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Analysis: The Texas Legislature can meet for up to 140 days. The pandemic raises a question: Should it?

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The Texas Capitol. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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Clear plexiglass shields have been installed in some places in the Texas Capitol, like the big room where the House Appropriations Committee writes budgets. Lawmakers who write the state’s budget will have the same protection from their colleagues and staffers that up to now has been used mostly to shield buffet salads and deli meats.

Sneeze screens.

Conversations about how to legislate during a pandemic have animated lawmakers since the new coronavirus reared its head in Texas earlier this year.

The budgets they churn out are on the must-do list. Money makes the wheels turn, keeping the government going for the next three years or so. The census is expected to be late, and that’s needed for the redrawing of the state’s political districts, another must-do item for the 87th Legislature.

That’s why Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said last week that he’s telling senators not to plan any vacations next year before the end of September. He’s saying there will be special sessions on redistricting and that they could take all summer. Under non-pandemic conditions, he and other state leaders would at least be pretending new political maps could be turned out during the regular session.

There are always a few things — not as many as campaigning politicians promise — that have to be done right away. But other normal and regular functions of the Legislature — most of them, honestly — can probably wait.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which conducts life-and-death reviews of state agencies, spent most of its meeting on Tuesday deciding whether public testimony should be in-person or virtual, all under the working idea that the commission’s work is absolutely critical. It’s important. But there is also a “safety net bill” every session to keep alive the agencies that would be shuttered — sunsetted — without legislation. That’s just one of many ways a government can push things to later dates.

And there’s nothing in the laws or the rules that says the Legislature has to work for 140 days; the law says that’s the maximum length of a regular session, not the minimum.

In a normal 140-day regular session, the Legislature considers thousands of bills and passes fewer than one in four of them. According to statistics compiled by the Legislative Reference Library, lawmakers filed an average of 6,212 bills in each of the last 10 sessions and passed 1,409 — a pass rate of 22.7%.

It doesn’t mean they must do that, just that it’s the norm.

If you were dispatched to make the same kinds of decisions about Texas lawmakers that state and local government officials right now are making about public school children, you’d talk about the same things the folks in Austin are considering.

Screens between lawmakers. Forests of sanitizer stands all over the Capitol. Rules about when virtual meetings are safer than in-person ones. Constant testing. Shortened schedules.

Lawmakers could be at great risk. A quarter of them are at least 60 years old. More than half are older than 50. As social as these people are, any politician worth the title is probably qualified, if unrestrained, to be a super-spreader.

So why not limit their exposure?

The budget has to be done. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimates a $4.6 billion shortfall for the current two -year budget that runs through August 2021. Lawmakers have to fill that hole and then write a budget for the two years after that based on whatever glum revenue forecast Hegar conjures up at the start of the year.

Redistricting has to be done. As soon as the census is complete and delivered to lawmakers, they have to draw new political maps for the Texas congressional delegation, the Texas Legislature and the State Board of Education. If they don’t, the courts will do it for them.

Expect a dozen or so other must-dos to come out of 2020’s stew of pandemic, recession, an anxiety-ridden presidential election and rising clamor against racial injustice and police violence.

State government is tuned to a two-year cycle. The budget lasts that long. The Legislature only meets in odd-numbered years, unless a governor calls a 30-day special session to work out an issue that just can’t wait.

Important debates are held. Laws are passed. It’s a regularly scheduled civil fight over the rules and laws we abide by.

Some of it can wait. And if the coronavirus is thriving in January anything like it’s thriving now, lawmakers will be faced then — like educators and parents and students are faced today — with decisions about what’s safe and what’s right.

And they’re going to have some explaining to do if what they do for themselves is much different from what they prescribe for the rest of us.

Disclosure: The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.