Of all the political events to take place in 2020, none had a more sweeping effect on the everyday lives of Texans than the 25 executive orders signed by Governor Greg Abbott in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Worries about COVID-19 began to fester in January and February, and by March 13, Abbott declared a state of disaster for all 254 Texas counties.
On March 19, after many officials in urban counties began issuing stay-at-home mandates, Abbott signed the first order under his disaster powers that prohibited social gatherings of more than 10 and mandated the closure of dine-in restaurants, nursing homes, and schools.
The lockdown dragged beyond the “15 days to slow the spread” called for by the Trump administration and Abbott’s measures remained in place throughout the month of April.
In May, he began the phases of “reopening” for Texas and permitted some “non-essential” businesses, such as retail stores and dine-in restaurants, to resume operations with limited capacity.
But the reopening was met with criticism from many local officials, who called for renewed lockdowns and a mask mandate in light of a surge of coronavirus cases in June after the George Floyd protests.
In the span of a few weeks, the governor shifted his position on masks from explicitly stating on the record that “government cannot require individuals to wear masks” to issuing a statewide mandate to impose fines on individuals who do not wear face coverings.
Coronavirus cases continued to rise and peaked in mid-to-late July before declining throughout August and September.
At the beginning of October, Abbott signed his most recent order, GA-32, to allow county judges to permit bars to reopen at 50 percent capacity, though the order also included a provision to resume some lockdown restrictions in health regions where coronavirus cases account for more than 15 percent of hospital capacity.
With a rise in coronavirus cases in the state throughout November and December, over half of Texas’ counties have resumed tighter restrictions under GA-32.
COVID-19 vaccines are currently being distributed, but state health officials have said that they expect the process for widespread distribution to take several more months.
Local Government Reactions to Coronavirus
While Abbott’s orders have affected the greatest number of Texans, local officials have issued and enforced a plethora of their own mandates in response to COVID-19.
The bulk of these orders came near the beginning of the lockdown during March and April.
For instance, in South Texas, Port Isabel issued a mask mandate alongside a prohibition of more than two people in vehicles on public roadways.
In an update to its shelter-in-place order, Port Aransas included a provision to prohibit fishing from shore in public areas.
The city of Wylie, located in North Texas, caused a stir among residents when they not only closed a public skatepark but spent over $600 to cover it in dirt.
Police in Laredo, which made headlines in The Washington Post for becoming the first city in the country to mandate masks with a penalty of $1,000 for violations, carried out a sting operation to arrest two women for providing beauty services.
Though many of the local actions were stymied by Abbott’s later statewide orders that superseded local mandates, many local governments continued to look for ways to regulate mandates.
Confusion about what local officials could mandate under Abbott’s order was heightened in June after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff required businesses to require masks, even though Abbott’s order prohibited mask mandates.
Abbott defended Wolff’s order, though, claiming that “there has been a plan in place all along” to allow local governments to force businesses to enact mask mandates.
Since the summer, Abbott has been more at odds with local officials who attempt to enact tighter coronavirus restrictions than under his orders.
When El Paso saw an increase in hospitalizations and county Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued a new shelter-in-place order, Abbott blamed him for not enforcing the statewide order and called the new measure illegal.
Most recently, the governor criticized the City of Austin for enacting a new curfew for the New Years’ holiday, saying that the new order was not permitted.
Oil and Gas Industry Turmoil
Texas’ most pivotal driver of economic activity began 2020 at the highest of highs and a few months later had plunged to the lowest of lows. The pandemic’s blow to travel paired with a global supply fight left Texas’ oil and gas industry holding the bag of its accrued debt as historically high prices nose-dived to historical and consistent lows.
If it were its own country, Texas would be in the top five in the world in energy production. It produces nearly a third of the country’s crude oil and natural gas and leads the nation in wind energy production — which accounts for about 20 percent of the electricity directed to the state’s grid.
Since the pandemic hit, renewable energy in Texas has remained fairly stable as electricity consumption mostly shifted rather than dropped off like with the transportation-reliant crude oil.
That hit to demand caused fossil fuel companies — already heavily saddled with debt — to fold or significantly change course. Halliburton shuttered two of its Texas facilities in May and mergers of petrochemical companies became a favorable option.
The consideration of such an option is a testament to the calamitous outlook the industry had early on. Since then, the industry has stabilized some but still limps along bedraggled.
But the prolonged troubles of the industry have, and will continue to, negatively impact the state and its finances — let alone the millions of Texans who rely directly and indirectly on its power source.
Reaction to George Floyd’s Death
The moment a mass of protesters — like Jacobins climbing the ramparts of the Bastille — stormed and overtook I-35 in downtown Austin, it became clear the episode of civil unrest would yield substantial consequences.
A few days earlier, a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, died in police custody after officer Derek Chauvin had pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for the better part of nine minutes. This sparked civil unrest, both violent and peaceful, that eventually overwhelmed the nation.
Cities across Texas experienced massive protests and riots throughout the entire month of June. Police departments struggled to cope with the unrest and repair their tarnished reputation with parts of their communities, all while in the midst of a crime wave spurred by the pandemic.
