At the politically riskiest moment of the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott assumes all responsibility for the path forward

Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas.

Note: This analysis first appeared in the pages of The Quorum Report last week. Subscribe to the site right here for daily for news and information about what’s happening in state government and politics. You can also sign up for our free email alerts by clicking “free signup” on the homepage.  

No doubt Gov. Greg Abbott and his team were pleased this past week when President Donald Trump tweeted approval of the plan to, in phased-in fashion, allow for the reopening of businesses across Texas over the next few weeks. Abbott’s team even won tempered praise from some Democrats who realize the minority party cannot be seen as the “keep it all shut down” faction at this moment in history.

For their part, Democrats mostly focused on a lack of detail on the question of testing for COVID-19 and wondered aloud if the state is flying blind by starting with a mere 1,000 or so contact tracers expected to report back on any spread of the virus across a state of roughly 29 million people. Those critiques came prior to the governor of Mississippi indicating a slowdown in reopening that state because of a spike in cases and crowds flocking to Texas beaches this weekend. 

Then on Saturday evening, the mayor of Amarillo announced a federal COVID-19 strike force would be headed to the Panhandle in response to increased coronavirus cases and concerns over the spread in meat processing plants. After lifting his statewide “stay at home” order, Abbott told the Amarillo mayor that residents need to stay at home.

It should surprise no one that Abbott’s plan is tailored to big business interests which can generally withstand a first round of economic hardship but not a second or third wave of the virus and the associated economic consequences. Owners of small restaurants around the state were quick to say last week there’s no way for them to turn a profit with occupancy capped at 25 percent. Many will not even try to reopen immediately.

Those are obvious and important worries.

But a growing insiders’ concern – maybe more prominent among Republicans than Democrats – is the continued consolidation of power in the executive branch while members of both parties joke “why do we even have a Texas Legislature?”

Private conference calls held by the governor to update lawmakers have become tiresome, some have complained, including the call held in the minutes before his reopening announcement. Because the governor’s office wanted to keep track of who exactly was listening to his words, lawmakers were asked to dial in 20 minutes early and wait while the phone numbers of those participating were verified. Then they were not even allowed to ask any questions of the governor because he needed to rush off for a news conference. Perfect timing and it is quite a day when journalists have more interaction with Gov. Abbott than lawmakers.

Those momentary aggravations are giving way to substantive and growing concerns among some GOP lawmakers that if the governor wants to act as the county judge for the entire state, he may need to be similarly constrained.

It has long been Texas tradition– and law – that during disasters, the county judges oversee emergency operations.

Former Gov. Rick Perry on the Chad Hasty radio show in Lubbock made the point that years ago, in 2005, he was not in position to tell the county judges in Southeast Texas to evacuate residents ahead of Hurricane Rita. Without swiping directly at Gov. Abbott, Perry made clear where the authority is and has always been. As a radio reporter in Houston in ‘05, I remember explaining the county judge’s role to national news media mystified as to why a “judge” – at the time, Robert Eckels – had anything to do with setting up a hurricane shelter at the Astrodome for the evacuees who fled New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast.

Gov. Perry grew his power through the kinds of appointments to boards and commissions that Abbott has, in many cases, left unfilled.

Abbott prefers a different approach.

In his new round of executive orders, Gov. Abbott is once again testing the reach of executive power by suspending the sections of the Texas Government Code that authorize mayors and county judges to implement measures aimed at suppressing diseases. So, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was understating things when he said the situation is “out of our hands.”

For those keeping score: The politically unpopular decisions to shut down businesses and big events like Rodeo Houston and SXSW were left to local leaders. The potentially popular decision to open things back up will be handled by the governor and only by the governor. There could be a huge downside for Abbott, though, if reopening too quickly helps lay the groundwork for a second wave of the virus.

County judges have quipped that the way they interpret Abbott’s new edicts goes something like this: “You’re in charge unless you disagree with me.”

Meantime, some Republican legislators who think Abbott’s plan is well thought out and data-driven do have concerns about the suspension of laws, which the Texas Constitution puts squarely in the hands of the legislative branch. Article 1, Sec. 28 of the state’s foundational document is succinct:

“SUSPENSION OF LAWS. No power of suspending laws in this State shall be exercised except by the Legislature.”

Of course, the governor is legally hanging his hat on emergency declarations the same way he did when moving the election date to fill former Rep. Blake Farenthold’s seat in Congress and the way he revived the Board of Plumbing Examiners last year. “If he can revive an agency on his own, he can kill one,” said a longtime lobbyist in Austin even as some conservative activists were complaining that a special session should be called for the Legislature to exercise its power to reauthorize the agency.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was perhaps the most aggressive in locking down his community this year to protect people against COVID-19, but he was slapped down by Dallas County Commissioners Court. Its members chose to rein in his authority as is their right under Texas law during emergencies. The county judge can act initially, but after seven days he or she must convince commissioners to sign off.

In supplanting county judges and moving to strip their authority during disasters some Republicans are starting to consider whether the governor should also at first be afforded a window of time to act – perhaps a month – before being required to make his case to the first branch of government.

Copyright May 01, 2020, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved. Subscribe to The Quorum Report for daily news and information about what’s happening in your state government. You can also click “free signup” on the homepage for our email alerts.

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