For the past eleven months, we’ve been living under a siege of executive orders. What started as a two-week shutdown to flatten the curve turned into a near-permanent pause, with no end in sight. At least that’s the message local governments have been sending.
Since March 2020, local governments throughout the state have issued their own disaster declarations separate from the state’s executive orders. While local governments have the authority to do so, a few local officials have overstepped, sparking conversation on the use and abuse of emergency powers during the COVID pandemic.
Following the initial onset of disaster declarations, one fact has become clear—there is a massive gap in the law regarding the length of local declarations. Under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, a local disaster declaration may not last longer than seven days without the approval of the governing body. However, certain political subdivisions have interpreted this to mean that they only need one vote from the governing body within the first week and then operate under an indefinite extension.
Political subdivisions who seemed to misinterpret this provision include the cities of Austin, San Antonio, and Houston as well as El Paso County and Harris County. But while these political subdivisions have chosen to leave their citizens in a prolonged state of disaster, the state does not have the power to do so.
In fact, the law says that a state-level state of disaster may not last more than 30 days unless it is renewed by the governor. And there’s another check on this power—the Legislature has the authority to “terminate a state of disaster at any time.” Although this check on the state exists, there is no such similar check-and-balance in place for local disaster declarations.
Local governments serve as arms of state government and, as such, a system of checks-and-balances should be in place.
For too long local governments have run amuck and overstepped their jurisdictions. By telling their citizens that this pandemic lifestyle has no end and their broadened power to rule their lives will continue until they see fit, local entities are attempting to force Texans to live in a constant state of fear and confusion. This is wrong.
Reform is desperately needed. We must address this gap in the law and keep local governments in check. While this pandemic may still be ongoing, a local government’s emergency authority should only last a finite length of time, and with the approval of its citizens.