Texas Perspectives

Abbott Should Work for Liberty at Home

Texas Capitol

Gov. Greg Abbott wants a convention to consider nine amendments to the U.S. Constitution in hope of making our liberties more secure. The proposal is a long shot; the Constitution has never been amended this way. Worse, work at the national level may distract the governor from projects that would enhance liberties right here at home. Here are nine things Abbott could do now to make Texas a freer state.

1. Eliminate restrictions on car sales. One Texas law limits car buyers’ freedom to shop on weekends. Another prevents them from buying Teslas at manufacturer-owned stores. Neither restriction makes sense. Car dealers that want to close on Sundays can follow Chick-fil-A’s example and do so voluntarily. The prohibition on direct sales is just an “antiquated protection … for the car dealers,” as former Gov. Rick Perry observed.

Abbott could have supported a bill that would have allowed car dealerships to be open all weekend. He did not. He also ridiculed direct car sales, saying that “If you’re going to have a breakdown in a car, you need to have a car dealership there to make sure that the vehicle is going to be taken care of. We haven’t seen that from Tesla.” Apparently, the wealthy buyers who imported thousands of Teslas from other states don’t know that they can’t get their cars repaired here. The truth is obvious. Abbott fears the car dealers’ lobby.

2. Give Midlevel Medical Professionals Freer Rein. Many Texans have difficulty finding affordable medical and dental care, especially rural residents, the elderly and the poor. Midlevel professionals — advanced-practice registered nurses, physician assistants and dental therapists — could help these people by providing basic services through independent practices. They handle these tasks as well as doctors and dentists do. Other states allow them to practice more freely.

In 2015, the Legislature considered bills that would have brought Texas into line with other states. Abbott should have supported them but did not.

3. Support Death With Dignity Legislation. In Texas, people with terminal illnesses are often forced to endure pain and indignity against their wishes because the state has no Death With Dignity law. To live out their final days on their own terms, they must leave their homes, as Brittany Maynard did. After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she moved from California to Oregon, where she ended her life with a physician’s assistance. Her example led California to adopt a Death With Dignity law. Abbott could enhance the liberty of terminally ill Texans by backing similar legislation here.

4. Support Right To Try Legislation. Many Texans have severe illnesses for which the only treatments are either experimental or are approved in other countries but not the U.S. These unfortunate people have no right of access to these medications, even at their own expense, because the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved them. A Right To Try law would give Texans some chance of obtaining needed medications while pushing back as strongly as possible against federal constraints.

5. Decriminalize Marijuana. No policy has done more to kill liberty than the War on Drugs. It has made law-breakers out of millions of people. It has also made America a police state, with asset seizures, no-knock warrants, militarized SWAT units, and the world’s largest prison population.

Many states and localities have decriminalized possession or legalized marijuana entirely. By doing so, they’ve attracted tourists, filled tax coffers and made their highways safer. After Colorado legalized marijuana, auto fatalities hit near-record lows.

6. Give Medicaid Recipients Money. Social Security gives people dollars they can spend as they wish. The Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor does the same thing. Texas’ Medicaid program does not. Instead of letting patients buy their own health care, it pays $32 billion a year to doctors and other providers. This restricts patients’ freedom of choice and puts the state, rather than the patient, in the driver’s seat.

7. Remove Politics From Redistricting. Texans should be able to vote in districts that have not been rigged to favor anyone. We can’t. Our voting districts are gerrymandered to favor Republicans, Democrats, incumbents and minorities. Abbott could enhance voters’ liberty by advocating for a nonpartisan, not bipartisan, citizen-led redistricting process such as the one California voters forced that state to adopt by referendum.

8. Let Secularists Speak. During the holiday season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation installed a display at the Capitol showing Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Statue of Liberty huddling around the Bill of Rights. Abbott thought it a “juvenile parody” of the traditional manger scene that “deliberately mock[ed]” his faith, so he ordered it removed. Muslim terrorists offered the same reason for killing the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and committing many other atrocities.

Freedom of speech — a liberty protected by both the U.S. and Texas Constitutions — entitles people to express anti-religious views by peaceful means. Abbott should have let the display stand.

9. Lead by Example. Liberty under law requires forbearance. If your speech is protected, then I may not suppress it. If your property rights are protected, then I may not seize your land. You suffer the same limitations. And this goes for every protected activity. If the law allows me to buy alcohol on Sundays, to marry a person of the same sex, to marry outside my religion or race, to be home-schooled, to attend the church of my choice, or to own a gun, then you can’t stop me from doing these things. Nor can I stop you.

Because liberty is frustrating, people do not cherish it naturally. They must learn to love it and to understand that liberty under law provides the bedrock for our free society. As a law professor, I have taught this lesson to thousands of students. Gov. Abbott can inspire millions to want more liberty for themselves and to grant more liberty to others, but to do so he will have to back his words with deeds.

Charles Silver holds the Roy W. and Eugenia C. McDonald Endowed Chair in Civil Procedure at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning NewsAustin American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Abilene Reporter News and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

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