2021 was a busy news year for Texas and the rest of the world. Here are some of the biggest storylines from a year of Texas policy and political news:
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
After a grim year of closures and death caused by the pandemic in 2020, there were moments of relief in 2021. The arrival of vaccines, which significantly reduce the risk of death and serious illness, brought hope to overworked health care workers. Some Texans started leaving their homes and catching up on lost time. Large counties briefly rolled back safety measures in May, and the U.S.-Mexico border reopened its ports of entry in November after 19 months of closures.
But the pandemic continued to claim the lives of Texans as the coronavirus mutated and disrupted everyday life. More than 74,000 people in Texas have now died after testing positive for COVID-19. A surge caused by the delta variant over the summer made matters worse as the virus tore through unvaccinated communities. Dozens of ICUs ran out of beds, and hospital workers battled burnout.
The state’s teachers were also exhausted, and some decided to leave the profession. Not all public school students made it back to the classroom, test scores dropped dramatically as years of academic gains were lost and fights over safety and mask mandates led to physical and verbal confrontations.
Meanwhile, political fights over COVID-19 policies and how to respond to an ever-evolving pandemic escalated. Cities, counties and school districts often found themselves battling against the governor’s statewide ban on mask mandates in court.
As Texas enters 2022, the new and highly contagious omicron variant is spreading rapidly. There’s a lot that health experts still do not know about this new variant, but in a state where just 56.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, health experts are worried the latest surge could be particularly hard on the uninsured — of which Texas has the highest share in the nation.
An insurrection, spurred in part by some Texans
When pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in early January, Texas politicians played a role in the attempted insurrection. Attorney General Ken Paxton told the crowd of Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., to “keep fighting” shortly before they stormed the Capitol. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz spearheaded a group of GOP senators who objected to the certification of Arizona’s electoral votes. And U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert started the new year by appearing to propose violence in a television interview.
Among some Republican voters, doubts about election results remain despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Even in solidly Republican counties, Trump supporters are seeking more partisan control of elections. In Hood County, where Trump won 81% of the 2020 vote, an elections administrator with 14 years of experience resigned after a monthslong campaign by Trump loyalists to oust her. She’s not alone — election administrators across the country have faced threats for doing their jobs, and some fear what the 2022 midterms will bring.
The nation’s most restrictive abortion law
This year, Texas passed one of nation’s strictest abortion measures, banning the procedure before many people know they are pregnant.
The law bans abortions after an ultrasound can detect what lawmakers defined as a fetal “heartbeat,” which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Medical and legal experts say embryos don’t possess a heart at that developmental stage — what’s being detected at that stage are electric impulses. The law also comes with an unusual enforcement mechanism, empowering private citizens to sue patients, abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion.
The U.S. Supreme Court allowed a legal challenge against the law to proceed — but the justices stopped short of blocking the law’s enforcement. Legal experts warned that leaving the law intact created a roadmap for states to limit other constitutionally protected rights. That is already playing out in California, where the governor announced he is working on a bill that would allow private citizens to sue those who manufacture, distribute or sell assault weapons or ghost gun kits.
Meanwhile, the impact of the state’s restrictive abortion law is being felt on the ground — abortions dropped by half in the first month after it took effect. Many abortion providers in the state may not be able to stay open as the legal challenges play out, given the limited services they can provide. If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, “trigger laws” in many states — including Texas — that ban all abortions will go into effect within months.
A winter storm that exposed a vulnerable power grid
When an unusual winter storm approached Texas in February, energy officials warned Texans that they could face temporary power outages that would last 10 to 45 minutes. What followed, instead, was catastrophe. Millions went without power for days. Half of the state’s residents faced water infrastructure problems. The storm caused billions of dollars in property damage and hundreds of deaths — some of them from carbon monoxide poisoning.
It could have been worse — the state’s power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from going down for months, according to the state’s grid operator.
Regulators and lawmakers have known about the grid’s vulnerabilities for years, but time and again they furthered the interests of large electricity providers, and experts say elected officials still have not done enough to prevent another mass blackout.
