Questions remain over Texas governor’s authority to issue a disaster declaration at the southern border

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 6:02 PM CDT
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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) - Questions remain over how much power a Texas governor can wield during a disaster declaration after Gov. Greg Abbott used his emergency powers, in part, to divert $250 million from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the border wall.

“Traditionally governors can engage in disaster declarations for natural disasters — yes, perhaps once in awhile for a human-caused disaster,” Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told KWTX.

“There is nothing that suggests that he has the ability to declare a disaster at the border for what is essentially a law enforcement purpose — a federal law enforcement purpose,” he said.

He said that allocating money toward infrastructure projects, like a border wall, is traditionally something carried out by the legislative branch.

“It’s the case again of Abbott, without saying it, essentially saying, ‘Stop me. You know, make me,’” Taylor said.

Lawmakers in both chambers and both parties attempted to limit what the governor’s power during a disaster declaration this legislative session.

“There are a lot of Republicans — and some Democrats — who definitely wanted to push back on the governor’s power,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told KWTX.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, filed two pieces of legislation that would have required the governor to call lawmakers into a special session to declare a disaster declaration lasting longer than 30 days.

In March, Birdwell told KWTX that one of his top priorities this past session was “rebalancing the role of the Legislature with the executive branch,” noting that lawmakers only meet for 140 days every other year.

Meanwhile, the House advanced a separate bill that would have limited the governor’s power during future pandemics.

None of the attempts to rein in the governor’s emergency powers in the House or the Senate ultimately advanced.

“I think what ended up happening was a form of legislative gridlock,” Taylor said.

He said tensions between the governor and lawmakers are only going to rise, especially after the governor vetoed funding to the legislative branch earlier this month.

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