Q&A: Policy analyst weighs in on dynamic between state, local orders during the coronavirus

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent letters May 12 to officials in Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties as well as the cities of Austin and San Antonio, alleging that their local public health orders amid the coronavirus were “unlawful" and "unenforceable.”

The letters alleged that some elements of the local orders mandating Austin residents to stay home are illegal because they "exceed the city and county's lawful authority," Community Impact Newspaper reported.

Prior to Paxton’s letter, Gov. Greg Abbott called out Harris County at a press conference April 27, saying that the county could not issue fines or penalize residents for not wearing face masks. The attorney general’s office referred only to the May 12 release when Community Impact Newspaper asked Paxton’s office why Central Texas counties and municipalities received letters from the attorney general but Harris County did not.

Community Impact Newspaper spoke with Jonathan Lewis, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an independent public policy association, on May 13 about the shifting dynamic between local and state power amid the crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have the state, counties and municipalities been handling the coronavirus pandemic?


Public health has always fallen very heavily on counties and cities, and the state has a fairly small public health expenditure. Counties do a lot of the heavy lifting. They're running county hospitals, ... so there’s already this dynamic in place where counties and cities are really the go-to on public health within their jurisdictions. It’s been interesting to see the governor originally talking about how local communities should decide; he left them pretty vague and was leaning a lot on counties and local communities to decide what's best for them. This latest order that talks about superseding local orders is really a pretty big shift in not only that historic duties of public health in the state but prior pandemic response.

What’s happening in Texas compared with other states across the nation as they, too, work their way through this pandemic? How are other states handling it differently or similarly?

This is definitely a trend we're seeing all across the country in red and blue states. I think it's just because of the unprecedented nature of [the pandemic]. There are obviously strong feelings about which approaches are necessary or appropriate or when and how much. I think everyone's just trying to figure this out as we go. It's definitely not exclusive to Texas.

What does this communication from Attorney General Ken Paxton mean for local counties and municipalities as they try to navigate reopening during the pandemic?

I think it's an interesting thing to think about when Texas has always been a home rule state, and so it's part of a continuing narrative of state leaders not trusting local officials to make decisions that are best for local communities. We saw a lot of efforts to really limit the power of cities last [legislative] session, and I think [recent decisions are] in line with those efforts. ... You would hope that the state would lean on the authorities that have provided this guidance on public health in the past. ... We think it's very important that there is a statewide coordination to address the pandemic and really implement some guidelines to help us understand what is needed in these times to help us get through this. The difference here in thinking is that the state [should] set a floor of some minimum requirements that need to be in place for the state as a whole, but still allow local health officials to decide and assess the needs in their community. ... We have already put it in a statute that this is a power that we believe [for] home rule municipalities. The governor’s order to supersede that authority that we’ve already given cities represents a pretty large shift in the power of local elected officials to do what is best for their communities.
By Kelly Schafler

Editor, Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood

Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.



MOST RECENT

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said power outages are not expected April 13, while requesting energy conservation. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
UPDATE: ERCOT call for energy conservation ends April 13 without need for power outages

An ERCOT official said "tight" supply and demand conditions arose on the state's electric grid April 13 due to forecasting issues amid planned, seasonal maintenance outages by some power generators.

Spearheaded by state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, the new court, if established, would expand the capacity of the county's criminal court system in hopes of reducing its backlog, which stood at 70,951 total cases pending before criminal district courts in Harris County as of April 8. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Harris County supports creation of new criminal district court to tackle case backlog

If the efforts are successful, this would be Harris County's first new criminal district court since 1984 when the 351st District Court was created.

Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough speaks during a budget presentation April 13. (Screenshot via Montgomery County livestream)
Montgomery County commissioners begin FY 2021-22 budget talks

Budget talks have begun at the county level, with a workshop scheduled for late July.

Here is everything you need to know to vote early in the Lake Houston May 1 election. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Find out where to cast your ballot during early voting or on election day in the Lake Houston area

There are plenty of places in the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood area registered voters can cast their ballot for the May election.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended health providers pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine April 13. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
State, federal health authorities recommend pause of Johnson & Johnson vaccine after 6 rare, severe blood clots

Hub providers in Dallas, Harris and Travis counties have all announced they will follow the recommendations and pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Melissa Gonzalez will serve as the sixth president of Lone Star College-Kingwood. (Courtesy Lone Star College)
Lone Star College-Kingwood selects new president

“I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve as the next president of Lone Star College-Kingwood,” Gonzalez said. “I thank Chancellor Head and all the members of the Lone Star College System Board of Trustees for the trust they have given me to serve as their next president.”

Armored Sports camps feature basketball, flag football and more. (Courtesy Pexels)
Armored Sports camps to launch in venues across Greater Houston

A new Christian sports camp for youth is launching this summer in churches across the Greater Houston area.

Matt Calvert was named the New Caney ISD superintendent at a April 6 special board meeting. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
New Caney ISD names Matt Calvert superintendent

“I am honored and grateful to have the opportunity to serve New Caney ISD as superintendent of schools,” Calvert said.

Homes in Humble's Northshire subdivision have flooded several times in recent years. Debris was piled outside damaged homes after Tropical Storm Imelda in September 2019. (Kelly Schafler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Humble City Council approves engineering services for Black's Branch repairs

Homes in Humble's Northshire subdivision have flooded several times in recent years.

Montgomery County's active COVID-19 case count was 1,692 as of April 9. (Community Impact staff)
Montgomery County active COVID-19 case count drops below 1,700 as of April 9

The active COVID-19 case count in Montgomery County is the lowest it has been since October.

"Breaking Strongholds" is a faith-based, eight-episode series that explores topics such as suicide and depression. (Courtesy Terry Weaver)
Series shot in Montgomery County aiming for Hulu, Netflix deal and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

Mental health services have seen an increased demand through 2020 and early 2021. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Q&A: Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare director speaks on increased demands from pandemic

Evan Roberson spoke on the demand for mental health services as well as what his organization has seen over the past year.