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February 5th, 2021:

What should the Governor’s powers be in a future emergency?

He admits there could maybe be some limits, but as is often the case has no great idea what they might be.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he is open to reconsidering his executive powers during state emergencies, a point of contention among some fellow Republicans during the coronavirus pandemic, and that his office is “offering up some legislation ourselves on ways to address this going forward.”

“What we are working on — and we’ve already begun working with legislators — is approaches to make sure we can pre-plan how a response would be done, but it has to be done in a way that leaves flexibility to move swiftly,” Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Abbott spoke with The Tribune the day after his State of the State speech in which he laid out his agenda for the 2021 legislative session, which started last month. As the pandemic has dragged on, some GOP lawmakers have grown uneasy with how aggressively Abbott has used his executive authority, particularly when it comes to business shutdowns and mask mandates. In the speech, Abbott promised to “continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open.”

Abbott said in the interview that he still wants the governor to have the ability to do things like cut regulations in the time of a disaster, saying there is an “absolute need for speed” in such instances that the legislative process cannot provide. That is especially true, he added, “during a pandemic, when sometimes it’s hours that matters, especially sometimes in responding to demands that are coming from the White House where you basically have a 24-hour time period to respond to it.”

“We need to create a structure that will work that accommodates the need for a 24-hour turnaround,” Abbott said.

Abbott issued a monthlong shutdown of nonessential businesses last spring as the virus was bearing down on Texas. He has since relaxed restrictions and now business operations are based on the proportion of a region’s hospital patients being treated for COVID-19. Along the way, some in his party have argued the Legislature should have had more of a say in decisions that affect so many Texans. Some Republicans blasted him for going too far with his executive orders, while many Democrats and local officials criticized him for not going far enough to curb infections.

I brought this subject up a bunch of times in the earlier days of the pandemic, when Abbott showed some actual interest in doing something about it. A lot of the pushback came in the form of clownish lawsuits from Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, which was absolutely the worst way to have this discussion. Woodfill is quoted in this Chron story that includes some input from legislators, but screw him, he’s a waste of space. Let’s see what members of the House think.

Lawmakers in the state House, which is controlled by Republicans, have yet to coalesce around any specific bills. Some members have called for requiring the governor to get legislative approval before renewing emergency orders.

“When you have to make split-second decisions on how to operate under a pandemic, it’s very difficult,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in an interview last month with the Tribune’s Evan Smith. “It’s a lose-lose situation. I thought he did as best he could.”

A spokesman for the speaker added in an email Wednesday that Phelan, whose district has received help from the governor’s office during hurricanes, “believes the Texas Legislature should have a seat at the table when developing a framework for how Texas addresses future public health emergencies.”

The Woodlands Republican Rep. Steve Toth, who was involved in and supported multiple suits against the governor over pandemic-related executive orders and has filed a bill to limit those powers, said Abbott’s comments were “very welcome.”

“I have to agree with him 100 percent: The ability to adjust regulations and ease regulations was critical in the face of this shutdown to give retailers and small business owners the ability to survive,” Toth said. “The big question is when it’s something this big, a shutdown statewide for multiple months … I just think it’s imperative that a decision of that magnitude that we bear that burden together, that it falls on all our shoulders to come up with a solution.”

Toth’s bill, HJR 42, would give voters in November the choice to decide whether to require the governor to call a special session of the Texas Legislature if he wishes to extend a state of emergency past 30 days.

Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio on Wednesday filed a similar bill, HB 1557, that would amend the law immediately without a need for an election. Martinez Fischer called it “the most seamless proposal that’s been offered.”

“In times of pandemic, we need a quarterback,” Martinez Fischer said. “But that quarterback also needs a team. And the Legislature’s the team. (The bill) gives the governor the ability to be that decision-maker, if you will, but then bring us in session so that we can provide our expertise and be part of the solution.”

