HOUSTON - If you’ve been watching the news closely, you may have noticed a political chess match among state and local governments regarding COVID-19 mask mandates. And with the first day of class right around the corner, some Houston-area schools have been pulled in as well.
According to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, GA-38, "no governmental entity can require or mandate the wearing of masks"
However, local authorities in Houston and Dallas have filed lawsuits against the governor and set up Temporary Restrictive Orders to enforce mask mandates in schools. With the number of lawsuits piling up, FOX 26 turned to its Senior Legal Analyst, Chris Tritico.
STATE V. COUNTY AUTHORITIES
He argues the battle on mask mandates seems to be over who has control and less on healthcare, but ultimately the taxpayer is affected regardless of how the cases turn out.
"I think that it's not about the money that they can get because it just goes from one taxing authorities’ budget to another... but it's not about that, it's not about money. It's about control," Tritico said. "It's about the governor saying you don't have the authority to define me and the school district saying you don't have the authority to tell me how to protect these children."
On Wednesday, Gov. Abbott took to social media to remind local authorities and public schools what would happen if they violated his executive order.
"Any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy GA-38—which prohibits gov't [sic] entities from mandating masks—will be taken to court," he said.
To Tritico however, these seem like empty threats only to those counties who have already filed lawsuits against the governor.
"That was hyperbole, in my view, because he's already been sued by them," he explained. "I mean, the ones who have just issued orders and not sued, I guess he may sue, but most of them sued him first and so I don't know what he means by that, because he's been sued by almost all of them first, in the first instance."
PENALTIES FOR DEFYING ORDERS
Still, when asked how the penalties would look, our Senior Legal Analyst said it would involve a monetary fine but even that remains unclear.
"In his executive order, [Abbott] put that it's a $1,000 fine per violation; I don't know if that means per day, or just per instance of violation," Tritico said. "It's really the fines are meaningless, because it's all tax money going to another taxing authority.
The monetary fine faced by violating the governor’s executive order, on the other hand, he argues, still affects taxpayers and this is exacerbated by the piling number of lawsuits, regardless of whose side you’re on.
"It's tax money being spent to litigate these on both sides," Tritico said. "And so it doesn't matter what budget, the money's coming out of, it's all tax money being spent to litigate these issues."
"So when a school district sues the governor, it's coming out of their tax budget and when the Attorney General defends it, that's tax money out of his budget being spent to defend it," he continued. "And so it's all tax money, all our tax money being spent to litigate these issues. And right now, there's probably 25 lawsuits being litigated over this all over the state and these aren't going away, either."
With that in mind, Tritico’s argument about local and state arguments gunning for whose authority has the final word seems to be more convincing as he says it’s not the first time Texas has experienced a conflict of whether state or local government has the final say.
"It's the same argument... it doesn't matter whether it's coming from the federal government or the state government, local control is local control," Tritico argued. "But that's not what our state is doing right now. They're saying we will tell you how to handle your business in your own governmental entity."
The battle between local and state control becomes more complex after Thursday’s decision with the Harris County Public Health Authority making mask-wearing a requirement in public schools - regardless of vaccination status - for staff and students.
"School Systems and Child Care Centers within Harris County shall follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for universal indoor masking and require all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face mask indoors while on school property and school buses," the order reads.
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
Tritico says ultimately, these lawsuits may not have any sort of a change in who makes the final decision in Texas.
"What the Supreme Court's gonna look at is who has the ultimate authority to issue these orders?" Tritico asserted. "It's unfortunate, in my view, that I don't think the Supreme Court is going to look at what the medicine says. They're going to look at what the law says.
"And what the law says is the governor has the supreme authority in the state to issue the final order here, not the local government," he continued. "It's not a matter of local control. It's a matter of who has the last say in the state - in these instances, and they have already ruled that that's the governor."
As for looking towards the future of what these lawsuits will mean and how it will signify the governor’s overall authority in Texas, Tritico says control could change depending on subsequent lawmakers.
"It certainly is going to strengthen the governor's ability to issue executive orders, but we'll see what future legislators do with respect to executive orders," he explained. "Because our legislature meets only every two years and for just a short amount of time. When they're not in session, the governor has a great amount of power to run the state because the legislature is not in session. And therefore they can't pass laws."
In the end, Tritico summed how these lawsuits seem to be painting a canvas of how divided Texas has become by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We've divided ourselves into political camps instead of medical camps, which is unfortunate, in my view," he concluded. "This disease has been divided up politically instead of really what's in the best interests of the country and what's in the best interest of the people."