AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In two days, lawmakers from across Texas will come to the State Capitol for the start of the legislative session. The new session comes as the country is still facing the aftermath of Wednesday’s riot in Washington, where mobs forced their way into the U.S. Capitol to temporarily disrupt the certification of the November Presidential election.
The events before, during, and after the riot put some Texans in the spotlight.
Hours before the violence, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke in Washington at the “Trump Save America March.” Thousands of Trump supporters came from all over the country to attend the rally and show support for the President.
“I want you to know Texas fights,” Paxton told the crowd. He touted lawsuits the state pursued to limit access to mail-in ballots and repeated false claims that the election had been stolen from President Trump. The crowd cheered in response.
Shortly after Paxton spoke, President Trump stepped to the podium and called on the crowd to head to the Capitol.
The images of what happened afterwards have been seen around the world. The march morphed into a mob, with people fighting police to force their way into the Capitol. Rioters rushed toward the chamber where lawmakers were meeting to certify the votes.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, was seated in the House Gallery. The members inside the chamber still did not know the extent of the danger outside. “You could really feel the tension inside the chamber,” Escobar said. “Everything happened pretty quickly after that.”
Rioters reached the doors of the House chamber and tried to force their way inside. Capitol Police rushed members on the floor to safety. But a few Texans stayed in the chamber and tried to help hold back the rioters.
“Several of us just started picking up furniture and started piling it in front of the door to try to stop them from coming through,” Rep. Ronny Jackson remembered. The newly-elected Panhandle Republican had been sworn in just two days before.
Rep. Troy Nehls was also new to the House. The Fort Bend County Republican is a military veteran and a former Sheriff. Pictures show Nehls, wearing a blue shirt, standing by the barricaded door, next to officers who had their guns drawn.
Through the broken window, he saw a man’s face. Rep. Nehls tried to talk to him.
“He appeared to be maybe in his early 20’s,” Nehls recalled. “And he was angry.”
Nehls was wearing a mask with the design of the Texas flag. “He said to me, ‘you have that Texas mask on, you should be with us, ‘” Nehls remembered.
“I said, young man, this is not the way we conduct business. You do not resort to violence,” Nehls said. “We should be able to agree to disagree.”
“I said, what you are doing is un-American, and we should be better than this.”
Nehls said he told the man that he should leave. He did not heed the advice. Nehls said he could see the anger in the man’s eyes.
Rep. Jackson and Rep. Pat Fallon, a north Texas Republican, were still on the House floor. “We didn’t have anywhere to go,” Jackson said. “It looked like they were going to be entering the chamber any minute.”
They looked for improvised weapons, preparing to defend themselves. Fallon saw an option in a hand sanitizer stand on the House floor. He ripped the stand from the base, and pointed the jagged edge toward the door. Others held parts of podiums and legs broken from chairs.
“We were ready to either poke or slam,” Fallon remembered.
It didn’t come to that. More officers came and rushed the remaining members on the floor and in the gallery to safety.
As the riot unfolded in Washington, DPS officers in Austin closed the State Capitol as a precaution. Hundreds of pro-Trump protesters had gathered on the grounds. While there were some tense moments, the rally stayed peaceful, with most people going home when the sun went down.
The Capitol reopened the next day.
For nearly seven months in 2020, the outside of the Texas Capitol looked more like a military installation than one of the largest tourist attractions in Austin. Every gate was chained shut with uniformed security standing watch.
National Guard soldiers and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers stood by, making sure no one stepped foot on the Capitol grounds. Doing so would likely end in a criminal trespassing charge.
It was this way from May 31 through Dec. 16.
On May 30, the Capitol came under attack by protesters and rioters who’d spent the previous days in and around downtown Austin made their way to the Capitol. Troopers stood watch as crowds moved toward the Capitol. DPS later said in a press release that rioters had spray painted the Capitol building and tore down monuments on the grounds.
After closing the grounds to the public on May 30, the DPS rolled hundreds of troopers in from across the state. DPS records show 566 troopers from five separate regions arrived in Austin to provide protection under what DPS labeled “Capitol Deployment” in records provided to KXAN.
