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Again with defining the Governor’s powers in an emergency

The legislative process has begun, and I feel like we’ve already lost the plot.

For roughly the past year, Republicans and Democrats have picked apart the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and particularly how Gov. Greg Abbott has wielded his power along the way.

Now, with less than 90 days left in the 2021 regular legislative session and as Abbott has moved to lift most of the restrictions he imposed, the Texas Legislature is setting its sights on addressing the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic. And while many differences remain on the approach, members of both parties and both chambers of the Legislature appear intent on doing something.

In the House, a top lieutenant of GOP Speaker Dade Phelan has filed a wide-ranging bill that would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic, among other things. The measure has been designated House Bill 3, indicating it’s a top priority for the new speaker, behind the lower chamber’s proposed state and supplemental budgets in House Bills 1 and 2, respectively.

The author of House Bill 3, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, has said the proposal can serve as a starting point for lawmakers to begin to map out what the state’s response should look like in the event of another pandemic.

“After going through the last year of a pandemic and the government reaction to it, we owe Texans a healthy and robust debate about what we agree and disagree with,” Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune for this story. “I filed HB3 so we could have a holistic review of state governance and to make sure we protect our liberties during a state emergency.”

The Senate, meanwhile, is appearing to take a more piecemeal approach. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has included several pandemic-related proposals as part of his 31 legislative priorities for the session, including a “First Responders Pandemic Care Act” and a “Family Nursing Home Visitation Rights” bill. Patrick’s office has remained tight-lipped so far about the substance of those proposals — many of which have not yet been filed — or his chamber’s contrasting approach. A Patrick spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

“Things are off to a slow start, and I think we’re probably in wait-and-see mode” when it comes to reforming emergency powers, said Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “There seems to be more going on on the Republican side of that, but as far as doing something like an HB 3 goes, I’m not sure.”

There are broad areas of agreement between the two chambers on issues like protecting businesses from certain lawsuits related to COVID-19, which is among Patrick’s and Abbott’s priorities and is included in the House’s omnibus proposal. But the more tricky territory could be reforming the parameters of a state pandemic response.

[…]

As filed, House Bill 3 would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. For roughly the past year throughout the pandemic, the state has been operating under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which Abbott has used to issue statewide guidelines. Some have argued that the disaster statute did not fit the circumstances brought on by the unprecedented pandemic and that tweaks would be needed should a similar crisis happen in the future.

The bill would also require local jurisdictions to receive approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic — an attempt to avoid the headlines and confusion that defined much of the 2020 general election, such as court battles over mail-in ballot applications and drive-thru voting.

“All of these jurisdictions, especially in [Harris and Dallas counties], the more blue areas, we’re not going to let them use a pandemic excuse to change the rules of the game to try to get more Democrats out to vote,” Burrows said last week on the Lubbock-based Chad Hasty radio show, noting that the Republican Party of Texas has named “election integrity” a top priority this legislative session.

Among its other provisions, the bill would affirm existing protections for places of worship remaining open during a pandemic, and for the sale or transportation of firearms and ammunition.

See here for the background. Keeping churches and gun stores open, while making it harder to vote – you have to hand it to these guys, they never miss an opportunity to follow their zealous little hearts. Kind of quaint to think that the heart of the matter would be about the relative roles of the Governor and the Legislature, or that a lightweight like Steve Toth would have the more serious and constructive proposal, but here we are. Speaking of which, the Chron adds a few details.

Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill that would give the Legislature the power to intervene midpandemic if voters approved a constitutional amendment. Toth’s bill, House Joint Resolution 42, was one of at least eight that have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the subject.

Last year, Toth and other conservative lawmakers were also party to lawsuits against the governor claiming Abbott abused his emergency powers when he extended the early voting period and when he signed off on a deal with a contact tracing company.

But Toth said Wednesday that he felt confident that Phelan and Burrows are listening to feedback and willing to make changes that other members deem necessary to strengthen the bill. Whether that will include a requirement for a special session, however, remains to be seen.

“I’d be seriously disappointed if they weren’t welcoming input,” Toth said. “I’d be disappointed if they weren’t saying how can we change to make it better, but they are, enthusiastically.”

Phelan, for his part, has supported Abbott taking charge during disasters, something he’s said helped his community of Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey. In a statement Thursday, Phelan called HB 3 “the House’s initial blueprint for our pandemic response.”

“Our chamber welcomes healthy debate over the best way to defend our liberties, create predictability in times of crisis and safeguard our economy,” he said.

Rep. Chris Turner, House Democratic Caucus chair, said in a statement that while the bill will likely go through many changes as the session goes on, “there is broad interest in addressing how future governors respond to future emergencies, given Gov. Abbott’s confusing, slow and often inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic — not to mention last month’s winter storm.”

He added that he hopes the legislation will give local leaders the chance to make rules for their own communities without being preempted by the governor. As of now, the law does the opposite, affirming a clause that most of Abbott’s orders have included stating that a governor’s emergency orders supersede local ones.

“Beyond that, we need to prioritize fixing our broken data reporting systems so we can make decisions based on science rather than politics,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

I mean, I don’t really want Steve Toth to be happy, but he did have one halfway decent idea, and I do like to encourage that sort of thing. The Senate still has to weigh in, not that they’re likely to do anything to improve matters. As the Chron story notes, limiting the Governor’s powers was not something Dan Patrick considered to be a priority. He has more important things on his mind.

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