In what may be a stark contrast to the expectation later Tuesday of a potentially contentious state of the union address by President Trump, Texas governor Greg Abbott offered a kinder and gentler state of the state speech that hit on themes that Texas Democrats could agree with him on: education, property tax relief, and mental health care among them. The tone of Abbott’s speech was far softer than even his own speech just two years ago when he raised the hot button issue of sanctuary cities in Texas and called for a hiring freeze of state workers because of a budget shortfall. This time, Abbott declared six emergency items, which means lawmakers can move quickly to act on the issues rather than go through the 60-day waiting period required of other legislation.
Abbott declared emergency items to deal with:
- School finance
- Teacher pay raises
- School safety
- Mental health
- Property tax reform
- Disaster response
And while he received generous ovations from each party as he declared each item an emergency, the House chamber exploded with applause when, noting an unprecedented sense of bipartisan spirit among Texas lawmakers, Abbott said, “I’m willing to step up and work with [Representative] Lyle Larson to reinstate the rivalry game between the Aggies and the Longhorns.” Larson filed legislation to do just that.
Part of the reason for Abbott’s more compassionate tone may have to do with flush state coffers, with Texas’ ranking as the nation’s top job-creating state, and with an influx of more than 1,000 new Texans a day coming from other states. “We may not be perfect, but to all the newcomers I talk to, they think Texas is a governmental Holy Grail,” Abbott said. “The newcomers have joined with long-time Texans, and together we have forged what has become the most powerful state in America.”
Even Democrats noted the governor’s softer tone. “It’s amazing what an election can do,” joked Representative Chris Turner, D-Fort Worth, head of the House Democratic Caucus, which was bolstered by an additional twelve members after last November’s vote.
While Trump is expected to paint a bleak picture of border security, Abbott declared Texas a safe place. “Not only is Texas smarter than ever, we’re also safer,” he said. Still, Abbott called for the expansion of regional anti-gang centers to include Waco and Tyler. He also urged the joint legislative session implement the school safety measures that he came up with in the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting. None of those measures involved any type of gun control.
And while Trump is expected to focus on border security and funding for his border wall, Abbott mentioned the border only once in his 51-minute speech. “I know we’ve long waited for the day when Texas would not have to provide funding to secure our border,” he said. “And yet the federal government still has not fulfilled its responsibility. As a result, I am once again asking that Texas step up and fully fund our border security program.” Current funding levels are at about $800 million for the past two bienniums, for a total of $1.6 billion already spent on an issue that Abbott has long said is a federal responsibility.
Abbott declared disaster response an emergency after noting how Texas reacted to Hurricane Harvey. “As you saw, in the face of the greatest natural disaster our state has ever seen, our fellow Texans show the world that no earthly force is more powerful than Texan spirit,” he said.
Democrats praised the governor after his speech, but warned that Abbott’s agenda called for significant reforms on complex issues such as property tax and school finance. They noted that Abbott failed to address some critical items regarding education, including pre-kindergarten and the cost of teachers’ health care. They also questioned a property tax proposal that would mandate voter approval for any tax rate increase that is greater than 2.5 percent—a figure they suggested was unrealistic when lawmakers could not come to agreement just two years ago about getting voter approval for much higher rate increases of 4 percent and 6 percent. Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, also warned of a provision that would exempt smaller taxing districts from a rollback election, warning that such a proposal pits lawmakers representing urban areas against those with rural constituencies.
And while Democrats praised Abbott’s call for innovative mental health policies, they note that such a call falls far short of a much more significant problem: that Texas continues to have the largest percentage of uninsured residents of any state in the country.