Watch: New Texas senators discuss plans to address COVID-19’s impact on health, businesses

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Meet the New Texas Senators

Three new state senators who jumped from the Texas House to their current positions share one priority for this legislative session: minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on Texans.

Sens. César Blanco, D-El Paso; Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio; and Drew Springer, R-Muenster; were all elected to the Senate during the pandemic. Despite having wide-ranging platforms, from Gutierrez introducing a bill to legalize marijuana use to Blanco filing multiple bills related to the sale of guns, all agreed that they’ve had to adapt their focuses to Texans’ urgent needs related to the pandemic.

The senators sat down for a virtual conversation with Alex Samuels, a political reporter for The Texas Tribune, on Tuesday to discuss their goals for the session as well as their ideas to combat the effects of COVID-19. The conversation was livestreamed on Friday.

Did you anticipate COVID-19 and its consequent budget shortfalls when running for Senate, and how does it affect your plans?

The health of constituents and the local economy, especially for small businesses, are the Senate’s largest focuses, Gutierrez said.

“Thousands of Texans are out of work and facing food insecurity,” Blanco said. “Businesses are struggling to stay open, and all of the health and economic disparities in our community have only been worsened by COVID-19. The focus, in terms of scope, is really narrowed.”

Springer said he ran on a platform to readdress the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, from which Gov. Greg Abbott derives the power to create statewide guidelines. He said he wants to zoom in on benefits for small businesses, but different Texas communities may require different solutions.

“It's not a one-size-fits-all state,” Springer said. “I would never try to guess what El Paso needs, and I know Roland wouldn't and César wouldn't try to guess what Muenster, Texas needs.”

What do Democrats think they can get done in the Senate as members of the minority party, especially since changes to the amount of votes needed to bring bills to the floor make it easier for the Republican majority to pass legislation?

Blanco said working at the state Capitol differs from working at the federal level, where party lines often dictate everything. He said it is easier to reach across the aisle to pass bills that benefit all communities.

“Even though Democrats are in the minority, we've got great members on both sides of the aisle that understand the delivery for communities is why we're here,” Blanco said.

Gutierrez echoed this sentiment, adding that this session will be different from the past because of the pandemic.

“We can come up with solutions that make sense for both sides, for working-class families,” Gutierrez said.

Springer voted to lower the amount of votes needed to bring bills to the floor, making it easier for Republicans to pass bills. He said Texas has voted majority Republican for years, and it is the Senate’s duty to represent Republican values because of this.

However, he said only a handful of bills will fall along party lines, because most priorities this session are bipartisan.

“Roads and education don't necessarily care, from those standpoints,” Springer said.

Are you comfortable with the COVID precautions in the Senate, and do you think people who want to testify are adequately protected?

Gutierrez said everyone in the Senate had similar ideas for precautions, and testing is incredibly important for people going in and out of the Capitol. Senate rules require a negative COVID-19 test the day a member attends committee hearings, and all Senate staff must be tested before entering the chamber.

“We have to have continuity of government and in order to do that, we need members and staff that are not going to be in peril of getting sick,” Gutierrez said.

Following guidelines is necessary so everyone can meet their goals within the 140 days of session, Springer said. Springer also said he has previously had COVID-19 and now has the antibodies for it. (Doctors and scientists believe a COVID-19 infection creates some natural immunity, but little is known about the duration and strength of the immunity.)

Blanco said he agrees that it’s important to protect lawmakers, but he doesn’t want to jump the line to get vaccinated because many people, especially those in his city of El Paso, have still not been able to receive vaccines.

“We tamped down the pageantry around the beginning of the session,” Blanco said. “It's nothing compared to what our families, students and teachers on the frontline workers are going through.”

How can the Senate help industries like travel and tourism recover and contribute tax revenues?

Springer said he supports allowing businesses to further open and allowing individuals to make their own choices.

“We've got to look at what we can do from an incentive standpoint to those industries we have shut down as government, not by their choices but our choices,” Springer said.

Gutierrez said he wants to legalize cannabis because taxing it as a product could provide more revenue for the state. He said San Antonio is a top tourist destination in Texas, and because the hospitality sector has lost so much money, taxing cannabis products could make up for it.

Currently, it is illegal in Texas to use or possess marijuana. However, hemp, a part of the cannabis plant, has been legalized. Businesses can also sell cannabidiol, better known as CBD, which is a non-psychoactive compound of cannabis.

“We've got to be able to look at things that create new revenue without raising property taxes at home,” Gutierrez said.

People working in the hospitality industries have faced job and wage cuts, and Blanco said Texas should expand Medicaid — the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled — to account for this. Texas is in a minority of states that opted against expanding Medicaid coverage to people with incomes slightly above the poverty line.

“This could be one of the most effective tools to address health and economic impacts caused by COVID,” Blanco said.

How will each of you measure a good versus a bad session for you and your constituents when everything is said and done?

Blanco said overall, he hopes to expand access to healthcare, provide relief for businesses, as well as pass a balanced budget.

“These are all challenges and challenging times, and people are looking to us for some leadership and for their government to have a plan to provide them with relief, and a roadmap to recovery to help them,” Blanco said.

Springer said the session will be a success when he sees small businesses are growing and hiring individuals, and the economy is recovering.

“We've seen some of the problems that COVID has created,” Gutierrez said. “We have to look at the future, not just how we're going to deal with COVID, but how to be ready in the future when, God forbid, this ever happens again.”

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors.

This conversation was presented by Lone Star College and supported by DoorDash, Texas Association of School Business Officials, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and TEXAS 2036.

Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.