A general view of the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol during the 87th Texas legislature on Friday, May 7, 2021, in Austin. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News) AUSTIN — The Republican-led House voted Monday night to curb the governor’s power during a pandemic and to limit both […]
AUSTIN — The Republican-led House voted Monday night to curb the governor’s power during a pandemic and to limit both state and local leaders’ ability to shut businesses or mandate face coverings.
The House voted 92-45 to advance the sweeping legislation, which is a priority of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. It still needs a final vote in the chamber before going to the Senate.
“We must now take what we have learned from this past year in dealing with a pandemic and set a different framework,” said the bill’s author Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock.
Lawmakers are intent this session on giving themselves more say in future pandemics, after Gov. Greg Abbott largely directed the state’s response to COVID-19 and rejected calls to bring them back into a special session.
The bill would let a panel of elected officials, including the House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor, review and terminate any of the governor’s executive orders if a pandemic hits when lawmakers are not in session. The governor would have to seek input from the Legislature before limiting business operations or requiring face coverings for longer than 30 days.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the bill.
Legislators were not openly critical of Abbott during the House debate. But the second-term Republican has faced fierce criticism from some business owners and fellow Republicans for imposing restrictions meant to stem the spread of COVID-19. Former state Sen. Don Huffines, who has criticized Abbott for closing certain businesses during the pandemic, announced on Monday he would challenge him in 2022.
Democrats pushed back on some provisions that would limit local leaders’ response to a future pandemic. House Bill 3 would block local officials from requiring specific businesses to close and void any actions that conflict with the governor’s executive orders.
As the coronavirus spread last year, local leaders in large, blue cities sparred with Abbott’s office over how best to control COVID-19 and often pushed for further restrictions.
Burrows said the response to a pandemic should be top down, saying it allows for a “unified, cohesive response.”
“We saw several local governments go in directions we did not like. This ensures the governor has the power to be the one giving the top down response,” he said.
Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said there were some positive things in the bill, but “a lot of us were not comfortable with the restrictions on local officials.”
“Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future,” he said in a statement.
A flurry of last-minute amendments would ensure that golf courses, state parks and beaches stay open in a pandemic. Another addition to create a Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute that could advise lawmakers also passed.
A push to bar the governor and local officials from imposing a mask mandate failed 71-70. As cases of coronavirus surged last July, Abbott ordered most Texans to start wearing face coverings in public. He lifted the requirement in March, despite pressure from some local leaders to keep it in place.
Beyond the governor’s power, the bill would also shield businesses from lawsuits over COVID-19 deaths and injuries, if they made a reasonable effort to comply with pandemic protocols.
The Senate has passed similar legislation addressing the governor’s pandemic powers and protections for businesses against COVID-19 lawsuits, but it has not yet been taken up on the House floor. The legislative session is over at the end of May.