In Texas the politics of COVID-19 ratcheted up this week with head-spinning speed, and the divides — Republican vs. Democrat, state vs. local — grew even deeper. Masks, seen by public-health officials as a crucial tool to control the spread of the disease as people go back out into the world, have instead become partisan symbols.
How did we get here? To explain what’s going on, we turned to veteran journalist Scott Braddock, co-host of Texas Take , the Houston Chronicle’s politics podcast, and editor of Quorum Report , a newsletter as pugnacious as the Texas politicians it covers. Braddock has been called a “true Internet frontiersman” and a “downhome Drudge.”
Thursday evening, we talked about the week’s wild political swings, particularly with Gov. Greg Abbott — and the one thing the cash-strapped Texas Legislature probably won’t discuss, even when they say that everything will be on the table.
Could you start by giving us an overview of Texas’ political situation with the coronavirus?
If anybody thought that this would not devolve into a full-on culture war, then I would like to welcome them to Texas. Stay awhile! This is what we do around here.
It’s happening in other parts of the state and other parts of the country as well. But I think it’s extra pronounced here because of the kind of politics that we have. When someone says Texans can’t get their hair cut or can’t their nails done, the first thing people here think is “Come and take it!” That’s Texas.
Last week the governor of Texas and the state attorney general were threatening the Montgomery County judge, saying that if the county didn’t keep hair salons and gyms shut down, etc., that people could be prosecuted. The governor was trying to use a heavy hand and say that from his office, he’s able to mandate certain businesses be shut down.
Basically, the governor and the attorney general were saying, “People might end up in jail if folks don’t do what we say.” Gov. Abbott was saying this was all about doctors and data, what’s good for people and keeping people safe.
In the meantime, political pressure came to bear. As soon as somebody actually went to jail up in Dallas, it was like they never said that. Conservative activist Republican lawmakers spoke out, defending the salon owner, Shelley Luther, and this became a national story.
Luther was sent to jail for contempt of court because this is a civil matter. You almost never see people in civil court go sit in the jailhouse, but she was going to have to do that because she refused to follow the order. The judge said that if she would just apologize and shut down her hair salon, he would let her go. How many criminal defendants would love to be in that situation? To just say they’re sorry and not go to jail?
But instead, Luther said that she would go to jail. Because this is a civil matter, she could only be held for seven days.
There was a quick court action at the Texas Supreme Court. The court said that Luther could be free for now, while this is all worked out.
And the governor and attorney general have demanded that she be released. The governor has completely backed off what he said. A couple of weeks ago he was saying that he’d have local jurisdictions enforce stay-at-home orders as they saw fit. Then he was saying that they needed to lock people up. Now he’s saying, retroactively, that people shouldn’t be locked up for violating these orders.
So this has turned quickly into the kind of politics we’re used to in Texas: the Tea Party-style, don’t-tread-on-me, liberty-over-safety sort of messaging.
Is that Texas style becoming a national model? Greg Abbott met Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday.
The governor and the president were talking about Luther at the White House.
They met on the same day that one of the president’s personal valets was reported to have tested positive for COVID-19. They were asked about that.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who’s done many of the White House briefings, was asked if Texas is a model for the nation in the way that we’re opening up our businesses. And she was quick to say every state is different. She praised Houston and Dallas for containing and mitigating the epidemic, but she did not say that Texas was a model — even though the president was sort of touting Texas.
What we’re seeing all over the country is that there’s no great answer, no perfect way to do this.
At first Texas laid out a plan tailored to big business. That plan would allow big-box retail stores to open up at 25 percent capacity, and restaurants to open up at 25 percent capacity. Only big national chains can make that work, and they’re probably not even turning a profit. For a small business to make money, they need to be at complete capacity. A lot of those small restaurateurs are not even opening up.
That plan quickly crumbled. Over the last few days, as we were talking about just a moment ago, small businesses like hair salons and mom-and-pop shops, which had been sort of in line to be collateral damage with the big-business-tailored plan, are now being allowed to open up. We’ll see what the public-health consequences are.
Though Abbott has talked about doctors and data publicly, we’ve heard different things from him privately. Could you talk about the recording that was leaked?
