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Pandemic Leads To Increased Conflicts Between State And Local Governments In Texas

Miguel Gutierrez | POOL via The Texas Tribune & Harris County Judge | Twitter

Two weeks ago, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo stood before a podium at TranStar wearing a face mask, to announce she was signing an order requiring people to wear face coverings in public.

That order, which carried the penalty of a $1,000 fine for violators, lasted less than one week, before Gov. Greg Abbott issued his own order superseding that directive, saying “no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for anyone not wearing a mask.”

Tensions are mounting across Texas, as Abbott and local leaders issue conflicting orders about how to combat the spread of coronavirus.

In some ways, the conflict between Abbott and Hidalgo was very familiar. 

“I think part of it just goes back to the emerging trend of red states with blue cities,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

Cross notes Abbott swore early in his first term that he was determined to prevent Texas from being “California-ized” by Democratic localities. “And from that point on,” she said, “he increasingly wanted to exert control over local governments and their decisions, whether we’re talking about tree limbs being trimmed or fracking bans or plastic bag bans. This has been a pattern.”

But during the pandemic, the conflict between state and local leaders hasn’t followed completely partisan lines.

When Abbott announced a gradual reopening for businesses, some Republican county leaders pushed back. Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said any business in his area that wanted to open could do so without fear of penalty. The state attorney general’s office swiftly issued a letter to Keough, and other judges who had taken a similar position, saying only the businesses Abbott said could open would be allowed to do so.

The power struggle between Abbott and Keough, a Republican judge in one of the state’s most conservative counties, may have been surprising to some. But to former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, a Republican, it shows the true divide happening in the state.

“I can’t really say it’s Republican-Democrat, because you’re seeing the same thing between some of the locals that are Republicans and the state level,” Eckels said. “It is more state-local.”

But that struggle wasn’t always there. When the pandemic started, Abbott initially left the decisions to local leaders, as political analyst Mustafa Tameez pointed out.

“I think the age-old conversation about local control is really being played by the governor as it suits him,” Tameez said. “Sometimes, if it’s a function of responsibility, he wants the locals to have the responsibility, but when it’s time to take the credit, he wants to take that credit. I think he can’t have it both ways.”

In fact, the first major closure in Texas came from the city of Austin when it shut down the music and tech festival South by Southwest. And it’s tough to be the first, said Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat.

“It’s a much easier decision, after people have been on lockdown for a month or six weeks, to say, ‘Well, let’s open up.’ And I hope it works. But if it doesn’t, it’s going to be even more difficult to go back into lockdown again,” Ellis said.

Despite that, and despite conflicts over issues like face masks, Ellis said it’s important for the county and the governor to bury partisan differences for now and to concentrate on fighting the common enemy.

This story was produced by Houston Public Media.