By the end of June, DPS had an average of 488 troopers per day working in Austin under the deployment, according to records provided to KXAN.
On June 5, DPS increased the number of troopers in Austin to 739, the largest single-day count during the entire deployment. DPS continued staffing new troopers daily through June 30 with a total of 14,638 troopers on the ground in Austin over the span of the month.
DPS spent more than $6.1 million on overtime, travel and hotel during the Capitol lockdown. The agency spent more than $3.6 million in overtime in July, according to spending records.
It cost Texas taxpayers more than $1.1 in travel and hotel expenses between May 30 and Dec. 16, the day the Capitol grounds reopened to the public.
Protests in Austin continued into June and became less frequent into July and by the end of August, the protests that had erupted periodically in downtown Austin ended. Since August, we have no records of reports of rioting or protesting in the city.
The Capitol grounds remained closed.
DPS trooper staffing records also declined as the frequency of the protests dwindled. On August 1, DPS records showed 525 troopers working the Capitol Deployment. By August 7, that number dropped to just 37 troopers.
The Capitol grounds remained closed and overtime, travel and hotel expenses continued to mount. In September, the agency reported paying out $673,020 in overtime.
“The Capitol grounds were closed May 30 following protests which resulted in injury to Department of Public Safety personnel, destruction of state property, and damage to the historic building, fixtures, and grounds. The decision to keep the grounds closed involved DPS’s recommendation that the most sustainable, effective, and safe course of action to protect state property was to control entry to the grounds,” State Preservation Board spokesman Chris Currens told KXAN in a Dec. 4, 2020 email.
Currens said “leadership and DPS” were in “ongoing” talks to reopen the grounds when we contacted the SPB in early December.
Governor Abbott is listed as the SPB chairman and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen are listed as co-chairmen. None of the three would agree to an interview to discuss the prolonged closure of the grounds to the public.
McCraw’s press office would not schedule an interview with the director concerning the closure.
The Governor dispatched the Texas National Guard to the Capitol grounds to assist DPS in responding to the rioting and protests in and around Austin.
Dozens of soldiers filed out of white buses outside the Capitol’s north entrance on May 31 as protesters made their way from a protest outside the Austin Police Department toward the Capitol. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, soldiers ran onto the Capitol grounds in formation.
Soldiers have been posted outside the Capitol building and at the pedestrian gates surrounding the grounds ever since.
On Dec. 1, we submitted a request to the Texas Military Department’s press office asking for the same records we asked DPS for regarding the head counts and spending associated with the TMD’s deployment to the Capitol. After multiple attempts to have that Dec. 1 request answered, no one from the state guard responded.
On Dec. 30, Colonel Rita Holton, who identified herself as the guard’s director of communications, responded with a phone call. “We have deficiencies we’re working through in communications,” Holton said when asked why it took nearly a month to get a response from the TMD.
Holton also did not have any information on the number of soldiers deployed to secure the Capitol or how much the TMD spent in taxpayer dollars to pay for the deployment. “We have a lot of things going on right now,” Holton told KXAN, saying she was working with TMD staff to find the answers to the questions we posed on Dec. 1.
The only question Holton could answer in the call was that none of the soldiers deployed to the Capitol were taken from border security duties. Holton said the guard did not have soldiers deployed to the border “during this time.”
Holton said she could not release any of the spending totals unless we filed a formal open records request with the TMD. That request was filed Dec. 30 and has not yet been fulfilled. Holton said she’d have an update on soldier counts by Jan. 5, but did not provide that update by the time this report was published.
Although DPS Director Steve McCraw would not agree to an interview to discuss the reasons for keeping the public locked out of the Capitol grounds, McCraw did provide a legislative budget board some insight into the rationale for the lockdown.
“As you’re well aware, the Capitol security—when we talk about Capitol security—we’re talking about 46 city blocks in the Capitol complex, 38 state buildings, we’ve got 22 acres on the Capitol grounds,” McCraw told the board during a Nov. 6 hearing in Austin.
“Certainly it (Texas Capitol building) is the most iconic location in the state of Texas and it is a target for domestic terrorists and violent activists and even mob violence. And it’s something we’re mindful of and that we need to and have an obligation to do all we can to protect it with the resources we have,” McCraw said over a video conference.
