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Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that his pandemic-era public health disaster declaration, which has given him unprecedented powers for the past 1,049 days, would stay in place until state legislators pass laws banning COVID-19-related restrictions on Texans and strengthening the state’s power at the border.
Abbott’s remarks to syndicated Texas conservative talk radio show host Chad Hasty on Thursday doubled down on his long-standing challenge to lawmakers to prohibit local governments from enacting mask and vaccine mandates “and other restrictions on freedom.”
“I’m going to keep that in place until the legislators codify my executive orders that ban mask mandates, that ban forced vaccines and things like that,” Abbott said. “I want to see that get passed.”
The Republican governor has been intensifying the pressure on legislators to codify those restrictions on cities and counties since banning the practice through an executive order.
That order, issued in October 2021, says: “I will rescind this executive order upon the effective date of such legislation.”
Doing so would codify two of his COVID-19-related executive orders, which total more than 35 since the global coronavirus pandemic began three years ago. They all carry the weight of law as long as the disaster declaration stays in effect.
After more than 93,000 deaths and 8.2 million COVID-19 cases in Texas in the 34 months since Abbott’s declaration was made, the state remains one of about half a dozen still under a statewide declared disaster or public health emergency.
Abbott’s office has maintained for months that it has no plans to join the ranks of those dropping the orders, releasing a statement in December that doing so “would allow local governments to once again enforce occupancy limits, mask mandates and vaccine mandates.”
“Gov. Abbott will not let any government trample Texans’ right to choose for themselves or their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses or get vaccinated,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a written statement.
Abbott also said Thursday he wants Texas lawmakers to enact a state version of a controversial Trump-era immigration declaration known as Title 42 that is currently locked in a court battle. It allows for the quick return of migrants at the border — even those seeking asylum — under the auspices of the federal public health emergency.
The practice is currently authorized in Texas under a separate Abbott executive order, which could be jeopardized if the disaster declaration is lifted. At least one bill, filed by Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, would create a program like Title 42 in state law.
“Since [President] Biden is forcing America to live under a Public Health Emergency, Texas is 100% justified in using our public health authority to control who crosses our borders,” Harrison said in a tweet on Thursday.
Whether Abbott can effectively wield the notion of an endless disaster declaration to bend the lawmakers to his will is unclear.
If the Texas Legislature had a problem with disaster declarations and Abbott’s behavior under them, it could have rebuked him with legislation in 2021 that would have curtailed his powers in disasters, or it could have required legislative action to declare a disaster or even ended the proclamation.
No such bills made it to his desk.
Abbott’s current public health disaster declaration has authorized him to make numerous executive orders that otherwise would not have been allowed without the additional powers the declaration brings.
Among them were changes to voting procedures, business closures and reopenings, and the two orders Abbott named on Thursday.