April 13, 2020

State Virus Rights

Texas GOP Leaders Could Have to Choose Between President Trump
and Tenth Amendment Amid Threat on State Coronavirus Protections


Texas Republicans could get a chance to show whether a crusade for states rights has been truly sincere or partisan posturing with President Donald Trump threatening to overrule governors and local leaders on timetables for restarting the economy in the midst of the coronavirus siege.

As Governor Greg Abbott prepared to get a gradual return to business as usual in Texas under way this week, Trump contended Monday that he has the singular power to determine when lockdowns that state and local officials have imposed in the past month for the sake of public health protection.

“For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government,” Trump tweeted. “Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect. It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons. With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”

While Abbott and other Republicans here have marched in lockstep with the president, the warning that Trump issued today could put the GOP's devotion to the Tenth Amendment to the ultimate test if the White House decides to bring America back to life before the governor deems it safe to do so in Texas.

Trump's declaration of supremacy should be hitting nerves among the GOP faithful in Texas - the epicenter of a states right movement that was reignited here in 2009 when then-Republican Governor Rick Perry suggested at the first tea party rally in Austin that he sympathized with calls for the secession of Texas from the U.S.

While Perry said that he didn't personally think Texas should break off from the union, his failure to condemn such a move set the stage for a full-blown battle against federal intrusion that Abbott had a major part in fueling in his role at the time as the state attorney general.

Abbott, who served as the state's top for 12 years, filed a myriad of lawsuits against the federal government challenging decisions that Democrat Barack Obama had implemented in executive orders on the grounds that they'd been an infringement on the rights that states had been afforded in the United States Constitution.

Perry and the Republicans made federal encroachment a major battle cry in the 2010 election that culminated in the first GOP supermajority in the Texas House in history. But Republican Joe Straus had put the states right fight in motion the previous year as the Texas House speaker with the creation of a Select Committee on State Sovereignty that he selected GOP colleague Brandon Creighton to chair as the Tenth Amendment's most outspoken advocate at the time.

Creighton - a Conroe lawmaker who won a promotion to the Texas Senate in a special election in 2014 - sponsored a resolution to reaffirm the state's right to sovereignty and won the lower chamber's approval on a 99-36 vote two days before the regular session ended 11 years ago.

Fourteen Democrats sided with the Republicans in the vote on HCR 50. The Democrats' caucus leader at the time - Jim Dunnam of Waco - supported the Creighton resolution in 2011. The current Democratic Caucus chairman - State Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie - also sided with the Republicans on HCR 50.

But Creighton had made it clear that the resolution had no connection whatsoever with the Texas secession push that had gained substantial steam after Perry suggested that he understood the frustration among conservatives that had triggered it.

While Perry and Abbott had been the two most prominent states rights champions here during the Obama presidency, both have been Trump loyalists since his election to the White House in 2016. After branding Trump as a cancer for conservatism as a presidential candidate, Perry became one of his top cheerleaders before being rewarded with an appointment as energy secretary.

Abbott was elected as Perry's replacement as governor in 2014 on a platform that included an assertion that the federal government had been too powerful. Abbott contended several months after Trump's election that the president "is not a king" with the authority to circumvent states. But Abbott had been referring to Obama in an ongoing legal challenge to immigration orders that he'd imposed.

While Trump may be technically correct with the powers that he has in a state of national emergency, Texas Republicans like Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton will have to decide whether to go along passively with the president or take him to court if they disagree with the calls that he makes on the COVID-19 crisis and the timing his reopening plans.

A Trump takeover on coronavirus lockdown rights would put Abbott in a sensitive position in a state where he'd effectively overturned some restrictions that mayors and county judges had implemented with an executive gubernatorial statewide order on the last day in March. The latest Abbott decree is in effect until April 30 unless the governor or the president decides otherwise.

Texas had reported 13,941 confirmed coronavirus cases and 296 deaths by mid-afternoon today.


Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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