Analysis: Texas government grinds to a stop — of the governor’s choosing

A legislator fist bumps a House Administration staffer as they entered the House Chamber on Aug. 11, 2021.

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What you think about Texas government right now depends on what you want out of it.

Local or state control of public health restrictions in a pandemic? Should government officials in Austin or local school officials decide whether to hold classes online or in person or both, and whether in-person students should wear masks? Should political minorities be able to block legislation by leaving the state, or should they be forced to work to keep their jobs? Should restaurants risk their state liquor licenses if they require customers to show proof of vaccination to get in?

It’s a weird list of questions, but it’s been a weird couple of weeks.

The latest escalation in coronavirus cases coincides with the commencement of classes in Texas public schools. Parents and educators are debating the safety of returning to campuses, especially with a confounding set of rules in place: Attendance in school is required and is also the basis for state school funding, the state won’t pay for widespread virtual attendance under current law, students under age 12 aren’t eligible for vaccinations, and the governor won’t allow mask mandates.

This part is agreed upon: Students learn more in person than they do online. There’s not a fight — or a new one, anyway — over education. The fight is about practicality and risk: What’s safe, what does staying safe require of everyone involved, and what’s this going to cost?

The courts are busy now and will be for a while. Legal battles over COVID-19 responses and non-responses rage on. Various counties, cities and school districts — including some of the biggest ones — want tighter local restrictions than the state wants to allow. The four biggest counties imposed mask mandates for public schools, for instance, in defiance of the governor’s orders. The federal government is looking at whether it can challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

The Legislature that might wrestle with some of these questions has temporarily come to pieces.

The Republican majority in the Texas Senate will pass just about anything the lieutenant governor wants it to pass.

And the House hasn’t had enough people in the room to conduct business for more than a month. Democrats opposed to a GOP voting bill don’t have the numbers to beat it, but they do have enough people to break the quorum in a Legislature where two-thirds of the members have to be present for work to proceed.

One thing the Senate hasn’t passed that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants is a constitutional amendment that would get rid of that quorum rule. It takes two-thirds of the Senate and the House to do that; so far, Patrick is short of votes in the Senate and there aren’t enough people in the House to count noses on the proposal.

Add that up, and you might conclude that Abbott is winning most of his political fights, some faster than others, but winning just the same.

That delights his supporters and leaves his opponents furious.

The courts are with him. The Texas Supreme Court — the governor used to be a justice there — ruled in favor of his attempt to extort the Legislature by vetoing its budget for the next two years. Abbott struck the legislative budget earlier this summer, when Democrats first blocked the voting bill he supports.

Democrats sued, saying one branch of government can’t kill funding for another branch. The state Supreme Court ruled the Democrats had the means to put that funding back in place, if only they would show up for the session where the governor is pushing a bill they don’t like.

The governor’s move might amount to extortion, but according to the Supremes, that’s no violation of separation of powers.

It was a win for Abbott and his fellow Republicans.

When the Texas House directed state police to round up the truant Democrats and bring them to Austin so the session can proceed, those Democrats sued. The Supremes struck down those efforts, allowing the roundup to proceed.

Another win for Abbott and the Republicans.

Slowly, and with a lot of strain on the relationships that get most legislation passed into law, Abbott is winning his push for restrictive voting legislation and a list of other measures. The courts are backing his use of power to force lawmakers’ action.

His power to boss local governments, school districts and businesses around is still being tested. Those Austin restaurants backed down and remain open. But other venues are testing the governor’s orders in other ways, like asking unvaccinated patrons for COVID-19 test results that prove they’re not infected.

The debates are loud, as they were in past surges of the pandemic that pitted Texans who favor restrictive public health measures to stop the spread against people who’d rather face the health risks of not wearing masks or getting shots or shutting things down.

The political din lately has been, depending on your mindset, good trouble or bad — a sign of a state government that can’t tie its shoes, or of a persistent majority that is in the slow business of crushing its opposition. A lot of this remains unsettled, and there is a bigger, more important battle ahead.

Census numbers were delivered last week, and this same cast of characters will take those and draw the political maps that will be used in Texas elections for the next 10 years.

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