Analysis: Texas, the bellwether state

The state Capitol building on Aug. 11, 2021.

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Texas is warring with cities, counties and school districts over local COVID-19 responses that go above and beyond what the state wants. That’s a template for state-local fights in other states, like Florida, and the legal grappling is already pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

When they’re not warring with local officials, the state’s governor and attorney general have been lobbing legal rocks at the Biden administration over masks and migrants. Some of that might end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our Legislature has been beached for more than a month, ever since Democrats in the Texas House took off for Washington, D.C., to prevent approval of a Republican “election integrity” bill they say would make voting more difficult for Texans who support Democrats. Once there, they tried and failed to coax Congress, where there is a Democratic majority, to pass voting legislation that would preempt what Republicans in Texas and other states are doing.

If you’re following national politics and policy, Texas is front and center.

Texas leads the coronavirus news, with hospitalizations near peak levels. Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 this week. The latest surge could top previous waves of the pandemic in what one doctor called “the fourth round of what should have been a three-round fight,” as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Karen Brooks Harper and Carla Astudillo.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are battling school districts and local governments for ignoring the state’s ban on mask mandates and for requiring vaccine proof for admittance to some public spaces.

Willie Nelson is the latest warrior on that front, requiring proof of a vaccine or a current negative coronavirus test to get into his Outlaw Music Festival in Austin on Sunday. The governor has said businesses with state licenses or state money can’t use vaccines as the basis for admission; Nelson, like some others, is putting that to the test.

Who wants to get into a fight with Willie Nelson?

The Biden administration has suggested federal funding for education could be threatened by bans on school mask mandates, which would amount to taking sides with districts that want to require masks.

It wouldn’t be the first lawsuit. The administration was already suing the state for directing state police to stop vehicles carrying migrants suspected of having COVID-19. Abbott and other state officials have accused the federal government of abandoning enforcement of immigration laws and contributing to a huge increase in migration across the state’s border with Mexico that started early this year, and the migrant roundup order was part of a larger state effort to intervene.

The voting legislation will certainly be the subject of litigation, but the state Supremes have already said it’s legal for the state to apprehend those Democrats to come back to the work they were elected to do.

“The legal question before this Court concerns only whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members,” the court ruled. “We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the TRO.”

The law is clear enough. So is the possibility for political theater, if the end game has the state arresting Democratic legislators and hauling them to Austin to force a vote on legislation those Democrats contend is harmful to voters with disabilities and to people of color.

The Supremes spotted that, too — a sign that they’re pretty good at politics themselves. “The question now before this Court is not whether it is a good idea for the Texas House of Representatives to arrest absent members to compel a quorum. Nor is the question whether the proposed voting legislation giving rise to this dispute is desirable,” they wrote. “Those are political questions far outside the scope of the judicial function.”

It would certainly get national attention, but that’s not unusual for Texas these days.

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