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Texas This Week: The politics behind Gov. Greg Abbott's latest executive order

Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to rescind the statewide mask mandate has left many Texans wondering what factors weighed into his announcement.

AUSTIN, Texas — This week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he is rescinding COVID-19 restrictions designed to keep Texans safe, the leader of the Public Utility Commission resigned and Jim Henson, Ph.D., weighed in on the politics of the governor's decision to end the statewide mask mandate. 

Three things to know in Texas politics

DeAnn Walker is no longer the chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), the agency that oversees the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which runs the state's power grid. After grilling her for hours on the state's power crisis in both House and Senate committees, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called on Walker to resign, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. 

In her resignation letter, Walker wrote in part, "I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation. I believe others should come forward with dignity and courage and acknowledge how their actions or inactions contributed to the situation." 

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Walker to lead the commission in 2017. Now, he's tapped Arthur D'Andrea to take the lead.

The remaining members of ERCOT's board of directors voted to fire CEO Bill Magness on Wednesday. Magness also testified for lawmakers in the House and Senate for hours and, as with Walker, lawmakers called for his resignation. 

RELATED: Terminated ERCOT CEO says he won't seek or accept severance pay

And Gov. Abbott announced it's time to fully reopen Texas. Speaking at a restaurant in Lubbock on Tuesday, the governor announced an executive order allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity starting Wednesday, March 10. The order also rescinds the statewide mask mandate. 

Abbott said Texans should still wear masks but it is now up to each of them to take personal responsibility.

Discussing politics and public policy with Jim Henson, Ph.D.

The reaction from the Texas health care community and some of Abbott's own advisors about his decision to rescind the mask mandate has left many Texans wondering what factors weighed into his announcement. Jim Henson, Ph.D. – a University of Texas at Austin professor and the director of the Texas Politics Project – joined KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to weigh in on the latest executive order.

Ashley Goudeau: You guys routinely conduct polling and you've talked extensively with folks about their attitudes toward the coronavirus and the response from our state lawmakers. Talk to us a little bit more about what you found. 

Jim Henson: "Well, I think what we saw, interestingly, as you mentioned, we've done a bit of this now. We polled in April, June and October of 2020 and then most recently, just a couple of weeks ago in February 2021. On one hand, we found that there are still differences between Republicans and Democrats and the views that they take of the severity of the coronavirus and of the pandemic, with Democrats registering much higher levels of concern and reporting that they're much more cautious in their behavior. Democrats are more likely to see more activities as threatening to their safety or as unsafe, you know. And we've also seen, you know, over time, a bit of a decline in people's approval of how the State is handling this and how the governor is handling this. 

You know, I think the big takeaway in thinking about the difference between October and February is that, you know, the real tough periods of the holidays and the early part of 2021 had an impact on people and, and most people that thought the coronavirus was a serious problem – particularly Democrats in the fall – still thought it was in February, even though we have seen some continued decrease in concern among Republicans."

Goudeau: And let's talk about that decrease among concern. Because there are some Republicans, particularly some really conservative Republicans within Texas, who think that the governor's initial mask mandate went too far and that closing down businesses or limiting their capacity was too far. And so now they're sort of rejoicing with this news of the mask mandate being rescinded and businesses able to operate at 100%.

Henson: "I think what I would underline about that is that I would urge people to separate the mask mandate from the closing and reopening in terms of thinking about how Republicans think about this. You know, large portions of Republicans still take the pandemic seriously – only, you know, only about a quarter of Texans say that they're living normally right now and coming and going. Again, more Republicans than Democrats, but there are still many Republicans who take this seriously. 

You know, to an earlier point, when we asked people, Texans, if they were wearing masks when they went out and were going to be around people not in their household, you know, a little more than 80% of Republicans reported that they were still wearing masks. So, while people may be glad for the relaxation of some of the restrictions, there's still a lot of concern out there. And, you know, I think this is what points to the fact that, you know, there is a problematic mixture of politics and public health considerations in the decision to open up the state so rapidly and to throw ending the mask mandate on top of that."