McCraw did not have his camera turned on in the recorded public meeting.
The director wants the legislature to approve an additional $39.1 million in taxpayer funding in the upcoming budget to provide what he called “enhanced Capitol security. That funding would include 74 new full time DPS staff assigned to Capitol security, according to the DPS funding request.
“There is a strong desire by these anarchist insurgents to ransack and destroy the Capitol using whatever means possible including incendiary devices. The seriousness of the threat resulted in the state Leadership and legislature to close the Capitol and Capitol Grounds and the Governor deployed waves of DPS Field Force Operations Teams from around the state for sustained periods of time to staff overlapping shifts of up to 14 hours a day to protect the Capitol, Capitol Complex and the City of Austin,” the budget request stated.
DPS dispatched 3,000 troopers, special agents, Texas Rangers to “hot spot locations” in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio during the 2020 protests, according to the request.
McCraw’s request also informed lawmakers that the TMD would continue to be involved in securing the Capitol, “…especially so if a major incident or series of incidents result in statewide protests. Antigovernment violent extremists will again use such opportunities to incite violence and the Texas National Guard can provide essential support when directed to do so by the Governor,” the budget request stated.
The budget request, if approved this session, would provide DPS with 65 new troopers, five agents and two analysts dedicated to the agency’s expanded Capitol complex security plan. The equipment DPS plans to purchase includes $1.8 million for panic buttons, x-ray machines, video cameras, gunshot detection sensors and $1 million for “Enhanced Bomb Dog Capability.”
The request is based upon sensitive detailed information and a comprehensive needs assessment conducted by the United States Secret Service at the request of DPS,” the DPS report stated.
McCraw did not detail exactly what specific threats, if any, the state has received that led DPS to ask for the additional $39.1 million.
Plan aims to boost confidence in elections
Texas Congressman Michael McCaul and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) announced this week the formation of the Election Protection Project, an effort to bolster ballot integrity in the Lone Star State and nationwide.
The goals of the project are to ensure proper identification is provided for in-person and mail-voting, strengthening vote-by-mail security, encouraging a better path of communication between state and county officials and ensuring maintenance of voter rolls.
“How can we ensure that we minimize the number of people on the lists who are either deceased or who moved out of state?” Chuck DeVore, TPPF’s vice president of National Initiatives asked rhetorically. “How can we ensure that the people on the list should be on the list — in other words — that they’re citizens and that they’re eligible to vote?”
“These are things that can always be improved,” he stated.
DeVore cited an indictment of a Limestone County social worker who was charged with more than 130 felony counts of election fraud and of purportedly acting as an agent. That situation at a Central Texas state supported living center shows vulnerabilities in the election process, DeVore claimed.
“It makes you wonder, ‘Well, okay, that’s the one that we caught, how frequently does this occur?’” DeVore said.
On voting by mail, there are differing opinions among county election officials.
“I honestly don’t know how much more you could do to strengthen by-mail voting,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. “It is already very strong and has a lot of factors into it that you have to double check and triple check in order to participate.”
In Potter County, Elections Administrator Melynn Huntley said mail-in voting was critically important during the pandemic to protect voter safety, but she’s not sure what the future holds.
“In Texas, our vote by mail system is rather cumbersome, and I’m not positive that it’s scalable, to what is done in other states,” Huntley said. “So to in my mind, we either need to be at a vote-by-mail state or an in-person state.”
Where Huntley and DeBeauvoir definitively agree — they see a need to tackle misinformation.
“The number one place where voters are being harmed the most and the most vulnerable to outside interference, including state actors, is social media,” DeBeauvoir said.
Huntley also highlighted room for improvement with voter registration.
“One of our biggest challenges with registrations are applications that are turned in not completely filled out, or we can’t read the handwriting,” Huntley explained.
“Elections administrators in Texas have supported online voter registration for the last two sessions,” she added.
Progressive policy organization Progress Texas has efforted election measures at the state level, petitioning Texas to expand mail-in voting for all citizens. They, too, would like to see online voter registration.
