Back in May, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, "The people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business while containing COVID-19 and keeping our state safe." He assured Texans that we had contained the pandemic and that we could transition back to normal life.
Abbott was so confident in our success that his statewide order stripped local officials of their power to impose stricter limits. Working together with Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened Dallas and San Antonio with lawsuits when their shelter in place orders seemingly violated the Governor's order. They even allowed folks to start getting haircuts.
At the time, state Democratic leaders expressed their concern that Abbott was moving too quickly. House Democratic leader Chris Turner said, “Unfortunately, COVID-19 numbers are moving in the wrong direction right now and we need to tap the brakes, not step on the gas." Texas had not met guidelines set by Dr. Fauci and Abbott's contact tracing program seemed inadequate.
Abbott's refusal to make masks mandatory was a major sticking point between him and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo who had previously wanted a $1000 fine.
On the other side, many Republican activists thought he should have moved faster, especially once Shelly Luther, a hair salon owner, faced consequences for violating his order.
What a difference seven weeks can make.
On July 2nd, Abbott reversed himself and issued a statewide order mandating masks, including a $250 fine for those not complying. He tried to soften the blow to Republican activists by explicitly requiring masks for "any person attending a protest or demonstration", a nod to the belief among many conservative activists that the surge in cases in Harris County were a result of the George Floyd protests.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t enough. Local Republican activists are furious. Republican County Parties in Denton, Montgomery, Hood, Harrison, Ector and Llano have all passed resolutions censuring Abbott, who until recently, was the most popular Republican official in the state.
Just two months ago, he had an approval rating of 68% - including 46% of Democrats and 57% of Independents. That's on top of having received 400,000 more votes than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in 2018, including many from voters who also voted for Beto O'Rourke.
After COVID, Abbott might have a hard time winning in November, much less getting out of the Republican Primary.
But whatever you think of Abbott's performance, I want to focus on the fact that Texas, with a GDP of $1.9 trillion (2019) or enough to be the 9th largest economy in the world, is being run by the whims of one man.
Is this really how government in Texas should work?
Article III: Legislative Department
The American form of government, like many others, prioritizes the Legislative branch. In the U.S. Constitution, it's described in Article I. In Texas, it's the first branch discussed in Article III.
Both Constitutional traditions are opposed to giving one person too much power. That's why they establish Legislative bodies with representatives to pass laws, impeach executives and ultimately be accountable to citizens.
Another reason Legislatures can be so effective at making policy is that every Legislator comes from a different point of view - they're all literally from a different part of the state. So when an issue is brought up for debate, they each see different pros and cons. In order to pass, a law must work for a majority of the Legislators (in both the State House and State Senate).
As followers of #txlege know, the Texas Legislature convenes the second Tuesday of every odd year after an election for 140 days. The only legislation they are constitutionally mandated to pass is the state budget. After the session ends, the only way the Legislature can get together again is if the Governor calls a special session. During special sessions, the Legislature is limited to discussing only the topics which the Governor specifies.
But what does this have to do with Abbott and COVID-19?
When is an emergency an emergency?
During a crisis, like Hurricane Harvey, the Governor has broad powers to make decisions to ensure public safety. In these circumstances, the goals are relatively clear: to ensure the safety and security of the public. Crises, like hurricanes, have also happened so often that the trade offs between liberty and security are well understood. If the Governor or County Judge oversteps, it's usually only for a few days (or week at most) and if they abused their power, voters have the muscle memory to vote them out at the next election.
The current pandemic is different. At this point, it's unclear when we will be able to go back to a pre-COVID-19 world. That means, until either the crisis ends or we get to January 2021, Texans are subject to Abbott's rule - without checks or balances. One month he may care very much about reopening the Texas economy as conservative activists and business owners at Empower Texas and True Texas Project want; the next month he may change and be more responsive to the medical experts at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
On top of that, most Texans have not lived through a pandemic before and it's not clear what trade offs are acceptable to whom. We have 30 million people in the State, each with their own opinion. In fairness to Abbott, it's not possible for him to figure out the best balance, even if he wanted to.
If the Texas Legislature were in session, our elected representatives could negotiate with each other and set policy in a more consistent and transparent way.
A Stronger Branch
Unfortunately, we aren't going to be able to change the Texas Constitution until November
2019 2021 at the earliest. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't be thinking about what we could change.*
Specifically, I believe our response to crises, like COVID-19, could be made in a more transparent and consistent way if, for emergencies lasting longer than 30 days, the Governor was required to work with the Legislature.
Having the Legislature in session and able to convene themselves without the Governor's approval would also help focus Legislators's time and energy on creating solutions, rather than just parroting their Party's talking points.
What do you think? Should the Governor need to work with the Legislature on emergencies that last more than 30 days?
Send me an email at [email protected]. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
*And for those concerned about changing the Constitution too much, just remember that we've amended the Texas Constitution 690 times already.