Numerous and multifarious demands to overhaul police departments swept the United States’ cities, Texas included.
Some cities, like Houston, bolstered their police department budgets. Meanwhile, the Floyd incident gave reformers the momentum needed to push through the drastic changes they’d long sought. The foremost example is Austin, which in August cut and redirected $150 million from its police department budget — a department already plagued by over 100 patrol vacancies.
The crime wave had hit Austin especially hard, as its murder rate from January through September was 43 percent higher than in the previous year. A historically low crime city, that percent difference amounted to 11 more murders.
Going into the 2021 legislative session, the State of Texas and its capital city continue to be at odds.
Property Tax Disaster Loophole
Bewildering officials and property taxpayers alike, Abbott’s statewide disaster declaration triggered an obscure provision of code allowing property taxes to be increased this year back to the previous limit without triggering a referendum.
One half of the 86th Legislature’s marquee accomplishment, Senate Bill (SB) 2 dropped the property tax increase cap without needing voter approval from eight to 3.5 percent.
This loophole was passed by legislators with a regional natural disaster in mind, like that of Hurricane Harvey. But the text of the provision does not specifically limit it to such an occurrence. State Republicans objected, saying the loophole is aimed at physical, not economic, damage.
But various cities, counties, and special districts have since taken advantage of the loophole, increasing property taxes well above the SB 2 limit. Some sort of penalty has been suggested by state lawmakers for those who utilize the loophole, but public pressure has proven to be the most successful rebuke in the meantime — although not universally so.
Should the loophole question be taken to court, it presents an interesting legal dynamic between the originalist intent behind the provision versus its clear textualist reading.
Fight Over Mail Ballots
A focal point during the 2020 election was the persistent and frenzied fight over mail ballots.
Texas allows certain demographics to vote by mail, namely those aged 65 or older or those with disabilities, but all other voters must either vote in-person early or on Election Day.
The Texas Democratic Party sued to expand mail ballot abilities to all voters due to potential fear of contracting coronavirus at polling stations. Both their state and federal cases were rejected soundly. However, certain localities expanded the option anyway.
Ultimately, vastly higher voter turnout was recorded this year both in mail ballots and in-person voting than in 2016.
Mail ballots, naturally more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting, became a flashpoint as allegations of widespread fraud enveloped the election debate. In the latter half of 2020, Texas’s Office of the Attorney General announced prosecution in three incidents of mail ballot fraud in local elections.
First, a Gregg County Commissioner was charged with 134 counts of fraud for tampering with and falsifying mail ballot applications in a 2018 Democratic primary he won by five votes. Then a Carrollton mayoral candidate was caught in the act stuffing envelopes with fraudulent mail ballot applications. Thirdly, a Limestone County social worker allegedly submitted voter registration and mail ballot applications on behalf of 67 nursing home residents without their consent.
The issue may well be taken up this coming session as GOP lawmakers aim to further solidify election laws and procedures while Democrats hope to codify that which they couldn’t accomplish through lawsuit.
Perhaps the most notable outcome in the 2020 Texas elections was that, despite an otherwise chaotic year, there was no notable swing toward either party.
Polling, especially from national outlets, had projected a strong performance from Democrats, but Republicans mostly held their ground at the ballot.
Democrats picked up a state Senate seat, which was expected to flip, and a spot on the State Board of Education, but their lone gain in the Texas House was offset by a GOP gain.
The results in state legislative elections veered little from ratings of the districts as compiled by The Texan based on the 2016 and 2018 elections.
At the federal level, Democrats hoped that their strong fundraising would help them snatch a few of the competitive districts, but Republicans saw victories in all of the districts that they held, both open and with incumbents.
Though it did not result in any electoral changes, South Texas and the border region saw a continued trend favoring Republicans in the general election.
Counties in that traditionally Democrat-leaning area saw a median shift from 2016 as high as 20 percent toward statewide GOP candidates and even as high 28 percent for the presidential race.
Attorney General Paxton’s Scandal
Several politicians in Texas violated their own coronavirus orders or recommendations, but the highest profile scandal to rock the world of Lone Star politics was the civil war that took place within the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).
At the beginning of October, the top-ranking staffer in the OAG, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned.
That weekend, it was made public that seven senior aides in the office including Mateer filed formal allegations against Attorney General Ken Paxton accusing him of bribery and abuse of office.
Paxton consistently denied the allegations as more details emerged about Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, whose home and offices were raided by the FBI in 2019.
In the month after the allegations were made, all of the senior aides in the OAG who had sounded the alarm had resigned or were fired.
Several filed a lawsuit against Paxton under the Whistleblower Protection Act, claiming that their former boss had retaliated against them for bringing their accusations to authorities.
In the lawsuit, the whistleblowers said that Paxton had used his authority as attorney general to benefit Paul in numerous ways throughout the past year.
Paxton filed a response in court denying the allegations, but the case is still ongoing.
A timeline of scandal can be found here.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.