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May 19, 2020
Texas Legislature Had History Making Session
in 1919 Near End of Spanish Flu Terror Reign
Coronavirus Inspires Innovative Brainstorming for State Lawmakers
Who'll Convene in 2021 with Health Protection as Paramount Issue
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
The coronavirus crisis has spawned a wave of collective conjecture on ways to convert the Texas Capitol into a makeshift safe house where the Legislature could convene in January for a regular session that requires a minimal amount of time and togetherness.
With COVID-19 expected to still be in play when Texas lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to meet again early next year, the state could probably learn a lesson or two from the regular session that was held in 1919 at the tail end of the Spanish Flu's murderous rampage across the globe.
One of the more creative proposals for the Texas statehouse buttressing for the session in 2021 centers on the possible extension of the House floor to the gallery above it in a move that might make the implementation of effective social distancing possible. Half of the House's 150 members could be assigned to the upper deck with microphones, voting machines and computers with WiFi access while a similar number of colleagues were spaced apart down below to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure and spread.
|William P. Hobby
But the current crop of Texas leaders and lawmakers would have a tough act to follow if they wanted to leave a mark as profound and enduring as the 36th Legislature managed to do in the aftermath of a pandemic that had an astronomically higher death rate than the contagion that's been under way here for more than two months.
With William P. Hobby as the governor who'd taken over after James "Pa" Ferguson's impeachment two years earlier, the Legislature bounced back from the novel influenza onslaught with a slew of monumental accomplishments that make the so-called Super Bowl session of 2019 seem pedestrian.
Meeting for 65 days in an abbreviated regular session and 65 more in three special gatherings between early May and mid-July, the Legislature in 1919 made Texas the first southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
Lawmakers passed a measure that year that established the system of energy regulation that's still in place today when they put the Texas Railroad Commission in charge of oversight for the fledging oil industry and tripled the rate of taxes that producers paid to the state. The Texas Oil & Gas Association that's commonly called TXOGA was conceived that year as well.
The 1919 Texas Legislature approved the first major shift of public education funding to the local level in landmark legislation that was designed to eliminate inequities between rich and poor school districts by giving them the power to control their own property tax rates.
Texas legislators centralized and streamlined the machinery and management of state government that year with a vote to create a Board of Control that would purchase supplies for agencies and public schools while managing the Capitol and other state buildings in Austin and other towns.
After deferring to mayors and local health directors in the Spanish Flu response just four years after the establishment of home rule in Texas, Hobby took the lead at the Capitol on behalf of the women suffrage movement. Hobby acquiesced to a push by the state's only Hispanic lawmaker for an investigation into the Texas Rangers amid accusations of brutality and executions of innocent people in battles on the border with Pancho Villa and other Mexican outlaws who'd been leading raids there.
While a joint House and Senate committee cleared the Texas Rangers despite findings of blatant violations of state criminal and civil laws, the probe culminated in the elite crime-fighting unit's reorganization and the adoption of professional standards with a new code of conduct and higher pay.
Convening less than two months after the Spanish Flu had overwhelmed Texas hospitals before it peaked in the fall of 1918, the 36th Legislature paved the way for the creation of the State Board of Medical Examiners that would be charged with the regulation of policing of physicians with higher standards than those that had in been in place during the influenza outbreak. Lawmakers played supporting roles in the expansion of the Texas health care system in 1919 when the Houston Methodist hospital and other facilities were founded.
Lawmakers headed off a push that year for the removal of limitations on liability for physicians and hospitals amid concerns that greedy lawyers would attempt to capitalize on the carnage and suffering that the Spanish Flu had inflicted here several months earlier. The disease had killed at least 2,100 people in Texas where that unofficial death toll had been dramatically higher across the state where doctors hadn't been required to report Spanish Flu cases and were unable to confirm them with testing like they have now.
The Legislature appropriated several million dollars in 1919 for the expansion of the Houston Ship Channel, created the State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children in Waco, added the state College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso to the University of Texas System before it became known as UTEP.
While the state budget had been a patchwork quilt of appropriations that were contained in an assortment of other bills and difficult to track, lawmakers in 1919 inserted a 13 percent pay raise for teachers at the Deaf & Dumb Institute, the Colony for the Feeble Minded and the State Lunatic Asylum into an education measure.
The 1919 Legislature that had one Republican in the House and none in the Senate had expected to have more money to spend in the future as a consequence of a Better Schools Amendment that Texas voters would approve in 1920. The constitutional revision set the stage for local tax hikes with no limitations as a way to reduce the state's share of the public school bills. Local taxes on property across the state more than doubled within the next three years as a result of the new system that would have the unintended effect of increasing disparities between school districts with more taxable wealth than others.
Texas lawmakers found time in 1919 for a vote that made the Pecan Tree the official tree in Texas.
The fight over female voting rights triggered the most explosive fireworks display at a Texas statehouse that had many during the sessions that were held when the state was emerging from the deadliest pandemic in modern times. Hobby and the Texas Equal Suffrage Association's leaders feared that the notoriously conservative Legislature with a male monopoly wouldn't be inclined to go along in a state where women had been able to vote for the first time in the 1918 primary election. So they added an incentive with a tradeoff proposal that would have made it harder for immigrants from Mexico to vote here.
Legislative leaders with the governor's encouragement packaged the women's voting rights expansion measure with a proposal that would have disenfranchised voters who had applied for citizenship in America but hadn't been granted it yet. Hobby's legacy would haven taken a major hit if voters hadn't defeated the compromise in a constitutional amendment election in the spring of 1919 when immigrants who hadn't become official citizens still had the right to vote.
But the Legislature voted in a special session two weeks later to ratify the 19th Amendment that Congress had approved in one of the many highlights in the post-pandemic lawmaking flurry of 1919.
With advantages that state lawmakers didn't have 101 years ago like television, technology, testing and sophisticated virus modeling, the current Texas Legislature's members will be more concerned with logistics and advance planning than their counterparts had been in 1919 when they didn't realize that the Spanish Flu hadn't been fully eradicated.
With tensions mounting over the pace of the reopening that Governor Greg Abbott has been directing and moved on Monday into a second phase, the Department of Public Safety would probably feel compelled to increase security in and outside the Capitol as a preventative measure when the session is under way.
The temporary use of the lower chamber's second level for members only could apparently be formalized in the rules that the House approves at the outset of a regular session as the first act of business after the speaker is elected on opening day. The seats on the floor could be designated on the basis of seniority or another criteria if representatives don't give the speaker the singular power to make such a call in the rules.
Some of the Legislature's standard operating procedures could be set aside until the coronavirus has been eradicated or tamed with an effective vaccine. Staff might not be allowed to linger on the outer edges of the House and Senate floors while the chambers are in session. The press might be banned from the House and Senate floors with potential sections of seating reserved in the galleries.
Traditions that are purely ceremonial could go by the way side beginning with the disbandment of the formal committee of representatives who are chosen to escort the speaker to the stage for the coronation. Lawmakers could devote more time to policy discussions and debates if they're not giving shout outs to people or groups in the gallery and having their colleagues clap for them.
The House could add a line to the rules that keeps the members lounge shut down in the early stages of the regular session - a move that would be a minimal inconvenience at most. The sergeant-at-arms on both sides of the rotunda might be charged with the unenviable task of advising senators and representatives not to congregate around their desks like they've always done in the past.
Texas legislators can safely assume that the coronavirus will still be lurking in the state when 2021 arrives if the disease hasn't manifest in a far more virulent second wave that many experts are predicting for the fall this year. The multitudes of questions on how they prepare for it as a legislative body are loaded with intriguing possibilities.