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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.

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  1. […] here for the discussion of emergency powers. I just want to remind everybody that back in 2011 when the […]