have to put together new revenue sources bit by bit with no big pots of money likely from major shifts in Texas law.
One bright spot could be money flowing to the state from the latest round of stimulus funding. Hopefully, some of that money will flow down to local governments. One big concern of mine is that with local governments cash-strapped, we could see a push to end printed public notices for local government entities, which would be a disaster for our industry and seriously harm the public who depends on these notices to know what their government is doing.
Too, public information and open meetings laws are likely to see changes as a result of the pandemic. We must be vigilant in speaking out on these bills, too.
Our industry faces challenges this session, and so do lawmakers.
We must, whether by phone, email, or the 1990s staple of faxing, remain in constant touch with our lawmakers and we must be more vocal than ever before that the fate of our industry hangs in the balance when it comes to certain legislation.