Texas lawmakers eye reining in governor’s power during disasters

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has faced friendly fire from some Republicans over his use of executive power during the coronavirus pandemic, repeatedly committed this week that there will no more lockdowns even as cases and hospitalizations are again on the rise across the state.

Some Republican lawmakers are attempting to rein in that power by either restricting the governor’s authority during a declared disaster or by including the Texas Legislature in the state’s response.

Brandon Rottinghaus, an author and political science professor at the University of Houston, believes the debate over the power of the Governor’s Office will likely play a role in the upcoming 87th Legislature.

“Texas government has historically been extremely decentralized going all the way back to the post-Civil War era. There’s been frustration about executive power,” Rottinghaus told KXAN. “For an extended pandemic like this, this disaster has to be governed in some way, and simply having one person in charge of it really does cut against the grain of Texas political history.”

Rep. Drew Springer, a North Texas Republican, proposed a law that would establish an “Emergency Powers Board” composed of the governor, lieutenant governor, Speaker of the House, and leaders of the House and Senate State Affairs Committees.

He also proposed a constitutional amendment that would trigger a special legislative session if a disaster or emergency declared by the governor continues for more than 21 days.

“While the governor has the best intentions at heart, many minds make better solutions,” Springer told KXAN. “It really was talking with both constituents, business owners, and understanding the lack of input that they thought they had through their representative.”

Springer is currently facing Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther in a runoff election for Senate District 30. Luther was arrested in May after reopening her salon in defiance of the governor’s shutdown order and has run a campaign centered on individual liberty and government overreach.

Democrats have also criticized the governor for not involving lawmakers in the state’s response to the pandemic.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin, speaking generally about the governor’s executive power during a disaster, said the legislature should play a greater role. She highlighted the governor’s unilateral control over the state’s spending of coronavirus relief funds.

Texas received $11 billion as part of the CARES Act approved by Congress.

“We’re one of a handful of states that has not met during this pandemic and it has put way too much power in the hands of one person,” Hinojosa said. “We as the elected representatives of our community should have a say in that.”

Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson of Spring filed a bill that would eliminate the governor’s power to restrict the sale, transportation, and use of firearms and ammunition during a state of disaster or state of emergency.

Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park goes a step further by also restricting the governor’s ability to suspend or limit the sale or use of explosives, combustibles or alcohol.

KXAN politics reporter John Engel is working on a full report on this story which will air tonight at 6 p.m.

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