Steve Toth is generally a lousy member of the House, but in this case I agree with what he’s suggesting, though I prefer Rep. Martinez Fischer’s approach of making any changes statutory rather than constitutional. For one thing, that will be easier to do, and for another it will be easier to modify or undo if those changes are more obstructive than constructive. I like the basic idea that the Governor can impose emergency orders, but beyond a certain point the Legislature needs to be brought in to extend them. I think that’s a decent balance, though of course it could fall prey to politics, especially if we ever get to a situation of divided partisan rule. I very much want to avoid the ridiculous shenanigans that Republican legislatures in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina have done to overrule and neuter their Democratic governors, often in ways that were harmful and politically motivated. I think the Republican legislature here is unlikely to over-correct on a Republican governor, though there will be a wingnut faction that will want to do that. For now at least, I’m cautiously optimistic that something reasonable can be put forward. We’ll see how that goes.

On a completely tangential note: Remember the days when people could assert with a straight face that the Governor of Texas was maybe the fifth or sixth most powerful office in the state? It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that old chestnut, and the last time I did a few years ago I snorted out loud. I don’t know exactly when that stopped being true, but it sure hasn’t been in awhile. Just thought I’d make note of it here.

The other obstacle to getting people vaccinated

Some people just don’t want it.

Millions of Texans do not want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a new University of Houston survey.

While 38 percent of those surveyed said they will be vaccinated when it becomes available to them or have already received the vaccine, about one-in-five (22 percent) of the 1,329 people surveyed said they definitely will not accept it. The survey was conducted by YouGov, a national poll service, and analyzed by the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs, a political science educational institution.

In addition to those who “definitely” will not be vaccinated, another 10 percent say they probably will not get vaccinated.

“From everything I’ve read, experts say that we need to achieve anywhere from 70-90 percent vaccination rate in order to achieve herd immunity,” said Renée Cross, senior director and researcher at the Hobby School. “If right off the bat, we already have one-third saying they won’t get it, it will be very hard for Texas to achieve that level needed for herd immunity.”

[…]

Education level, gender and political party factor into how hesitant people are to being vaccinated, Cross said. But she said the anti-vaccination movement should be factored in.

A slim majority of Republicans (51 percent) said they will be vaccinated, Cross said. The study found that 28 percent of Republicans said they definitely will not get vaccinated, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.

Sixty-five percent of those who said they will not be vaccinated said it is “too new” and they prefer to wait, while 44 percent of that group said the risks of COVID-19 have been exaggerated. More than half of that group said they don’t trust the government or pharmaceutical companies to ensure the vaccine’s safety.

The press release for this poll is here and the full poll data is here. This is from the same suite of policy and politics polls that gave us some data about certain legislative issues. They have a fourth result there that measures opinions about various politicians, which I’ll address in a separate post.

I continue to believe that in the end, a sufficient number of people will get vaccinated. The anti-vaxx threat is real and needs to be confronted, but I believe people are going to want this. Some will prefer to wait, and that’s fine as long as that doesn’t cause a needless delay for those that would be after them in the queue. If it turns out that I’m wrong and we’re not getting close to a sufficient number of vaccinations, then I think we need to consider enacting restrictions on people who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Maybe starting in the 2021-22 school year, each kid has to have been vaccinated or be in line to get vaccinated, or have a medical reason to not get vaccinated, in order to enroll. I hope it doesn’t come to that but it might. For now, let’s keep working to get everyone else vaccinated.

And to that extent, this should help.

Harris County launched a campaign Thursday aimed at convincing hesitant residents to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

[…]

Harris County’s campaign will focus on communities of color. A national survey of minority groups by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found almost 40 percent of respondents would refuse the vaccine or were undecided.

“Something that is beginning to become evident is the same communities who are hardest-hit by the virus are the communities that are most hesitant to receive the vaccine,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at the Spring Branch Community Health Center. “It’s a tragic fact, and it impacts particularly Black and Hispanic communities, which have been hammered by this virus from the very beginning.”

She attributed that to the lack of health care access in minority communities, as well historic neglect by government health agencies and initiatives. Hidalgo said Harris County needs to break down the “wall of suspicion” to convince residents to trust the vaccine. The county will run ads in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Good. Not everyone will be convinced, but the poll clearly showed that some of the resistance to taking the vaccine is from concerns that it has been rushed and that the long-term effects are not known. People of color have a variety of reasons to be suspicious of the healthcare industry, and we have to address those concerns in an honest and direct manner. This is the most straightforward path to lowering the resistance to the vaccine, and it’s good that Harris County and Judge Hidalgo recognize that.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.