As federal lawmakers continue to pass and debate massive legislative responses to the coronavirus pandemic, a state-based deregulatory approach is currently underway across Texas.
The Lone Star State’s response to growing concerns over coronavirus has led to the suspension of many state regulatory schemes — such as eliminating STAAR testing requirements for this year and waiving the 10-day investigation period for those filing for unemployment.
But other actions taken by Governor Greg Abbott are aimed at reducing the regulatory burden on citizens and suppliers alike.
The first action Abbott took in this regard was eliminating certain trucking regulations that may slow the ability to ship necessary food to grocery stores. Abbott said of the move, “Suspending these state trucking regulations will improve our ability to deliver the necessary supplies throughout the state so that grocers and retailers are able to continually stock their shelves.”
He followed that by removing a state barrier that prohibited alcohol industry trucks from shipping food supplies — adding, “By waiving these regulations, we are streamlining the process to replenish the shelves in grocery stores across the state.”
Another significant rollback Abbott made was expediting the licensing requirements of out-of-state medical professionals to practice in Texas. “By utilizing the Texas Medical Board (TMB) and Texas Board of Nursing’s disaster emergency licensure rule, Texas will have an increased supply of health care professionals who will be able to provide necessary in-person and telemedicine services to Texans across the state,” he added.
TMB president Sherif Zaafran stated, “During this critical time, medical providers will need to focus their attention and energy on the health and well-being of our fellow Texans. The Texas Medical Board will be doing all that it can to help assist Texas physicians, and other licensees under our authority, in making sure they stand ready and able to treat patients across the state.”
The Texas governor also waived telemedicine regulations to allow more insurance packages to cover remote doctor appointments as they do in-person visits. Abbott stated, “Expanding telemedicine options will help protect the health of patients and health care professionals, while help Texas mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
This past session, the legislature approved a similarly-aimed bill ensuring telemedicine is covered by Medicaid just as an in-person visit is.
Other rollbacks include the waiving of vehicle registration requirements, the institution of temporary emergency trucking licenses, delaying driver license expiration dates, and work-study funding regulations — all in the hopes of preventing gathering of crowds.
For some, the slew of regulatory rollbacks raises the question: why are they even in law in the first place?
Charles Blain, the founder and executive director of the Houston-based conservative advocacy organization Urban Reform, told The Texan, “During this emergency, state and local governments have moved quickly to suspend laws and regulations that stood in the way of products being delivered to the public. That highlights the need for their permanent removal.”
Stores such as H-E-B have shortened their hours so that their shelves can be stocked to keep up with consumer demand. Playing no small part in this effort, and the same effort at grocery stores across the state, is the logistical rush to transport goods from the suppliers to retailers such as H-E-B.
That, is ultimately, what the regulatory rollback is meant to accomplish.
Delivery systems are so backed up, even Amazon — the premier shipping consortium in the country — has pushed back its delivery promise, typically two days for Prime members, to a week or more. Such an effect is being felt across the entire logistics industry.
“When suspending trucking regulations, Gov. Abbott said that he was doing so to ‘streamline’ the process and allow for food to hit the shelves as fast as possible. Many of these regulations seem to be no more than a way to further regulate the free market,” Blain continued.
“If removing these regulations doesn’t pose a risk to health and safety — as we’re learning they don’t — then local and state officials need to truly examine if there’s any reason to put them back into place.”
“For us, it’s kind of business-as-usual,” one food distribution service told The Texan. They, however, expect things to change soon.
That could soon change for many suppliers, distributors, and retailers as the Port of Houston announced on Wednesday night it would close two terminals after some of its workers tested positive for coronavirus.
John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association (TXTA), told The Texan, “Everybody’s getting a lesson in Logistics-101.”
Esparza stated the closing of the port “could have a tremendous ripple effect on the whole system.” TXTA, Esparza stated, is working to prepare for when those terminals are opened back up.
About the current distribution situation, Esparza stated, “Things are going very, very well right now,” due to the preparedness past disasters (such as Hurricane Harvey) have forced Texas businesses to establish.
“The response from first responders — such as police, fire, doctors, nurses, truck drivers, and others — has been remarkable and that’s something that is not talked about enough.”
To meet demands, businesses have responded by invigorating their workforces and strategizing improved operations schedules — such as H-E-B’s reduced hours.
But the trucking industry, too, is facing spiking demand. “If you’re looking for a job, the trucking industry is the place to look,” Esparza added.
“The Governor’s response to removing some of the regulations so that these critical goods can be moved more effectively is making our jobs easier. But just because the regulation is removed, doesn’t mean the truckers take advantage of it.”
For example, while alcohol shipping trucks can now transport other supplies, it doesn’t mean they will. Esparza said that it depends on whether the need for it is there — something he said could happen.
Texas trucking regulations have opened up since the 1980s, but most of the regulations in place are set by the federal government which the state adopts — the federal government threatened to remove highway funding from the state in the 1980s if different standards were adopted.
But under the disaster emergency powers, the governor has broad authority to waive statutory provisions that could hinder efforts to tackle emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
Moving forward, Esparza sees changes coming to trucking regulations, whether or not these provisions are altered. “Because things are constantly evolving, it allows our industry to adapt to changing technologies.”
“Logistics is kind of like watching a millipede move — first you see the legs start to oscillate and then the body move. That’s really the way logistics works when demand, like we are seeing, is created.”
Esparza is encouraged by the state’s willingness to free up the trucking industry to do what they do best: distribute supplies according to demand.
Now, with a nationwide trucking shortage, they just need the labor to facilitate it.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.