Opinion: Paxton’s actions against COVID-19 mitigation are hypocritical

Toni Mac Crossan, Opinion Columnist

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has made a name for himself by filing multiple suits against the federal government concerning everything from air pollution regulations to oversight of internet domain names. He is a proponent of the power of state government and its partial sovereignty from federal rule.

However, he has no issue with telling Texas cities what to do and how to do it, including when cities take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Both Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott have expressed their support for small government, with Abbott calling for nine amendments to the U.S. Constitution, curtailing the powers of the federal government in 2016. Abbott has even trivialized the idea of local control by stating true local control is the right of the individual to “chart our own course, chart our own destiny.”

For all their small government posturing, both seem just as eager to prevent local leaders from making laws designed to benefit their constituents. It is not that they do not want cities and counties making laws⁠—they just wish to reserve the right to demand cities and counties rescind laws they disagree with.

Preemption is the legal term for what happens when a higher authority of law undermines a lower authority. Paxton is happy to file suit whenever federal law preempts a state law he and his Republican colleagues agree with; they are also quick to preempt local laws they disagree with.

In the past, this has included a Denton law banning fracking within the city limits, passed with 58.6% of the city’s residents’ approval; Austin’s efforts to require fingerprinting for rideshare drivers; Austin’s ban on non-reusable plastic bags; and Austin’s requirement that employers offer paid sick leave.

This time, Paxton has chastised the cities of San Antonio, Austin and Dallas for passing local orders enforcing social distancing, the use of face masks and other guidelines aiming to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

His office claimed these orders ‘strip Texans of their agency’ and said Texans should be ‘free to choose whether to wear [a mask] or not,’ calling the orders ‘Orwellian.’ Paxton also claimed ordinances asking houses of worship to limit the number of congregants on their premises ‘trample[s] religious freedom.’

He has demanded Travis, Harris, Dallas, El Paso and Cameron counties reject mail-in ballot applications from residents who do not wish to vote in person for fear of contracting COVID-19, despite Paxton himself⁠—as well as other top Texas Republicans⁠—voting by mail. Now he claims voting by mail ‘threatens democracy.’

Surely Paxton can see the hypocrisy in his actions⁠.

If Texans deserve to have the agency to decide whether or not to take preventative measures in an unprecedented pandemic, why do Texans not have the agency to pass municipal ordinances banning fracking and ensuring workers’ rights? It is evident he believes in preemption only when it benefits him and his Republican colleagues politically.

For example, he believes municipalities requesting churches not put their members at risk of contracting a potentially deadly infectious disease are a violation of Texans’ First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, he warned a Texas public school that designating a space for Muslim students to pray was violating the religious freedom of non-Muslim students, despite his previous defense of Christian public school students’ right to lead prayers at school board meetings.

Texas is the second-largest state in the country and its people are packed into dense cities and spread across rural, sparsely populated counties. People living in cities like Austin and San Antonio, which rank among the 15 most populated cities in the U.S., are at a far higher risk of contracting infectious diseases than those who live in rural counties, like King or Kenedy.

It is only reasonable that municipalities at the highest risk be able to pass different orders to protect their residents from harm.

Paxton is within his rights as state Attorney General to preempt local ordinances when they come into conflict with state laws. Nevertheless, he overuses his ability when it disagrees with local opinion, regardless of the impact his actions may have on the residents of those municipalities. In the case of his threats against local ordinances protecting people from COVID-19, it is especially concerning.

Just because the number of COVID-19 cases is declining in some Texas counties, does not mean they are not increasing in others. Mandating the most populated counties to not take the steps necessary to protect their own residents is dangerous and wrong.

– Toni Mac Crossan is a biology graduate student


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