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Texas House debates bill to limit Gov. Abbott’s powers during a pandemic

May 10, 2021
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In a Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, ruling that overturned two lower courts, the Texas Supreme Court upheld an order by Gov. Greg Abbott, here in a file image, that will limit counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/TNS) RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL, FILE / TNS The […]

Click here to view original web page at www.houstonchronicle.com


In a Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, ruling that overturned two lower courts, the Texas Supreme Court upheld an order by Gov. Greg Abbott, here in a file image, that will limit counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL, FILE / TNS

The governor’s dependence on executive orders to manage the pandemic, rather than calling the Legislature into session, was a point of contention for Republicans and Democrats alike last year. But while most agree something needs to change, there had been disagreement over how to address the issue.

On Monday night the Texas House was set to vote on House Bill 3, a priority for House Speaker Dade Phelan that he’s described as “the House’s blueprint for pandemic response.”

It would empower a committee to review the governor’s pandemic disaster declarations and proclamations and have the option to dissolve all or parts of them when the Legislature is not in session. The 10-member committee would be made up of the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, who as joint chairs would convene the group when necessary, and various House and Senate committee chairs.

To issue orders to close businesses in part or in full, mandate face coverings or limits surgeries or other procedures, the governor would be required to call a special session or, if lawmakers are in session, ask for approval to renew such orders beyond 30 days.

An update to the bill also gives Abbott a new authority: Any local government that a governor deemed to have required the closure of a business would be prohibited from raising taxes above their no-new-revenue or voter-approval tax rate, whichever is lower.

It also prohibits local governments from closing or limiting operations capacity of categories of businesses and protects most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill has helped it win the favor of conservative members who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns. Several Democrats including Rep. Troy Martinez Fischer of San Antonio voiced some level of support for the bill.

Texas was one of just three states that went 10 months without convening its Legislature to help shape the governor’s pandemic response. That was in part because the body only meets once every two years. In the interim, the Texas Legislature can only meet to address targeted issues during a special session. Only the governor has the authority to call a special session, tying the hands of lawmakers if the governor declines to do so.

“When in other disasters, the response is usually bottom-up — where local governments organize their response, and the state and federal government support them — the response to a pandemic will be top-down,” said Burrows, who is a top lieutenant of Phelan. “This allows a unified, cohesive response.”

Yet for some conservative groups, the legislation not only fails to go far enough, they say it cements Abbott’s most egregious overreaches into law.

The Tyler-based group Grassroots America has urged lawmakers to “scrap HB 3,” saying it replaces the “Legislature’s check and balance” on the governor with a “select committee.” Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote on Twitter that the bill “allows future governors to lockdown Texas & destroy small businesses, with a handpicked committee of #txlege cronies rubber stamping it.”

The groups would prefer to see mask mandates and lockdowns banned entirely and have instead favored other Republican-authored bills that would trigger a special session for any emergency declaration renewal beyond 30 days, such as Senate Joint Resolution 45, which passed out of the Senate in mid-April and would put the issue before Texas voters.

Monday evening, the House narrowly voted down an amendment 71-72 that would have prohibited the governor and any local government from requiring masks during a pandemic. Discussion of amendments was still going at press time.

Abbott has also expressed an openness to limiting his own power and that of future governors during emergencies, though he said he wanted to help craft the changes himself.

“It has to be done in a way that leaves flexibility to move swiftly,” Abbott said in an interview in February.

Still, there is a lot riding on the outcome of the debate for Abbott, who drew his first primary challenger on Monday when former state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, announced his intention to run. Huffines, as well as other potential challengers, Texas GOP Party Chairman Allen West and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, have been vocal about his disapproval of the governor’s handling of the pandemic.

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Huffines was among the several county Republican Party Executive Committees, including in Montgomery County, that voted to censure Abbott for his handling of the pandemic. He also joined a rally at the Texas Capitol this January where he fumed against “King Abbott” for issuing COVID-19 restrictions by executive order.

taylor.goldenstein@chron.com

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