Over the last two months, Texas government has really been conducted largely in secret, with the governor convening most members of the Texas Legislature along with members of Congress on massive conference calls, and telling them his version of events in private. The media is not allowed to listen to these calls.
I’m a little surprised that my friends in the newspaper business haven’t made more out of this. Usually the editorial boards will scream about government secrecy — rightly, I think — and write about how sunlight is the best disinfectant and say that we need to have more transparency in government.
So we reporters are doing a lot of work to try to report out what they’re saying on these conference calls anyway, to piece it together after the fact.
Some audio leaked from Abbott’s conversation with lawmakers last Friday in which he said something different from what he has said publicly. Jeremy Wallace at the Houston Chronicle had reported very well on that. Publicly the governor has been saying that we’re going to see a spike in COVID-19 cases because we have more testing going on. And that makes sense, right? The more testing we do, the more positives tests are going to come up.
But that was not said what he said to lawmakers in private. He said — this was the quote — “It’s almost ipso facto, the more that you have people out there, the greater possibility there is for transmission of the disease.”
What he’s saying is that the more you open up business, the more the disease will spread. That’s not at all what he had said publicly.
The president and the governor and other elected officials all over the country are all talking about this in different ways.
Texas’ governor and the president have been talking about it sort of like they can wrap a warm blanket around everybody and act as if they can have everything — that people can have their cake and eat it too, that we can have a robust economy and go back to the way that it kind of was, and not be putting people at risk of catching this nasty disease.
And that’s just not true, according to the science.
You might have seen where Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, talked to CNN’s podcast this past week. He’s always been one of those gruff guys who will say what’s on his mind, and he’s even more liberated now that he’s not in office or running for anything. He said: Look, we should open the economy, but we have to understand and prepare people for the fact that people will die if we do that.
After Abbott’s comments were leaked, Republicans said to me, why didn’t he just say this in his initial announcement about opening the state up for business? Why didn’t he just say that, yes, we are going to be putting people at greater risk of transmitting the disease and catching the disease by opening up business. That way, at least people could make informed decisions for their own health, for the people in their lives.
Trying to keep people from catching the disease is a community effort. It’s not just about you individually and whether you would get the disease, but whether you would carry it to other people.
For instance, a lot of folks are sheltering in place who don’t necessarily care if they get the disease personally. But they think that if they get the disease, and are an asymptomatic carrier, they could give it to one of their elderly relatives.
But the governor has not, in public any way, been straight with folks about that — that as business opens up, there’s more of a chance that people will track in this disease. But it’s certainly what he said when he was on a private conference call.
I’ve been interested in the symbolism of face masks. We don’t see Gov. Abbott wearing a face mask in his press conferences — but you’d think that to keep businesses open, we’d want to do everything we can to prevent transmission. Do you see a split there?
It’s interesting, the political science about way that our elected officials appear. Officials in the big cities, like Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, wear masks when they do press conferences, and they make the point that people should wear them.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wears masks when he goes to certain photo opportunities. He sends email to supporters that include photos and media clips, and I saw that when he was in East Texas, he was wearing a mask when he was out and about with just regular folks. But in other instances, he does not.
I don’t think I’ve seen Gov. Abbott wear a mask once during this entire thing, and President Trump doesn’t wear the mask. The elected Republican leadership seem interested in saying that they encourage people to wear masks. But Democrats are the ones showing people that they are wearing masks and leading by example.
The politics of the mask is fascinating. It’s a stand-up-and-be-counted moment. If you’re wearing the mask, everyone can see that you’re doing it right.
It’s interesting to see how angry some people are about it. The thing in Texas is, it’s redneck politics: You can’t tell me what to do. I might wear the mask, but don’t tell me that I have to wear the mask.
We have such an independent streak. People just don’t like to be told what to do.
The consequences of being hunkered down for so long, combined with the oil crash, are about to wallop state budget. Sales tax collections dropped more than 9 percent for April — the biggest decline in a decade. How fast will that affect state spending? And what do you expect to start happening?
The consequences of all this — of the coronavirus and the associated shutdown and the collapsing price of oil — are just starting to come into focus.
