Staff Stance: Government For the People: How the Texas Government Fails to Serve Texans

Beck Williams and Zoe Klein

Our legislators have been wandering the hallowed halls of the Texas capitol for 133 years. During those 133 years, hundreds of thousands of pieces of legislation have been introduced. But in a time that feels near-apocalyptic, this legislation holds a whole new weight. Legislators have the power to face Texas’ most pertinent issues — issues like COVID-19, energy regulation and the racial prejudice plaguing our state and nation. From bolstering the Texan economy to protecting the rights and freedoms Texans deserve, it is their responsibility to stand up for the common Texan.

In the year since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Texas, almost 3 million Texans have tested positive for COVID-19. Close to 47,000 of those people died from it. Gov. Greg Abbott’s removal of the statewide mask mandate is likely to trigger a surge in case numbers in upcoming weeks, according to the Texas Tribune. This year’s legislation has the potential to change the course of this disease and the power to transform the way we address statewide issues for centuries to come.

COVID-19 is mentioned in the Texas Senate bill book 13 times, paling in comparison to abortion’s 22 appearancess. Our legislators pay more attention to regulating our bodies than they do to protecting them — we must hold our legislators responsible for sticking up for the needs of the common person. To make it past this virus in one piece, change must come — and fast.

These changes could include reinstating a statewide mask mandate as long as necessary, invoking legislation not unlike President Joe Biden’s Defense Protection Act, which mobilizes the economy for production of antivirus materials, and funding for statewide vaccinations. In order to bolster our state’s economy and keep Texans safe, the virus must be faced with full force. 

Among other crises that Texans have faced in recent months was February’s winter storm. For the first time in recorded Texas history, it was below 40 degrees for a week straight in February. Texas was four minutes and 37 seconds away from overloading the power grid to a point that would incite a statewide blackout that could have lasted months. Over 4.5 million Texans were without power, many for days at a time. Our state is still reeling from the effects of a lack of infrastructure fit for the cold. Legislators have the power to reform this infrastructure — the potential to transform the way Texans receive energy and aid. 

And while energy reform is a priority for many legislators, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the suggested reform may not be drastic enough. Requiring members of the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to live in Texas — as many many legislators are advocating for — may not be enough to prevent this from happening again and repair the damages done.

Dramatic changes are necessary. That could include anything from democratically electing our ERCOT members to federalizing the Texas power grid — something that most other states in the union did decades ago. It could also include funding winter equipment such as snow plows and burying power lines to prevent small-area outages caused by exploding transformers and frozen power lines.

In addition, from the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico, Texans are making their voices heard in racial activism. Local protests have surged and Texans are using social media to express outrage at the deep roots of racism and prejudice that run through the foundation of our state. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Texans have rallied around the Black community to advocate for racial justice. After a dramatic increase in hate crimes in the past year, Texans are calling attention to the injustices committed against Asian Americans after politicians labelled COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus.” The injustices facing people of color remain prevalent. Legislators have the opportunity to address these issues through police reform, explicitly anti-racist bills and public activism.

Legislation with respect to racism and prejudice remain lacking on the docket. Among Patrick’s priorities is Senate Bill 30, a bill that would remove racist restrictions from real estate deeds. This would mean removing deed provisions mandating that real estate owners be white — a provision that, while present on many deeds, is largely ignored by agents in our modern society. And while this is a symbolic step in the fight against historic racial injustice, it is just that — symbolic. 

In order to make true strides against prejudice, legislators must seek clear-cut change — change like defunding programs that enable racism and instating diversity training for police officers.

Whether or not legislators intend to reform these three key issues remains unclear. When Patrick released his policy agenda, Texans expected to see COVID-19 relief at the very top of his priorities. But instead, it holds sixth place, behind abortion regulation and the infamous “Star Spangled Banner Act,” a bill requiring the national anthem be played at any publicly funded event in Texas. The lieutenant governor’s agenda leads us to ask if our legislators are really looking out for us.

This legislative session has seen a surge in anti-transgender legislation as well. Senate Bill 29 on the lieutenant governor’s priority list, deemed “Fair Sports for Women and Girls,” would effectively ban young transgender women from participating in women’s sports. Bills like House Bill 2693 and House Bill 1399 restrict insurance for transgender Texans, House Bill 68 would put providing transition-related healthcare for transgender youth under the statutorial definition of child abuse and Senate Bill 1311 threatens to revoke the medical licensure from all doctors who give transition-related care. Legislators have the responsibility to create a Texas that works for everyone, a Texas that does not treat any particular group unfairly. In fact, it is their responsibility to fight it.

During this session, legislators hold the power to change the course of Texas history. They have the opportunity to dictate how our children and grandchildren’s history books cover this time of deep tragedy. And they have the responsibility to save countless Texan lives. The question remains of whether or not they will use these convictions to fortify our state or to leave it out to dry.