New Texas confronts the old with debates about mask mandates and winter storm response
By SILVIA FOSTER-FRAU AND SCOTT WILSON | The Washington Post | Published: March 5, 2021
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ROUND ROCK, Texas — This town, once a stop for the longhorn cattle drives that helped revive Texas's post-Civil War economy, long embraced the state's trademark character: rural, Western and ruggedly independent.
But Round Rock has less and less in common with its pioneer past as it has attracted blue-state urbanites and a growing number of Latino and Asian families in search of cheaper housing, lower taxes and spacious, small town living. Instead of the city attracting cowboys seeking to cash in on a recovering nation's beef demand, its coffers are now being fed by a diversifying mix of technology corporations and major retailers.
A cultural shift has taken hold — one that came into stark view this week as Texas's conservative governor proclaimed the state "100% OPEN," and a chorus of Democratic mayors and big-name stores responded by defiantly reasserting their own mask mandates. Just five days before the governor's announcement, the Round Rock City Council had unanimously voted to extend its mask mandate for an additional 60 days, declaring it will remain in place until at least April 29.
And as Texas was brought to its knees last month by a statewide week-long freeze — which left 4 million people without power, 15 million without drinkable or running water, and at least 30 dead — Round Rock said it experienced "no major outages, no boil water notices," a feat that city utilities director Michael Thane attributed to government leaders who "give us the money we need" to maintain local infrastructure.
"A lot of businesses and enterprises and people are attracted to Texas for the low-cost, no income tax environment, and that has fueled the growth engine without a doubt," said Steven Pedigo, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies economic and urban development. "But on the flip side, you get what you pay for."
Texas's promise of modern living on a small-government budget coupled with its growing population of young, non-white residents has made it one of the fastest-growing states in recent decades. The spirit of independence and self-determination helped the state weather the Great Recession far better than most, continuing to lure businesses with low tax rates and light regulation while attracting new residents with well-paying jobs and affordable living costs.
That philosophy also is at the heart of Texas's independent power grid, the nation's only one that operates separately from the federal system. But the historic cold snap that blanketed the South last month demonstrated how the frontier ethic that a largely rural Texas brought to the union it joined 176 years ago has abruptly collided with a rapidly urbanizing population, one that thinks government should provide not only a healthy economy but also policies that support public health and fund reliable infrastructure.
Texas's population has jumped 13% over the past eight years, and the state is now home to nearly 1 in 10 Americans. But the state budget, when adjusted for population and inflation, shrunk by 0.6% over that same period, according to the 2020-21 state House Legislative Budget Summary. A large property tax break that passed recently also means the Texas government, facing some of the most expensive recovery efforts in its history, will have $5 billion a year less to spend.
"The idea of self-reliance and self-determination and a kind of nation-state that can go its own way and handle its own affairs has run smack dab into reality," said Stephen Harrigan, who in 2019 published a history of the state called "Big Wonderful Thing."
"The people who are digging into that notion the deepest — the Texas going-it-alone stance — are also kind of fighting a rearguard action," he said. "When you see somebody like [former Texas governor and U.S. energy secretary] Rick Perry saying that we're happy to freeze for three days, as long as the government's not in our business, well, I don't think that's true of most Texans anymore, particularly the freezing ones."
Texas's bootstrap mentality still holds in many quarters. In the midst of the winter storm, one mayor in Central Texas told his residents, as they hunkered in their cold, dark homes, that "only the strong will survive." (He has since resigned.)
The quintessential Texan skepticism of the federal government has endured for more than 160 years, as well. In January, the Texas Republican Party endorsed legislation that would put Texas secession up for a vote.
The state's stand-alone power grid, the only one not integrated with those of neighboring states, has become another symbol of that culture of stubborn self-determination — and the dangers of such a pervasive mentality.
The blackouts caused by winter storm Uri last month were not unprecedented. But change did not occur after the brutal winters of 1989 and 2011, the latter leaving more than 3 million people to endure rolling blackouts amid freezing temperatures.
Optional winterization measures recommended to better protect the electricity grid were largely ignored, and an assessment of the 2011 power failures found that hundreds of the same power generation stations that failed in 1989 failed again more than two decades later.
Texas's fiscal report in 2011 noted that "the state does not have a dedicated funding source for water infrastructure to support the anticipated future rise in public demand." It added that "by 2060 the available water supply will fall short of the state's demands by 8.8 million acre-feet of water per year" — enough to supply about 6 million homes annually.