Putting together the Texas budget is a Herculean effort. It’s a quarter-trillion-dollar document that is written for a 24-month horizon. You would not be able to do that at your house. You could not figure out how much money exactly you’re gonna have for the next two years. But that is the way we do budgeting in Texas.
And your household budget is to writing the state budget what parking your car is to landing a man on the moon. Try to anticipate revenues for a state of nearly 29 million people spread across 254 counties and two time zones. Then try to anticipate that over a two-year time span.
The Comptroller of Texas — Glenn Hegar, a Republican — is sort of the accountant for the state. When he was providing a revenue estimate to lawmakers to write the current budget that we’re living under, he expected oil prices to be around $50 or $55 a barrel this year and next.
But earlier in the year, even before the coronavirus pandemic really set in, we saw the Saudis and the Russians in a price war over oil, and oil prices dropped like a rock. As you know, low gas prices are a double-edged sword in Houston. In other parts of the country, when you do that story, it’s just a positive story: Everyone is happy when the price of gas goes down.
But not in Houston, or in Texas: We rely on oil and gas for so much of our economic output, particularly in Southeast Texas and the Permian Basin. Low oil and gas prices have ripple effects throughout the rest of our economy.
Sales tax has dropped through the floor, as you mentioned, and that’s what’s naturally happens when you suddenly tell retailers and restaurants and bars that they can’t interact with their customers anymore. And naturally, that affects sales taxes, and so it affects how much Texas can spend.
I don’t think they’ve really gotten their minds around that in Austin. Folks who’ve watched the budget process for many years are telling me that we have a lot of conservative Republicans in the legislature who think that they’ve been through a conservative budget process before, but they have never seen anything like this.
If you look at the turnover in the Legislature, over the past few cycles, there are probably at least 100 members of the Texas House, out of 150, who have never been through a budget-cutting session. The last budget-cutting session was in 2011, when $5 billion in public education funding was cut. Some of that was restored in 2013, and they’ve done some work to restore that even further.
In 2019, the Legislature claimed that they had fixed public school finance. One of the veteran education lobbyists told me that fixing school finance is easy: “I’ve seen them do it at least five or six times,” he joked.
That’s the way it always goes. The Legislature will write a budget to fund public education at a certain level. Then schools sue the state over it, and the courts will find that it’s unconstitutional the way that Texas is funding schools. Wash, rinse, repeat. That’s the way we’ve always done it.
This time around, in 2019, they were not under court order to fix the school finance system. They took it on themselves to make a change in the way schools are financed.
They were also buying down property taxes when they did that. That decision may not look very good now, because what they did was spend most of the surplus that they had in 2019 on buying down property taxes.
I don’t think a lot of Texans are real excited about their property tax bills; I don’t think that they have seen a huge change. And I don’t think a lot of folks would tell you that they’ve seen some big improvement in their schools, either, since 2019 — and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that schools would change that quickly. But the average voter out there hasn’t seen improvement in schools or reduction in the property taxes.
The comptroller will issue his next revenue estimate in July. He says he expects that, because of the price of oil dropping, and because of the recession that we’re now in, he will revise the revenues for the state budget down by billions of dollars.
I’ve been talking with budget experts about this in Austin. When lawmakers return in 2021, we could expect to see a deficit of $15 billion to $20 billion.
Everything to raise revenue will be on the table, a senior Republican told me: casinos; legal marijuana; Medicaid expansion. Then they’ll have to figure out where, in that quarter-trillion-dollar document, things can be cut.
“Everything is on the table”: Could that mean a state income tax?
[Laughs.] I didn’t hear that come out of his mouth.
The old joke is that we’ll have seen whores in Baptist churches before we would have an income tax in Texas. I think that’ll still hold up.
Any parting thoughts? Should we have spent more time discussing Democrats?
I’ll spend more time on them when they’re the ones making the decisions.
Parting thoughts: This is a wild time to be doing news, isn’t it?
It’s a cliche to say that these are uncertain times, that this is all unprecedented. I like to tell people, “You know what time was uncertain? All the time! The time before this was uncertain because nobody knew all this was about to happen.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
[email protected], @LisaGray_HouTX