Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

MTX

Another lawsuit against Abbott over emergency orders

This one is a bit more serious due to the lack of Hotze and Woodfill, but it’s still not a great way to have the debate about this issue.

Five Republican Texas lawmakers are suing Gov. Greg Abbott over the state’s $295 million COVID-19 contact tracing contract to a small, little-known company, alleging the agreement is unconstitutional because it wasn’t competitively bid and because the funds should have been appropriated by the Legislature in a special session.

In the Travis Country district court suit filed Monday, State Reps. Mike Lang, Kyle Biederman, William Zedler, Steve Toth and state Sen. Bob Hall named as defendants Abbott, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company awarded the contract, the Frisco-based MTX Group.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have defended the contract. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers are seeking a court order voiding the contract for lack of statutory authorization and deeming unconstitutional the governor’s application of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which gives him broad powers in the case of an emergency, in granting the contract.

“The Texas Constitution requires a separation of powers, and that separation leaves policy-making decisions with the Texas Legislature,” the lawsuit states. “These decisions are not changed by pandemics.”

Abbott has declined to convene a special session since March when the coronavirus pandemic began, instead leaning on his emergency powers to issue a series of sweeping executive orders governing what businesses can open, where people can gather in public, and mandating safety measures including wearing face coverings in public.

While the law has been used by governors for years, the time span of the coronavirus-related orders is unprecedented and raises questions about the durability of that legal justification.

As the story notes, the Supreme Court just rejected several Hotze lawsuits relating to executive emergency powers, saying he lacked standing. I don’t know if that is likely to be an issue in this case or not. I still agree with the basic premise that we need to have a robust debate about the parameters of the Texas Disaster Act, including when the Governor should be compelled to call a special session so that the Lege can be involved in the decision-making process. I also still think that this is a lousy way to have that debate, and while these five legislators have more gravitas than Hotze, that’s a low bar to clear. To put it another way, the anti-face mask and quarantine lobby still isn’t sending their best.

There’s no doubt that the contact tracng deal was a boondoggle, and I welcome all scrutiny on it. And I have to admit, as queasy as I am with settling these big questions about emergency powers by litigation, there isn’t much legislators can do on their own, given that they’re not in session and can’t be in session before January unless Abbott calls them into a session. I’m not sure what the right process for this should have been, given the speed and urgency of the crisis. The Lege very much needs to address these matters in the spring, but I’m leery of making any drastic changes to the status quo before then. In some ways, this is the best argument I’ve seen against our tradition of having a Legislature that only meets every two years. Some things just can’t wait, and we shouldn’t have to depend on the judgment of the Governor to fill in the gaps. I hope some of the brighter lights in our Legislature are thinking about all this. The Trib has more.

The contact tracing debacle

Let us never forget about this.

Just as coronavirus infections began rising a few weeks ago in Texas, contract workers hired by the state to track down exposed Texans were spending hours doing little or no work, received confusing or erroneous instructions and often could not give people the advice they expected, interviews and records indicate.

Health authorities around Texas also say they are running into technical snags with new contact tracing software the state has deployed, known as Texas Health Trace, saying it isn’t ready for widespread use in their counties.

The chaotic beginning and technical glitches — combined with exploding case counts and widespread testing delays — have undermined the goals of boosting COVID-19 monitoring statewide and the state’s massive deal for a privatized contact tracing workforce.

“I know that a lot of local health departments are still trying to figure out how to utilize that contract and some have decided to do the work on their own,” said David Lakey, chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and former commissioner of the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). “There is concern with local health department individuals I’ve talked to related to how they are going to benefit related to this large investment from the state.”

DSHS said problems identified by the Houston Chronicle have since been fixed and that “every week” more counties are using its software.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said months ago that robust contact tracing capacity would help Texas “box in” the coronavirus. But after the state reopened its economy, infections, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketed, making it impossible for many health departments to keep up with contact tracing.

“When you kind of jump the gun a little bit and open too soon, and you skip the processes that need to be in place, this kind of thing happens,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “You might have the most successfully designed contact tracing program or you may not, but honestly it’s not gonna make a difference because you’re setting yourself up to fail.”

At the state level, Texas moved to ramp up and modernize contact tracing in May, when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission quietly awarded a $295 million contact tracing deal to little-known MTX Group, a tech startup that has a headquarters in North Texas. Abbott’s office has staunchly defended the emergency expenditure, but it’s been controversial from the get-go.

The bid for the work, which was never publicly posted, was awarded to MTX without input from top state leaders, and more than a dozen legislators subsequently called for the state to cancel the contract.

More recently, four people who performed contact tracing work for MTX or one of its partners raised questions about the tech company’s performance. They spoke to the Chronicle on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record about their employment. Three said they fielded only a handful of phone calls during several weeks in May and June.

You can read on for details of the various failures of the program as implemented, and you can see here for more on Texas Health Trace. My point is that having a certain number of contact tracers in place, a number that was never met, was one of the four conditions of reopening set by Greg Abbott. The real failure here, as has been the case with everything else, was the complete lack of effort to meet those metrics that were set out. The failure to do so led directly to the situation we’re in now. The fact that MTX was given a no-bid contract on Abbott’s say-so and no one else’s input is a separate issue, one that deserves a fuller exploration, but not necessarily a main cause of the failure. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which a legitimate and fully-resourced company could have gotten this contract in a similar fashion and done a better job with it. The process would have still been a problem, but at least the result was okay. Here we had both a bad process and a bad outcome, and both of those need to be investigated. They also need to be hung around Greg Abbott’s neck from now until November of 2022.