Another major cold snap is unlikely to happen this winter, but scientists warn that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways. As consumers look to protect themselves from future power outages and extreme weather events, many have turned to portable generators — one of the deadlier consumer products.
Regardless of whether Texans face more blackouts next year, expect to hear more about the power grid in 2022. Gov. Greg Abbott has staked his reputation on a promise that the lights won’t go out this winter, while Democrats plan to campaign heavily on the issue.
A once-in-a-decade redrawing of the state’s political districts
Texas lawmakers redrew political maps for congressional, state Legislature and state Board of Education districts this year, in a partisan legislative process that will protect Republican strongholds while reducing the power of voters of color.
This was the first time in decades that Texas lawmakers did not have to get prior approval from the federal government to enact new political maps, and Republican lawmakers drew lines that the Biden administration’s Department of Justice said would not have survived preclearance. Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal ruling that the state disenfranchised voters since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted.
Here are some of the Tribune’s key stories on redistricting this year:
• New congressional maps split up Dallas-area Latino neighborhoods, frustrating communities that hoped their growing numbers would finally translate into political power.
• The Texas congressional map features only one district in the state that would have had a margin of less than 5 percentage points in the 2020 presidential elections — which will make elections easier for incumbents while possibly reducing civic engagement.
• Asian and Pacific Islander populations surged in Texas over the past decade, but their political power is weakened under new congressional maps. A northwest Houston neighborhood offers a case study in how that was done.
• The implications for 2022 are huge. Already, multiple lawsuits have been filed to challenge the maps. Expect to see those lawsuits continue to play out next year — potentially as voters head to the polls to vote in newly drawn districts.
The passing of new voting restrictions
Texas found itself at the center of another national news moment this summer when Democrats in the state House broke quorum during a special legislative session in order to stall and prevent the passing of a voting restrictions bill.
Their impact was short-lived. While Democrats stayed away for the duration of the special session that started in July, enough members returned to the state Capitol for another special session called by Abbott, and the Legislature passed the bill and sent it to Abbott’s desk. The law sets new rules for voting by mail, boosts protections for partisan poll watchers and rolls back local voting initiatives meant to make it easier to vote, namely those championed by Harris County that were disproportionately used by voters of color.
Fights over race and history at schools
Republican lawmakers turned their attention to school libraries this year after GOP state Rep. Matt Krause launched an investigation into some of the books used by Texas school districts, particularly if they pertain to race or sexuality or “make students feel discomfort.” Some authors whose works appear on a list used by Krause say he’s targeting literature specifically created for children and young adults that helps them feel understood and broadens their worldview. The scrutiny then turned to public libraries.
Krause’s inquiry came as educators across the state scrambled to implement new limits that lawmakers approved this year on how issues related to race and American history are taught in schools. It’s part of an effort by conservatives to weed out what they call critical race theory, which for some has become shorthand for any discussion of race. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that looks at racial inequities on a systemic level, and experts and teachers have said the approach is not being taught in K-12 schools.
Fights over critical race theory have split school boards, leading to doxxing and even death threats in some instances. While school boards are traditionally chosen in nonpartisan elections, the Texas Republican Party announced in early December that it would be increasing its involvement in those local races.
A border wall that lives on beyond the Trump administration
Migrants continued to flee disaster and unrest in their home countries this year, making their way to the Texas-Mexico border. Saying he was defending the border, Abbott flooded South Texas with state troopers and Texas National Guard personnel in an unprecedented state effort to arrest migrants after they entered the country illegally.
Coined Operation Lone Star, the efforts have been stymied by confusion, faulty paperwork, legal blunders and an overwhelmed judicial system. At the same time, Abbott has unveiled his plan to build a state-funded border wall, picking up where former President Donald Trump left off. The state has at least $1.05 billion for the border barriers and has crowdfunded at least $54 million in private donations.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration revived the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” program, which sends asylum-seeking migrants to Mexican border cities where they face the risk of violence as their cases make their way through U.S. immigration courts. The number of undocumented immigrants in detention centers has increased by more than 50% since Biden took office.
The first section of the new state wall went up earlier this month, but questions remain about how the state will acquire enough land in 2022 to continue the project.