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Texas Governor Allowed to Use Disaster Powers to Move Up Special Election

To the extent election law prevents or delays the recovery of Texas' coastal areas in the long aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Gov. Greg Abbott can suspend that law, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Monday.

By Asher Price

To the extent election law prevents or delays the recovery of Texas' coastal areas in the long aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,  Gov. Greg Abbott can suspend that law, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Monday.

Tying the ravages of Hurricane Harvey with the abrupt resignation of U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, Abbott had asked Paxton for his opinion on whether Abbott can call a special election for Farenthold's replacement earlier than would be allowed under Texas law.

In a letter to Paxton on Thursday, Abbott said he was concerned that state and federal law might not allow an election earlier than September.

Abbott wrote in the letter that "it is imperative to restore representation" to the voters of the 27th Congressional District, which stretches from Corpus Christi to Bastrop and Caldwell counties, chiefly because they are still seeking federal relief from Hurricane Harvey damage. Abbott noted that all of the district's 13 counties are covered by his most recent disaster declaration for areas affected by Harvey.

Farenthold stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations in early April, too late for Abbott to call an election to fill the remainder of Farenthold's term on May 5, the next uniform election date. He could call it for Nov. 6, on the same ballot as the election for Farenthold's successor for a full term starting in January.

"Because so many of the hurricane relief efforts depend on action at the federal level," Abbott wrote, "it is all the more important that the voters of District 27 have an effective voice in Washington, D.C., at the earliest possible opportunity. That will require me to call a special election as soon as is legally possible."

In his response Monday, Paxton agreed.

"In managing a disaster," Paxton wrote, "you possess express authority to 'suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business or the orders or rules of a state agency if strict compliance with the provisions, orders, or rules would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.'

"To the extent that the procedures in those portions of the Election Code 'prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action' in coping with the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, the Legislature authorized you to temporarily suspend those provisions."

An Abbott spokesman said Monday evening the governor had no comment on when a special election might occur.

Runoffs for the Democratic and Republican nominations to replace Farenthold are scheduled for May 22.

(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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