A number of governors from both parties are rejecting the president’s claim on Monday that the office allows him the authority to reopen the country, regardless of state-level opposition that — whenever that is — it could be too soon.
“The president of the United States calls the shots,” President Trump said. “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”
This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.
Actually, the governors don’t want to do anything. That’s the point. But they don’t want the president to do anything either. Namely, push for a premature end to stay-at-home orders across the nation that appear to be effectively slowing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing deaths. While there is no doubt the economy is crumbling as a result of the shutdown and things are likely to get worse as long as it continues, the threat of a second wave of the disease and more lives lost is even more frightening, not to mention being a far greater economic threat in the long run.
According to experts, Trump’s insistence that “when somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total” is incorrect. The president walked back his remarks on Tuesday, saying he’ll be “authorizing each individual governor, of each individual state” to decide how and when they reopen.
State’s limiting of local power is common practice
The wrangling over who ultimately calls the shots — in this case, the leader of the state government or the federal government — has become more and more common over the past several years between local governments at the city and county level and state legislatures and governors.
In a December 2019 commentary for the Houston Chronicle, Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton wrote about the continued efforts of state lawmakers and leaders to limit the power of local governments and the need for both sides to work together to govern. Texas is one of several red states with large blue-bending cities — Austin, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso — and political polarization has led to what many consider to be “overreach” by the state legislature.
There have been preemption conflicts in the state over everything from minimum wage, paid sick leave and fracking to plastic bags, sheltering the homeless, texting while driving and regulating ride-hailing companies. The state has capped the amount cities can increase property taxes and banned sanctuary cities. Not to mention Senate Bill 6, the infamous bathroom bill that the legislature ultimately failed to pass in 2017.
Granting power to cities has its advantages
We now find ourselves in a pandemic that has closed or drastically limited the operations of many businesses. In Austin and San Antonio, the employees of many of those affected businesses would have benefited from the sick leave ordinances blocked by state courts. Dallas’ ordinance was blocked as well, but by a federal — not state — judge.
“Having strong local governments makes sense in many ways,” Fulton wrote. “They can focus on local needs in a responsive way that the state simply cannot. Does anybody in Austin want to have to decide how many parking spaces a new office building or condo tower in the Galleria has to provide in order to get its permits? And not surprisingly, people tend to trust their local government — the one closest to them — more than state and federal governments.”
Steven Pedigo, who is director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, recently wrote about how Texas’ cities will be more important than ever when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. To ensure the state’s recovery is successful, Pedigo calls for putting local leaders in charge of managing it. He cites the decision of Austin and Travis County leaders to cancel SXSW in March, which he says helped the Austin area sidestep becoming a COVID-19 hotspot the way New Orleans did a month after Mardi Gras, as evidence leaders at the local level are the most qualified to make the “right decisions.”
“Texas city and county leaders stepped up to lead. There can be no turning back,” he wrote in a Dallas Morning News commentary.
“Before COVID-19, the Texas Legislature moved to strip power from cities. In the heat of the crisis, those cities’ leaders spearheaded the state’s response.”
Cities will power the recovery in Texas
In a state as large as Texas, with well over 900 cities and 254 counties of differing sizes — both in population and land area — all of which have their own set of needs, maybe those needs are known best by the local leaders who live there.
In a 2018 article about the contentious relationship between state lawmakers and cities, State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, a Democrat from San Antonio, told U.S. News and World Report that she “believes in local control ‘because people on the ground know their areas better.’
“Every area has a different need,” she said. “I don't believe we can have a uniform view.”
In his piece in the Morning News, Pedigo appealed to the Republican-controlled legislature by claiming that granting more local power would be a conservative course.
“If Texas state leaders truly value conservative government, they will allow local leaders to decide where and how they need to invest.”
It’s time to invest more in the state’s workers and businesses
Pedigo also calls for greater investment in the people and businesses of Texas in the post-pandemic world. To focus more on the resources that are already here instead of putting so much effort into attracting businesses and workers from outside of the state.
“Given the depth and breadth of the economic crisis, communities across the state will be under pressure to slash their budgets. … But now is not the time to stint on economic development and workforce development; both are crucial for our future success. …
“… Texas can’t neglect its own. Our homegrown, mom-and-pop enterprises are the life’s blood of our economy and the souls of our communities; it’s time that they got some attention too.”
Cities and state should work together toward resilience
Pedigo also highlights the need for cities to make preparation a priority if they hope to be more resilient when the next crisis hits — no matter if it’s a natural disaster, public health emergency, act of terrorism or industrial accident.
According to Pedigo: “To ensure that the state’s recovery is as robust and sustainable as it can be, our local and state governments must forge new partnerships with universities, nonprofits and businesses to help our communities.”
That is true, and it has been successful in Houston through the alignment of community-level initiatives with broader citywide efforts, enabling neighborhoods and residents to better respond to and recover from both long-term stresses and sudden shocks.
And while we’re at it, we might also call for our local and state governments to forge new partnerships with each other as well.