“Texas is only a handful of states that doesn’t have online voter registration,” the group’s communications manager Wesley Story said. “We’re also going to continue to push for automatic voter registration.”
McCaul, a Republican for the 10th Congressional District of Texas, which covers parts of Austin and much of the region between Austin and Houston, was unable to schedule an interview for this report. In a statement, he said he was proud to lead the effort in Congress.
“It is my hope that with further investigation and legislative reform, we can have confidence in an election system. Improvements must be made so the United States can continue to set the standard of how to hold democratic elections,” he stated.
Census Bureau delays could lead to special session on redistricting
The Texas Legislative Council said Thursday it could be possible for a special session to be called over the summer of 2021 for redistricting after the Census Bureau has faced serious delays due to the pandemic.
The Census Bureau missed its December 31 deadline already, with a new deadline of February 9 set. But this week, a Department of Justice attorney warned there could be even more delays after more irregularities in the count were discovered.
That delays the data states, including Texas, will rely on for redistricting this year.
“The data that was due to be presented to the President, by the end of the year by the 31st of December, that’s a portion of data, that’s only state totals,” executive director of the Texas Legislative Council Jeff Archer explained.
“But the detailed, block by block data comes out later. And that’s normally April 1, is the statutory deadline,” Archer continued, “That could come substantially later.”
“They’re already providing contingencies for you know, another delay,” Texas Politics Project director Jim Henson said.
The Census Bureau issued a statement, explaining its deadlines are fluid at this time.
“We continue to process the data collected and plan to deliver a complete and accurate state population count for apportionment in early 2021,” the Bureau said in a statement.
Archer said the delays due to the pandemic were expected, and the Census Bureau actually pushed for an extension early on.
“There was actual proposal to Congress from the Census Bureau, at least from some portions of the Census Bureau bureaucracy, asking for postponement till the summer till June, July August timeframe, so that they could do the census in the normal ways,” Archer said.
Now, it’s possible that data won’t make it to the states before the 87th Legislative Session concludes on May 31.
“That increases the probability that the legislature will not get even the state level redistricting done during the regular session.”
Archer said that could lead to a special session over the summer.
“The Governor controls that. But if you don’t, plaintiffs are going to sue that the current districts are invalid, because they have one-person, one-vote,” Archer said. One-person, one-vote refers to the notion that a single person’s voting power should be equal to another person’s within the same state.
“If they don’t have a special session, courts will be faced with the prospect of either allowing the current districts to stay in effect for another election cycle, which, generally there’s a lot of reasons to disfavor that, because that’s one-fifth of the decade you’ve got malapportioned districts. In other words, unequal representation,” Archer said.
He said there are exceptions, though. For example, if lawmakers receive the data during the regular session, but aren’t able to make a plan in time, it could fall back on the Legislative Redistricting Board instead.
“If the legislature receives the census during the regular session, and does not complete a House or Senate plan, that board has backup jurisdiction, basically. They can convene within 90 days, so as late as the end of the summer, and then they have 60 days to adopt the House or Senate plan,” Archer explained.
The Legislative Redistricting Board is comprised of the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, Commissioner of the General Land Office and the Comptroller.
The U.S. Constitution requires the redrawing of congressional districts every 10 years, based on new census counts.
“It’s fundamental, because it creates the basis in which people vote for their legislative representatives,” Henson explained, “It’s through this process, the principles like one-person, one-vote, the quality of representation are all and the sanctity of elections are all preserved.”
With the Texas population expected to increase in the 2020 count, that means more representation.
“Texas will gain probably three new seats in its congressional delegation. So there’ll be new districts drawn for people,” Henson said.
The redrawing of districts is usually influenced most by the party with the majority in the state.
“In Texas, that’s the Republican Party, and has been for the last two cycles, this will be the third one is largely in control of that process,” Henson explained.
That can often lead to gerrymandering.
“That is the effort to draw the lines in a way which conform to federal law in the constitution and judicial precedent, but which also provide parsing advantages for the people that are drawing the maps,” Henson said.
