Phil Stephenson

State Rep. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) represents the area.

As the coronavirus pandemic endures, it is difficult to imagine the crisis won’t have some sort of influence on future Texas legislation. Texas legislatures aren’t set to hold session until January 2021, and local Texas State Representative Phil Stephenson does not expect to meet before then, despite hardships brought on by the pandemic.

I am one “hundred percent sure there won’t be a special session before we start our session that first Tuesday in January,” Stephenson said. “There’s no way the governor will let that happen.”

Texans have called for legislators to use the about $10.2 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, which holds saved up oil production tax dollars, to help citizens with the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic. The so-called “rainy day fund” was created by Texas voters in the 1980s to help prepare for an oil bust or other economic crisis.

The fund has been used by Texas legislatures in the past to invest in public education, lessen budget shortages and other economic purposes. The fund couldn’t be used to help ease pandemic burdens without a special legislative session being called. Like Stephenson, many legislators don’t expect to meet before January, according to the Texas Tribune.

When legislators do ultimately meet, Stephenson said he wants to prioritize education and lessening property taxes.

“If we don’t educate our kids in school, and keep them there and teach them, you’re going to lose a lot of things in Texas quickly,” he said.

“These property taxes are going to kill everybody,” he added. “We are getting pissed on right now. There are going to be people leaving the state pretty soon if we don’t figure out these property taxes. Number one get rid of them, and get the sales tax. I’m a big advocate for that.”

During the pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been criticized by fellow Republicans for exercising executive power. Most recently, Abbott ordered Texas bars to close on June 26 after owners had briefly reopened them, and he issued a state-wide mask mandate that began July 3.

Stephenson also expressed concern with Abbott’s use of executive power.

“I have a little problem with the whole way he’s got that executive power so much,” Stephenson said. “I’m thinking we ought to be talking about that (for) a bill to limit some of that stuff.”

At least six Texas counties approved censure resolutions, to condemn Abbott’s handling of the pandemic, as of Thursday, according to the Texas Tribune.

Representatives for the Texas House and Senate could come up with good ideas, Stephenson said, but they’re not involved in the pandemic decision making, and Stephenson hasn’t had an opportunity to ask Abbott questions.

“When we get phone calls anytime (Abbott) wants to talk to us, he just tells us what he’s doing,” Stephenson said.

Wharton County has 312 total confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, 87 recoveries and one death, as of press time. The current active COVID-19 case count for the county is 184. Wharton County’s estimated population, as of 2019, is 41,556.

El Campo’s city council issued a city-wide mask mandate on June 29 before Abbott issued his on July 2. Counties with 20 or fewer COVID-19 cases are exempt from Abbott’s mask order, but Wharton County exceeds that limit.

Whether wearing masks should be a legal requirement or an individual choice has become a divisive topic for many locally and nationally.

“We’ve made this thing where you’ve got to wear the masks, you’ve got to do everything in Wharton County,” Stephenson said. “I’m going, ‘wow, why are we doing all these things for one person when we’ve got 42,000 people just in the county?’”

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