"As the effects of climate change get worse, as the state continues to grow, taxing an already overburdened infrastructure, you're going to continue to see these kinds of failures unless there is a dramatic change," said former congressman Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas.
But infrastructure issues are not a symptom of the red-state, small-government approach alone. California, which has been a bastion of Democratic politics for the past decade, could hold lessons for Texas.
As that state's population increased amid the dot-com boom, rolling blackouts and surging energy prices in the early 2000s prompted the U.S. Energy Information Administration to warn that "investment in new power generation capacity has not kept pace with the increasing demand for electricity."
Although power retail sales increased by 11% between 1990 and 1999, the report noted, power generation capability decreased 2%.
"No new generation capacity has been constructed in California for over a decade," it stated.
The state's electricity failures eventually helped cost Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat his job — California's only successful recall effort to date.
For the first time in its history, California reported a net population loss last year — and many have been moving to Texas. Iconic businesses such as Oracle and Hewlett-Packard have announced plans to decamp the state for Texas, some citing the high taxes and cost of living. Tesla owner Elon Musk also has threatened to move to Texas from California, although recent reports suggest that he has rethought the idea.
Others haven't: Census estimates show that more than half a million people are moving to Texas a year. The new residents are distinct from those of the past, with bedroom communities and rural outskirts that were once the defining character of the state now increasingly urban. Nine in 10 Texans now live in metropolitan areas.
"I think this new Texas recognizes that government can be a force for good, that government is how we solve problems that we can't solve on our own as individuals," said state Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat, who at 31 is the state's youngest current legislator. His district encompasses part of Williamson County, which includes Round Rock.
Four of the country's 15 fastest-growing large cities are now in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. People from out of state have been migrating here for new jobs, Austin urbanites are relocating for more affordable housing, and native Texans of color, whose voices have long been stifled, are slowly finding places on boards, commissions and in other public offices.
The demographic and economic shifts have been so sudden that surrounding Williamson County flipped blue in the last presidential election for the first time in decades, also electing two Democratic state representatives and a Democratic sheriff, among others.
Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan, in a nonpartisan office, expects the nearly 120,000-population town to more than double in size by 2050. With that new population has come demand for amenities, jobs and the kind of services that a well-funded local government provides.
For surrounding Williamson County, the February storm "was much longer and much stronger than any of us imagined," County Judge Bill Gravell said. Outages rocked the area as they did statewide, leaving thousands of residents without consistent power for days. Some lost water service; others experienced pipe bursts that cut off their supply.
But Round Rock leaders say that those outcomes were relatively muted here, with customers maintaining consistent service and no boil-water notices.
"The reason why Round Rock utilities made it through this instance was not what we did this week. It goes back 10 years ago when we started planning, making sure our infrastructure was in place, making sure we have backup generators," said Thane, the local utilities director. "When you look at how did a utility get through this versus how did a utility maybe not get through it, that was a huge component — being able to say we had things in place from all the infrastructure, the people, the training, all that we needed to do to be able to withstand something like this."
Government is viewed not only as a vehicle for stability, but also equity. The state's economic disparities were brought to light when the storm hit and disproportionately exacerbated the plight of Texas's poor and marginalized.
The Round Rock City Council is thought to be the most racially diverse in its history, officials said, with two Hispanic members, one African American and one Asian on the seven-person council. The schools reflect a particularly diverse future electorate, with a student body that is 37% White, 30% Hispanic, 18% Asian and about 9% Black, according to district figures.
In the fall, the district funded a new position: chief equity officer.
The growing diversity is even reflected in street names. One downtown street received a special designation in January as "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way" to commemorate the holiday. Council member Frank Ortega said he plans to push to name a local street after Latino civil rights and labor leader César Chávez.
Tina Steiner, a city council candidate whose family has lived in Round Rock for generations, has been delivering food, water and other necessities to vulnerable residents since the winter storm lifted. It's the kind of care she thinks the state and local government should have played a bigger role in, but in its absence, she said she and other volunteers make the rounds to help others.
"I'm proud to be from Texas," Steiner said, adding that it seems as though more people around her are viewing the world as she views it.
"They see the struggle" for change in Texas, Steiner said. "They know it's real."
Wilson reported from Santa Barbara, Calif.