“It’s both intrinsic to democracy, and also always very problematic, because of the way that that that represented that process of organizing representation, if you will, is subject to partisan and individual goals,” Henson concluded.
Vaccine frustrations have lawmakers asking for answers
What State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, said was supposed to be cause for celebration, has turned into confusion and frustration.
Access to COVID-19 vaccines, and according to Goodwin, public information about how to get vaccinated, is lacking.
Goodwin wrote a letter with 37 other Texas House Democrats calling on Gov. Greg Abbott and Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, to clear up confusion on the state’s vaccine rollout.
“Unfortunately, when people contact my office with legitimate questions and concerns about these issues, I do not know what to tell them, because the State’s plan conflicts with what people are actually experiencing across the state,” Goodwin wrote.
“…in some cases blind luck or personal connections are supplanting the priorities your offices have established,” Goodwin’s group wrote.
“If we don’t have enough vaccine to give it to people with underlying health conditions, why in the world would we be giving it to people who don’t have any health conditions and are younger than 65?” Goodwin said in an interview Thursday.
The letter outlines a few main requests. Goodwin asked Abbott and Hellerstedt to prioritize teachers, school employees, daycare workers, grocery store employees and food service workers, when making considerations for coronavirus vaccine distribution. Goodwin also requested the State “take special care to distribute opportunities for vaccination widely and with an eye toward making them equally available to all Texans regardless of racial or ethnic background.”
She took issue with what she claimed is a mismatch between the information coming from the state and “what is actually happening across” Texas regarding Phase 1A and 1B vaccinations.
“After the state announced the beginning of Phase 1B vaccinations last week, for example, many of my constituents reported that providers were dispensing vaccines only in accordance with Phase 1A,” Goodwin stated.
“The vaccines cannot be rolled out quickly and effectively unless Texans have confidence in the information they receive from DSHS, the governor, and their representatives,” the letter reads.
Goodwin criticized the immunization tracking system, which has posed problems for medical providers to the point the Texas Division of Emergency Management launched a separate map to chart where COVID-19 vaccines were available statewide. But this has left providers duplicating data entry.
In a statement, Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, highlighted several of the initiatives put forward by the state in this distribution phase of the pandemic.
“To keep the public informed, Gov. Abbott and TDEM recently launched a real-time reporting system to show vaccine usage data from healthcare providers across Texas so that Texans can see firsthand where vaccines and antibody therapeutic medications are available in their area,” Eze stated.
A Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson said the larger vaccination hubs announced on Thursday would “provide a simpler way for people in one of the priority groups to locate a provider and sign up to get vaccinated.”
“We’re also asking the providers conducting them to focus on areas and populations that have been hardest hit by COVID-19,” spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said in an email, adding it would take time to vaccinate for everyone in the priority groups who wants to be, and patience in the process by all was appreciated.
“With providers directed to focus on communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, these large vaccination hubs will enable us to allocate more vaccines to local health departments and community clinics that often serve diverse populations,” Eze wrote in the emailed statement Thursday. “As we continue to vaccinate health care workers, residents at nursing homes, and Texans over 65 or with a chronic medical condition, we are reaching people across communities, occupations, and races.”
“The state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel recommended prioritizing people 65 and over and who have certain medical conditions since they are at the greatest risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19,” Van Deusen said. “Teachers, food workers and others in those higher risk groups are certainly eligible to be vaccinated.”
DSHS reiterated the agency holds weekly calls with lawmakers to keep them apprised of rollout information.
Goodwin said state health leaders held a conference call with members of the Travis County legislative delegation on Thursday, which she called “helpful.” She acknowledged state leaders were working to improve communications, update the immunization charting system, and increase vaccine doses statewide.
“I do feel optimistic,” Goodwin said Thursday afternoon.
“I’m still not satisfied that they have determined where teachers and grocery store workers and essential workers fit,” she said. “They don’t have them categorized yet, which to me is a concern. I really think that people would feel a little bit better if they just knew, ‘Oh, I can count on getting my dose in February or March or at some certain time,’ and they still aren’t there yet.”
“I think that they (DSHS) understand the frustrations that are out there, and I do think that they’re gonna work hard to roll things out more smoothly in the future,” she said.