Since March, state and local governments have been exercising broad, but temporary, emergency powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While limited use of such powers may be reasonable, there have been many instances of government overreach and abuse of these powers—the most egregious occurring at the local level. However, for the city of Austin, even these powers were not enough.
Over the summer, the Austin City Council referred to its home-rule status as its source of power to enforce stricter rules, threaten excessive fines, and grant decision-making authority to unelected bureaucrats.
As a result, Austin councilmembers passed an ordinance that empowered the local health authority to create new rules that infringe on people’s daily activities and threaten fines up to $2,000 for those who dare not follow them. The ordinance was set to expire this month, but today, that’s set to change.
Once again, Austin’s top officials are eyeing their chance for a power grab and they just may get it.
Today, the city council will vote on a proposal to reauthorize this summer ordinance. If successful, the unelected bureaucrat serving as the local health authority will have an inappropriate amount of power that could last until Dec. 31, 2021.
Both the original and the reauthorizing ordinances pose serious concerns. First, granting vast powers to an unelected agency official, like the health authority, goes against our representative form of government. Further, the granting of authority for such a prolonged period—over a year—is unreasonable and unnecessary.
Second, local governments should not be able to threaten Texans into complying with their absurd rules. Individuals and families have been struggling financially, physically, and emotionally since the beginning of the pandemic. Cities should not be issuing threats of excessive fines, especially when so many people are still struggling to put food on the table.
People have been harmed in one way or another throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The last thing anyone needs is for the government stepping in and demanding more, especially since individuals lack proper recourse.
Under the ordinance, if the unelected bureaucrat considers a rule “reasonably necessary” in the fight against COVID-19, they are permitted to adopt and enforce it. While some safety recommendations are necessary in combatting COVID-19, this egregious power grab opens the door to abuse of power, infringement of individual liberty, and a complete disregard of our representative form of government.
We must fight to protect our freedoms and we need state lawmakers to do the same.