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Coronavirus in Texas: 'Patchwork quilt' of virus prevention works better than expected

Associated Press Editorial
Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Gov. Greg Abbott was doing only as a governor should, following federal guidance in response to a world crisis, when he ordered temporary closures of restaurants, bars, gyms and schools, and limited social gatherings to 10 people.

Before that, on matters involving coronavirus, Abbott left the decisions and decrees largely to local authorities. That, also, is what a governor should do, especially in a state as large and diverse as ours, with three of the nation's 10 largest cities — Houston, San Antonio and Dallas — and 64 towns with populations fewer than 100.

It made sense for Houston to have and to use its own authority to shut down bars and restaurants before Abbott acted Thursday. It also made sense for cities the size of Hondo and smaller to have and use the authority to put it off until Abbott superseded them. Houston has more than 10,000 restaurants. That's more restaurants than Hondo has people, which just goes to show that in Texas, one size can't fit 'em all.

Even the school districts across the state were exercising independence in how to blend education with coronavirus prevention until Abbott finally intervened. Some had extended their spring breaks, others hadn't.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday even as he activated the National Guard, he said when asked if he'd consider closing beaches to spring breakers that the decision belonged to the county judges and mayors of coastal counties.

This is the right attitude for a governor. With rare exceptions such as this coronavirus thing, Abbott should keep in mind that someone like him who has spent nearly his entire adult life in Austin doesn't always know what's best for Abilene or Aransas Pass.

There are risks to having this patchwork quilt of decision-making across Texas. But it was very Texan of Abbott to have chosen to respect home rule until his hand was forced by events bigger than Texas.

This is a refreshing departure for Abbott, who has been no friend of home rule since he took office in 2015. Indeed, no sooner had he been elected than he began decrying the "patchwork quilt" of local regulation across Texas.

And, indeed, it would not be unfair of anyone who has served as a mayor or county judge anywhere in Texas during Abbott's time as governor to liken him to King George III on the matter of home rule.

Abbott has gone out of his way to usurp cities' and counties' authority to protect trees, ban single-use plastic bags, require drivers of so-called ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft to be fingerprinted, and ban fracking inside a city limits. Last year he enthusiastically endorsed and signed into law new limits on property tax increases. Property taxes are the primary funding source for cities, counties and school districts. Restricting their authority to tax restricts their capacity to grow.

You're not likely to find two cities more different than Austin and Fort Stockton, both of which adopted plastic bag bans until they lost that authority. They are unique pieces of fabric in the patchwork quilt of cities that comprise Texas.

The point is that a patchwork quilt is a good thing and we're glad Abbott is starting to see it, even if a pandemic is what it took. The hesitance he has shown lately toward exertion of power seems less King George, more George Washington.

We won't forget the erosion of local authority under Abbott. We are not inclined, ever, to give up on recovering what was lost. But the respect he has shown more recently is appreciated, and it will work in his favor as the virus spreads and he finds it necessary to exert more authority. The buy-in he is earning could save lives.

San Marcos Record

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