Texas, COVID, and the Centralization of Power
May 11, 2022
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’t call him a skillful orator. After the deadly winter storm in 2021, a video leaked of him practicing basic human sincerity after dozens were killed by the deregulated over-marketized grid. What he may lack in charisma he has made up for with a skilled legal mind and the willingness to bend the law and the constitution to its limits.
How did Texans even get so used to talking about the governor all the time? We certainly have had colorful ones, but their power to run the state has been limited. Texans, or at least the ones who wrote the state constitution weren’t fond of centralized power and, historically, the legislature was the site of authority in the state. This started to change with Bush and accelerated under Rick Perry. Because the GOP has dominated the state for so long Perry was able to place loyalists as well as reward major donors with positions of influence. After inheriting this system, Abbott further built-up executive power in a system designed to prevent just that. But it was COVID that provided the perfect opportunity to cement this new regime. The Disaster Declaration Act of 1975, was set up to provide governors with the authority to respond quickly to major disasters and to override their limited power to get aid to Texans quickly. Since his first disaster declaration, Abbott has issued over 30 executive orders. With previous governors, these orders were limited to emergency funding or state recognition of important figures. But Abbott has bucked this trend, first overruling all other authority in the state, and most recently, dramatically expanding the interpretation of the COVID-19 emergency to include limiting immigration and deploying state troopers and the national guard to the southern border. Operation Lone Star Abbott’s border mobilization, named Operation Lone Star, has been his most brazen reshuffling and reorganizing of the powers of the governor. Abbott mobilized thousands of Texas’ National Guard and state troopers to the border, running an operation parallel to the Border Patrol. In addition, this operation has been a gold rush for private contractors with limited oversight. Operation Lone Star has been a massive financial burden on the state, nearing $3 billion, with questionable success apart from the political theater. It’s also been an unprecedented centralization of power in Texas and a challenge to the federal government’s management of the borders. Abbott could not have done this without the disaster declaration he first declared in March 2020.
The operation has been a disastrous use of state resources and has proven unpopular with Texas National Guard members who have been stationed at the border for months on end. One serviceman interviewed by Army Times said, “I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine.” While the Governor has the authority to mobilize the National Guard, Abbott has done so with little worry about their effectiveness, and no consideration for how his political stunts are negatively affecting the lives of those pledged to serve. Since they are called up by the governor, Texas National Guard members are not eligible for federal benefits if they are killed in action, are paid less, and have worse healthcare than if they were called up by the Biden Administration. The differences are severe. The federal government pays out $100,000 immediately to families of soldiers killed during duty, but because these soldiers are called up by Texas, they are only eligible for a worker’s comp-based payment of 75% of their salary paid out weekly to the family. This matters as this operation is increasingly deadly, in April Bishop Evans drowned while trying to save migrants crossing the Rio Grande. In December 2021, another Army Times report found a significant rise in suicide among National Guard members brought to the border.
In April 2022, Abbott took another radical step. The 64-year-old governor ordered the national guard and state troopers to begin inspecting all commercial vehicles entering Texas, effectively shutting down trade with Mexico. This had disastrous consequences. Doubling up on the inspections done by the Border Patrol caused thousands of trucks to be stalled on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, causing food to rot on trucks and millions of dollars of goods needed in Texas and beyond to be significantly delayed. It’s worth noting that one of Abbott’s main challengers, the far-right Don Huffines, was ridiculed for saying he would shut down trade with Mexico. But after defeating Huffines in the 2022 GOP primary, Abbott was more than happy to purloin his policies. What’s Next? A live question in Texas politics is: what exactly does Abbott? During the Bush years, he modeled himself as a Bush-style Republican and today after former President Trump. But while his politics seems to change with the times, he has always relished fundraising. Abbott has proven a useful ally to those with deep pockets. Following the winter storm that killed “between 426 and 978” people Abbott has been slow-moving on reforms to the dysfunctional, over-marketized, and very profitable energy grid. Abbott was rewarded for his inaction with $4.6 million in contributions from the industry.
Greg Abbott has never been too worried about hypocrisy. In 1984, when Abbott was 26, a tree fell on him which resulted in him losing the use of his legs. Abbott sued the homeowner and the tree company that had most recently worked on the property. He won a settlement that when fully paid out this year will net Abbott approximately $11 million. Both as a Texas Supreme Court justice, and as Attorney General, Abbott campaigned and worked to whittle down the size of personal injury settlements - today in Texas the non-medical expenses that can be awarded are capped at $250,000. Abbott does not seem interested in letting go of the power that he has taken and has shown every intention of continuing to expand his executive authority. The only potential check he could face would be the Texas Legislature. But after decades of GOP control, the ‘Lege’ is locked in with Abbott. When he canceled funding for all legislative staffers to punish Democratic members of the legislature for their rebellion against a GOP-backed voter restriction law, the Republican members complained a bit but accepted Abbott’s collective punishment. He has made ample use of his veto power as well, despite the lack of precedent for this kind of executive overreach. He has used this not only for political reasons but a growing sense amongst even Republicans that he is using it to pursue personal grudges as well. In the seemingly unlikely chance that Beto becomes governor, and in the even more unlikely outcome of Democratic control of the governor’s office and the legislature, it’s unlikely he would have a similar hold over his party to maintain the strong executive office Abbott inherited and expanded. The strong executive in Texas is a GOP privilege. In the aftermath of the early lockdown orders, many questioned whether lawmakers had overreached. Most of these questions came from the right, but there were many on the left who questioned that if the state were able to radically restructure society that it might not relinquish these powers and questioned the effect it would have on the worker struggle. But much of this criticism focused narrowly on the specific policies that came with COVID-19, notably, mandates and lockdowns. Texas charted a very different course, especially regarding the longevity of the disaster declaration, New York first ended their disaster declaration in the summer of 2021, along with GOP-run Florida. Rather than focusing on specific policies, the question must be asked, where is the line between executive authority overpowering local and legislative authority, and what must working-class people do when faced with a movement to concentrate power in the executive branch.