A year ago, Texas governments were making it up as we went along.
Officials responded to COVID-19 by upending our lives, shutting down the economy, and closing schools. Parents became teachers and grocery store stockers became vital front-line troops. Governments further closed bars, mandated masks, and enforced stringent measures that chipped away at our fundamental freedoms.
Today, it’s clear that pandemic powers need to be changed. Texans deserve stronger protections that make clear what powers governments have and do not have during disastrous times. That’s what House Bill 3, the Texas Pandemic Response Act (TPRA), aims to accomplish.
Let’s state the obvious upfront: the TPRA is not a perfect bill. No piece of legislation is. However, it should be equally obvious the latest iteration of the bill rebalances disaster policy in a positive way and it is expected to continue to improve as the legislative process unfolds. Calls to abandon the TPRA are shortsighted. Without a viable legislative vehicle for reform, no changes will be made to pandemic powers and Texans will be stuck with the confusion and overreach of the past twelve months for the next eighteen.
That would be tragic, especially because the TPRA proposes several important changes conservatives should cheer.
In its current form, the TPRA creates a limited legislative check on executive authority, more narrowly tailors local government powers, and enshrines several smaller but still significant reforms, like preventing big tax increases during a disaster and preventing governments from jailing people for noncompliance.
The plan to create a new check-and-balance on executive authority is very important. Over the last 12 months, the absence of state lawmakers has been widely felt. To ensure their voices aren’t sidelined again in the future, the TPRA proposes to create the Legislative Pandemic Disaster Oversight Committee, a 10-member body tasked to convene after a short period and armed with the ability to: 1) end the state of disaster; and 2) terminate any rule or order issued pursuant to the disaster declaration.
The committee—comprised of the Lt. Governor, the Speaker of the House, and other select members—represents a much-needed check on executive authority as it would rope-in other elected representatives into the decision-making process after the event horizon.
Some have criticized the TPRA for not requiring the full legislature to convene and sought to dismiss it entirely on that basis. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The creation of a limited legislative body to check executive overreach is an obvious step in the right direction. Conservatives must not be quick to dismiss such incremental gains.
The TPRA would also greatly diminish the opportunity for local government shenanigans.
Local government excesses have been obvious throughout COVID-19, with city and county officials extending disaster declarations indefinitely; proposing excessive fines and criminal penalties for noncompliance; threatening to commandeer private property; imposing unconstitutional demands on houses of worship; and empowering unelected bureaucrats in some concerning ways.
To address this, the TPRA omits a portion of the Texas Disaster Act (Sec. 418.108(g) of the Government Code) that has been broadly interpreted by city and county officials to impose a wide variety on big government rules and restrictions. The TPRA also makes it unmistakably clear that state authority trumps local orders during pandemics. This is much-needed as the state has spent a lot of time fighting local politicians when their resources should be directed elsewhere.
The patchwork quilt of disaster declarations creates uncertainty at the worst time and a clarification of roles and responsibilities is sorely needed. The TPRA does that. It eliminates confusion and ensures a more unified response by a clear, single source of authority with an appropriate check in place.
The TPRA also addresses other problems that gained infamy over the last year, including excessive tax increases, election integrity, infringements on religious freedom, and threats to the 2nd Amendment.
There is much to like about the TPRA, even in its current form. Could it be improved? Absolutely—and the Texas Public Policy Foundation has ideas on how.
COVID-19 has made it clear that pandemic powers need reform, be it through the TPRA or another viable legislative vehicle. The status quo is not good enough. So let’s work together to better balance government power with individual liberty in times of crisis.