Texas, COVID, and the Centralization of Power

David Griscom May 11, 2022

With little fanfare on April 22nd, Texas Governor Greg Abbott extended his COVID-19 disaster declaration. He’s done the same ritualistically for 25 months making this the longest disaster declaration in Texas history. Now you’d be hard-pressed here to find the hallmarks of the COVID era. Mask wearing fell out of fashion early on, and government mandates on masks or vaccinations are non-existent. Apart from rotting paper signs outside businesses outlining extinct COVID protocols, Abbott’s monthly disaster declarations are the longest-lasting relics from the early days of the COVID pandemic. However, these declarations aren’t symbolic exercises. Despite presenting himself as an anti-mandate small government governor, Greg Abbott has used the COVID emergency to centralize power in far-reaching ways, likely changing the way government functions in Texas forever

In May 2021, Abbott showed just how expansive he views his powers to be. The Texas Governor declared a disaster declaration for 34 counties citing an increase in illegal immigration. He used this power to apportion $250 million toward the construction of a border wall (it’s since ballooned to $750 million). Following this Abbott released his 37th Executive Order, claiming “the admittance and movement of migrants under the Biden Administration is exposing Texans to COVID-19 and creating a public health disaster in Texas.” Using COVID-19 as a pretense, all while challenging virtually every other COVID-19 mitigation effort, Greg Abbott took border enforcement into his own hands. This legally shaky and naked power grab has been the norm for Abbott’s COVID regime. He’s used disaster declarations to override all other authority in Texas and has coupled this new executive power with the historically limited veto power over the Texas legislature to mold the state in his image.

Texas was not unique in its response to COVID-19. Greg Abbott joined ranks with governors and mayors across the country, implemented a mask mandate, a stay-at-home order, ordered remote learning, and even appeared prepared to allow voting by mail. But after right-wing outcry, Abbott announced that Texas would be reopening for business, including restaurants and movie theaters, only about a month after his initial disaster declaration. While the Texas mandates weren’t completely over, Abbott would briefly reinstate them during the 2020 surge, they were nowhere near as strict as the lockdowns in NY or CA and almost immediately began to dwindle down. By early spring of 2021, Greg Abbott declared that “state mandates are no longer needed to stay safe.” He then signed an executive order barring businesses and government authorities from enforcing mask or vaccine mandates. But, while policies may have ended, Abbott did not relinquish the emergency powers that came with the pandemic and has been using them to centralize his control in pursuit of his own political agenda.

Don’t Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Early on Abbott used his executive authority to override all other forms of local or independent government in Texas, preventing them from pursuing any protocols he disliked. While these fights were ostensibly about COVID, they signaled a challenge to other local authorities in the state. Notably, city and county-level jurisdictions are where citizens are closest to government and are much more reflective of the state’s politics than the GOP-dominated legislature and statewide offices. Beyond this, these fights are notable because of the Texas Constitution of 1876. Texas, unlike most other states, has limited power given to its governor. The Texas constitution privileged the Texas legislature over the executive branch out of a general suspicion of centralized power, diluting the typical power of a governor to select their own cabinet and directly run state-wide agencies, to a series of boards, some elected, and others appointed on a rolling basis. Theoretically, this should prevent anyone governor from being able to control the entirety of the executive branch. But decades of GOP dominance have changed this.

For a long while, the standard wisdom was the most powerful statewide office in Texas was the lieutenant governor because of their role in managing the legislature. The governor’s ability to influence policy and politics was limited by their public charisma and to an extent their veto power and their state board appointments. Both powers are significantly restricted compared to other states. You can say a lot about Abbott, but you can