Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday laid out a largely expected agenda for the 85th legislative session while declaring four issues as emergencies for lawmakers to take up immediately: banning so-called sanctuary cities, overhauling the state's broken child welfare system, implementing ethics reform and approving a resolution to support a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution.
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In his State of the State address, Abbott said Texas remained "exceptional" and expressed optimism the state's economy would bounce back from an oil downturn. At the top of his priority list for lawmakers was the child welfare system, which a federal judge declared broken in 2015 and lawmakers have since been scrambling to overhaul.
"If you do nothing else this session, cast a vote to save the life of a child," Abbott told lawmakers in a joint session of the Texas House and Senate.
Beyond emergency items, Abbott announced Tuesday he was directing state agencies to impose a hiring freeze as a way of dealing with the state's tight budget. He said the move would free up about $200 million in the current budget.
Abbott had sharp words for lawmakers on the pre-K program that he championed last session. He said he was "absolutely perplexed" by the insufficient attention given to it by the budget proposals both chambers unveiled earlier this month.
"If you're going to do this," Abbott told lawmakers, "do it right or don't do it at all."
Abbott did not mention what could end up being the most controversial legislation of the session: the so-called "bathroom bill" being pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The legislation would restrict people to use public bathrooms that correspond with their "biological sex," and Abbott has taken a largely neutral stance on it so far.
Abbott earned perhaps the loudest applause when he said this session will be the one lawmakers ban sanctuary cities, or places where local officials do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Abbott has been locked in a standoff with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over the issue, though he did not mention her in the speech.
On ethics reform, Abbott applauded lawmakers for crafting legislation this session that avoids “the pitfalls that led to the demise” of it in 2015. Ethics reform was also among his emergency items that year.
And on the convention of states, Abbott made clear the election of President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, does not change the need to repair the Constitution.
“It must be fixed by the people themselves,” Abbott said.
Beyond his four emergency items, Abbott touched on a litany of issues that have already sparked spirited debate under the pink dome. Among them is education, an issue where the two chambers have prioritized different approaches.
“Both the House and the Senate are right to tackle the vexing issue of school finance now rather than putting it off,” Abbott said, while also nodding to a Patrick priority that has gotten a chilly reception in the House. “Let’s make Texas the 31st” state that offers school choice, Abbott added, pitching a program that would let parents use public money to send their children to private schools.
Abbott repeatedly acknowledged that lawmakers have less money to work with this session than they did in 2015. Yet he expressed little concern about the squeeze’s ultimate effect, especially with his new hiring freeze in effect.
"I am confident we are going to be able to balance the budget without looting the Rainy Day Fund,” Abbott said, referring to the state’s politically touchy savings account. Largely fed by taxes on oil and gas development, the fund is the fund is projected to have a balance of $11.9 billion at the end of the next two-year budget if lawmakers don't tap it this session. Some House leaders have suggested using the fund this session to address some key funding concerns.
Despite the tight fiscal picture, Abbott continued to push for tax relief, emphasizing his desire to see further cuts to the business franchise tax. Ideally, Abbott said, the tax will be trimmed “until we can fit it in a coffin.”
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