Protect Residents? Not Under HB 3

Gov. Greg Abbott is often at odds with cities and urban counties. Now, House Bill 3 would establish a committee that could terminate local disaster orders. Smiley N. Pool / Dallas Morning News

This op-ed was originally featured in the San Antonio Express-News. 

Texans are combating dual crises: the ongoing fallout from the energy grid failure and the crippling COVID-19 pandemic that just crossed the one-year mark.

You only need to look around our state and talk with friends and loved ones to know these two disasters did not impact every Texan equally — when disaster strikes, Black, Indigenous and people of color bear disproportionate harm.

Rather than ensuring elected officials across the state have the authority and flexibility they need to protect the well-being of their constituents and position their communities for recovery, Gov. Greg Abbott and his allies in the Legislature are looking for more ways to hoard power and prioritize profits over people.

House Bill 3 is the latest manifestation of this disregard for local decision-making and equity. It would allow for the pre-emption of local measures issued by elected officials if they are inconsistent with state orders. It centralizes more power and decision-making with the governor, and it should alarm every single Texan who cares about the integrity of local governance.

We have reason to be worried: Abbott has a long history of interfering with local democracy while prioritizing power and corporate profits over the best interests of the people. Just recently, Abbott lifted Texas’ mask mandate and allowed businesses to reopen at 100 percent capacity — even though the threat of the pandemic is far from over. His order makes it exceptionally difficult for localities to enact locally tailored measures that protect public health.

Texas is a diverse state, and the needs and priorities differ from county to county and city to city. The situation and needs in McAllen will be different from those in Fort Worth. This is especially true for Latino and Black communities across the state that are facing the brunt of both the pandemic and the grid failure.

Take the city of El Paso, which is more than 80 percent Latino. In November, the city was so overwhelmed by COVID-19 that it surpassed Bexar, Travis and Tarrant counties — with far greater populations — in the number of cases.

While COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, the pandemic has impacted different communities at different times, from spikes in infection rate to strapped emergency rooms to limited vaccine access. This shows a one-size-fits-all approach does not make sense — and costs lives.

Local leaders know what is best for their communities. Abbott has taken to attacking these officials while imperiling the state’s recovery and threatening the gains made against the virus. Instead, we need policies that will ensure mayors and judges have the flexibility and authority to keep their communities safe and healthy. HB 3 is not the right policy.

Abbott’s actions in the past year illustrate why we need to seriously re-examine the relationship between cities and states, as laid out last year in a new framework for home rule from the National League of Cities and the Local Solutions Support Center. By prioritizing home rule and local control, local governments can be given the freedom to make policies that protect the community and position cities to rebuild after disasters.

The only way to move forward is to understand our mistakes — and allowing Abbott to have overarching authority during this pandemic was a huge one.

We cannot pass HB 3 and repeat our mistakes by allowing governors like Abbott to strip Texans of our democratic rights — especially in times of immense uncertainty, anxiety and vulnerability.

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