RELATED: 'Continue to follow the same practices' | Gov. Abbott explains reasoning for lifting COVID-19 safety restrictions in Texas

Goudeau: You pointed out something very, very important that we need to recognize because the state could have reopened 100% for businesses and kept masks in place, at least until we see a recommendation from the CDC not to do that. So, I want you to kind of talk to us a little bit about, you know, this intersection of politics and public policy and just how much politics weighs into these decisions.

Henson: "Well, I mean, you know, I think you'd have to ask the principles that, but I think the story that is emerging based on the information that we have does suggest that politics have been a big consideration all along. And look, I think in some ways we, we use politics as a kind of a dirty word in this context. And I think everybody realizes that it's unrealistic to not think that, you know, the politics of who votes for people and public attitudes and public support are not going to enter into elected officials' considerations. I think we have to expect that that's going to be the case. 

But I, you know, I think the key factor here is that Republican public opinion, as we've been saying, has been very divided and fairly complicated on the politics of the pandemic and of the response. And there has been a core of pushback within the Republican Party to the governor using executive orders to manage the crisis from the very beginning. I mean, you and I have talked about this a few times before. We have now been talking about that for about a year. And I think in really ironing out where the politics are, you know, I think we're still very much where we were a year ago in which political leadership is of vital importance here. 

And it strikes me that, you know, a small share of Republicans – and they're not insignificant or, or this wouldn't be happening – but a relatively small share of Republicans are driving a lot of the politics of this. And that's connected, undoubtedly, to the fact that we do have the legislature in session now and an election year coming up. So we're in a, a very politically sensitive part of the cycle in Texas. And it's hard not to feel like that's not influencing decisions. 

I really do think that the primary consideration here, in pure political terms, is twofold. One is, as I've said, the pushback that the governor is getting from my, you know, from small, relatively small factions of the Republican Party, but factions that are very vocal and some of whom, you know, have funds with which to express their dissatisfaction. I think the other is that, you know, it's been a bad year of news for Texas. And, you know, one of the primary elements of the Republican brand since the Republican Party has dominated Texas government for the last 20 years is that Texas is a prosperous, well-functioning place that is attracting business and attracting residents and that Texas is open for business. So, I think that the conjunction of the pandemic, the uneven response, to say the least, from the State, in combination with the difficulties of infrastructure, with the power outages recently, have damaged that brand. And I think that the governor and other Republicans are very eager to, to rejuvenate and repair that image."

RELATED: Texas to join 15 US states without statewide mask mandates

Goudeau: So important there. You know, I also just want to point out Texas is not alone in its movement of rescinding some of those restrictions. In fact, Texas is just one of about a dozen states that are doing this, despite the fact that the CDC says, 'Please keep wearing your mask,' despite the fact that only about 20% of the American adult population has even received the first dose of the vaccine. So, you know, we're one of many. And so, what does that really say to you about leadership in this country?

Henson: "Well, I think that we've come out of a period – and we can be direct about it – that President Trump sort of set the tone for the response for, for many people that have voted for him and that are allegiant to him in the way that he thoroughly and consistently downplayed the pandemic and the way that he decided not to take opportunities to lead the public on things like mask-wearing. And, and most recently, vaccination. [It] was reported very recently that, you know, unlike other public figures who when they got vaccinated did it publicly in order to send a signal, the president, his wife decided to do it privately. And we didn't even find out about it until after he had left the presidency. So, you know, I think there's been a – not just a vacuum, but national leadership has had a negative impact. And I think we're still striving to counteract that at the national level and at the state level. And that's why I think the rescinding of the mask mandate is by far the most curious and probably counterproductive part of, of what's happening in Texas right now."

The Last Word

This week, Ashley's last word is brief: "Power that falters to politics lacks leadership."


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