April 28, 2020

GOP County Judge Tries to Back Abbott into Corner
with Full-Scale Reopening Plans in Local Ultimatum

The Governor's Report to Open Texas

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

A constitutional crisis could be brewing in Texas in light of a local leader's declaration on Tuesday that all of the businesses in the state's most Republican major county could open this week in defiance of the economic rejuvenation plan that Governor Greg Abbott has put in place in the battle with the coronavirus.

Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough - a former state lawmaker who's a tea party product - said that he and other local leaders had discovered a loophole in a series of directives that Abbott announced on Monday that clears the way for a full-scale reopening of businesses that have been shuttered for most of the past month amid the virus spread.

Keough said that an Abbott directive had failed to spell out specific businesses that he expects to remain closed for almost three weeks at least in an executive order that grants permission for restaurants, theaters, retail operations and malls to reopen on Friday at 25 percent capacity in the opening phase of the Texas economic reboot.

"It is unclear," Keough said in a Facebook video appraisal of the gubernatorial edict. "It is vague."

Keough contended that the Republican governor's reopening plan is unfair because it chooses "winners and losers" in a process that's inconsistent and illogical. Keough said that Abbott would have to clarify the policy officially before he would recommend to businesses in the suburban county on the northern edge of the Houston area comply with it.

The threat of a high-stakes confrontation with the state's chief executive will put Abbott in an embarrassing position with the choice of capitulating to the county official's demand for a formal elaboration on order in question or taking action to enforce it. The governor might find Keough's stance all the more offensive after incorporating the orders into a 63-page Open Texas report that his office developed in a collaboration with a strike force that he appointed 10 days ago.

Abbott could warn businesses in Montgomery County of the potential for punishment including the possibility of having state licenses revoked if they choose not to abide the spirit of the orders regardless of whether Keough is technically correct about the omission.

Abbott could order the Department of Public Safety to enforce the order in Montgomery County if some businesses that he expects to stay closed decide to follow Keough's advice and reopen anyway during phase one of the plan that begins on Friday and ends on May 18. The governor could even send National Guard troops who he's deployed for coronavirus fight to the county that Keough leads to enforce the reopening order.

Keough, who served in the Texas House for four years before assuming his current role early last year, is on the same page with hardline conservatives who've been demanding an immediate removal of restrictions on businesses and individuals that Abbott implemented on April 2. Abbott's critics on the right were glad that he has decided not to renew a stay-at-home order that expires on Thursday.

But Keough said he was disappointed that the governor made the limited reopening conditional on the occupancy limitations. The first-term county judge also said it made no sense to allow dentists who have their hands in patients' mouths for as much as an hour or more at a time to have the right to reopen sooner than barbers and hair stylists who have their hands in cusomters' hair for 15 or 20 minutes.

Keough said that the commissioners court's members and other other elected county officials were on board with the unrestricted reopening that he's planning in the absence of more specific guidance frrom the governor. Keough echoed the prevailing sentiment among anti-lockdown advocates who think that the governor has gone farther than he should with an immense of power that he's been able to wield as a result of emergency authority that had been reserved for hurricanes and other natural disasters up to now.

Abbott has had arguably unprecedented sway during the coronavirus crisis as a function of a so-called Texas disaster act that the Legislature approved in 1975 in a move that effectively put the governor here in control of disaster relief responsibilities that had been handled by a separate agency before they were shifted to the DPS in 1963.

But Abbott has had strong support from the vast majority of voters for the actions that he's taken so far in the midst of the current pandemic that had claimed more than 700 lives in Texas by Tuesday night. Abbott has been in a no-win situation nonetheless amid the protests from conservatives on government overreach and increasing criticism from Democrats for a lack of sufficient testing here for an effective containment effort.

Abbott doesn't want to make waves in Montgomery County - the GOP's most dependable Texas stronghold where President Donald Trump garnered more than 73 percent of the vote in 2016. While Democrats fared substantially better in 2018 in other parts of the state that had been heavily Republican, they failed to move the needle in Montgomery County where U.S. Senator Ted Cruz beat Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke with 72 percent of the vote.

Montgomery is the 11th largest county in Texas with a population of nearly 571,000 in the latest census estimates. Montgomery County ranked 11th in the total number of positive COVID-19 tests there by late Tuesday night based on the Texas Department of State Health Services tally. Montgomery County had the 17th highest death count in Texas at that point with 10 fatalities when businesses there learned today that they had the top local official's permission to open this week.

Two more people died in Montgomery County, however, before midnight.


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