By: Kim Ly
With the enormous rise in and number of COVID-19 cases in jails, it appears that many Texas sheriffs are not adequately prioritizing the safety of inmates in their facilities. Sheriffs, who operate county jails, play a crucial role in preventing the lives of those detained from being threatened and the virus from spreading to the surrounding community. These elected officials can ensure that those who are detained get tested, ensure safety measures are being followed within facilities and release people of lower level offenses to reduce crowding. But as COVID-19 threatens the state, it challenges the ability of officials to protect their people. One woman in Tyler, Texas personally made sure the authorities at her local jail were held accountable. She implemented a coronavirus watch, started a dialog with her sheriff, and collected complaints from jailers and detainees. As Texas continues to see weaknesses in its infrastructure exposed by record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases and their fallout, we see, more than ever, how important it is to hold our elected local and state officials accountable once they’re in office.
There are actions local officials should be taking during the pandemic that they are not. Knowing the roles and responsibilities of your local and state officials at this moment can give insight into what you can demand, and whether or not they’re working their hardest for your community. Here is how the duties of officials on your Texas 2020 ballot affect you during this public health crisis:
- Texas Legislature: In addition to passing state laws, the state’s Senate and Representatives are in charge of the Texas budget. That means, they decide the state resources available to institutions like hospitals and schools, and thus the capacity these institutions will have to respond to crises. The Legislature is not set to be in session until January 2021, when new legislation around social distancing, masks and other issues that were highlighted as a result of COVID-19 may be proposed in addition to the state budget.
- Texas Supreme Court: Two-thirds of states allow all voters to submit absentee ballots during a time when it’s ill-advised for people to leave their homes. Texas is not one of them – in part due to a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court. While it is the responsibility of the Texas Legislature to change the law, interpretations of the constitutionality of these laws by justices of the state’s highest court directly affect how the state can limit your voting rights.
- Railroad Commissioner: Contrary to their name, Railroad Commissioners regulate energy. Oil prices have plummeted this year, partly due to the global market and exacerbated by decreased traveling during the lockdown. As Texas produces the most crude oil out of any state, elected commissioners are tasked with overseeing the oil industry and will need to address job losses.
- State Board of Education: Board members set curriculum guidelines and decide how schools operate. They met beginning in early July to determine how Texas will approach schools reopening in the Fall and have shown they are open to public opinion. The Board originally announced that school districts had to limit remote-learning to three weeks or else they would lose funding. However, after widespread backlash about the viability of that plan from parents and education officials, the Board changed their decision and allowed more flexibility for schools to decide when and how to open.
- Tax Collector-Assessor: The county official in this role can influence the foreclosure rate of an area. That’s because they can decide how people pay for delinquent taxes (such as the number of installments), and may waive penalties or interest altogether if the late taxpayer paid in full. The roles of the tax collector-assessor especially matters now because COVID-19 left people without the means to pay.
- County Commissioners: County Commissioners have broad authority over county operations, programs and policy. They adopt the county’s budget and tax rate, approve expenditures by the county. Commissioners can also appoint an advisory health authority and can create new offices for the city to operate during a public health crisis. .
- Constables: Constables share roles with police officers and can determine how severely to punish social distancing violations. Some counties have even assigned special constables to specifically enforce COVID-19 rules. Many constables choose to overlook Governor Greg Abbott’s recent facemask mandate, and therefore, set the tone under which the people in their county see pandemic safety precautions.
- District Attorneys: During the lockdown, the rate of domestic abuse rose because victims and their children were confined to their homes. District Attorneys also prosecute cases to remove children from abusive households and help abuse victims file for protective orders. Despite their close work with vulnerable populations, attorneys are almost never held accountable for misconduct by their office or by their constituents. When a district attorney improperly defends the public by mishandling plea bargains or evidence part of a case, lives are in danger.
- Lower State, District and County Courts: Justice courts have started to process a backlog of eviction cases as the Texas Supreme Court’s moratorium on evictions ended in May and the national moratorium on federally-backed housing ended in July. Many of the eviction cases involve Texans who could not work and with no way to pay rent due to the COVID-19 lockdown. While residents in Austin and Dallas had county protections from eviction set in place, residents in Harris County could rely on no such things. Harris County Justices of the Peace, who belong to justice courts and are largely responsible for how the county handles tenant-landlord disputes, decided to move forward with evictions. Though there is little buzz around judges who preside over lower courts, these judges have a lot of discretion to decide cases regarding evictions, and misdemeanor criminal and civil cases, that have a very direct impact on the community.
Change often happens at the local level. It’s easier to share concerns with your local and state governments and hold them accountable because, unlike the federal government, have a more focused jurisdiction and set of duties. You can ensure they serve your community by contacting the appropriate official with your concerns and by speaking up about the actions (or lack thereof) they perform on behalf of the public.
Click here to see an easy-to-read pdf guide of the general roles the offices up for election on your Texas 2020 ballot play.
Click here for resources with more details about these roles.