Gov. Greg Abbott calls for legislative action on school choice, property taxes and fentanyl in State of the State

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gives a speech in the Senate chamber of the Texas Capitol on the opening day of the 2023 Legislature. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday outlined his highest priorities for the legislative session, offering an agenda centered on the economy, schools and public safety, complete with some proposals to push Texas even further to the political right.

During his biennial State of the State speech, the Republican governor named seven emergency items that lawmakers can vote on immediately: cutting property taxes, ending COVID-19 restrictions “forever,” expanding school choice, making schools safer, ending “revolving-door” bail policies, securing the state’s border with Mexico and cracking down on fentanyl.

“This session, we will ensure Texas remains the leader of this nation as an unflinching force in this world,” Abbott said during the speech in San Marcos. “Together, we will build a Texas for the next generation — the Texas of tomorrow.”

The legislative session, which began in early January, is Abbott’s fifth as governor, and it comes months after he secured a decisive reelection victory for a third term. It also comes as he has emerged as more of a national political figure for his attention-grabbing efforts to secure the border — and as a possible 2024 presidential candidate.

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His speech included two references to President Joe Biden, a Democrat. Abbott said in one that Texans are rightfully “furious about the lawlessness caused by Joe Biden’s open border policies.”

The speech otherwise included a host of priorities that Abbott has been emphasizing for months, like using the state’s historic budget surplus to deliver the “largest property tax cut in the history of Texas.” He also reiterated he wants to root out “woke agendas” in the classroom and let parents use tax dollars to send their kids to schools outside the traditional public education system. He repeated that he wants to do so through Education Savings Accounts, in which state funds would be deposited to help parents pay for nontraditional education expenses, like home schooling or private school.

That may be the most ambitious proposal that Abbott backed, considering school vouchers have historically run into a wall of opposition from Democrats and rural Republicans in the Legislature.

Texas Democrats responded to Abbott’s speech in a 10-minute wide-ranging video that included comments from state and federal lawmakers, as well as Texans who said their lives were negatively impacted by Abbott’s policies. The video began with the families of victims of the Uvalde elementary school shooting pleading for state lawmakers to do more to prevent gun violence.

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“Since that day we’ve been begging Gov. Abbott to do what’s right and institute the most common-sense gun safety laws, like raising the age from 18 to 21 to be able to buy a weapon of war in Texas, but he didn’t listen,” said Felix Rubio, whose daughter Lexi was killed during the shooting. Abbott and other Republicans have resisted such proposals.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus responded to Abbott in a news conference Friday morning, accusing him of ignoring a host of issues that are important to everyday Texans. Rep. Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said all he heard from Abbott was “red meat for his MAGA base.”

Emergency items are proposals that allow lawmakers to bypass a ban on passing legislation before the 60th day of a session — which would be March 10. Thursday is the 37th day of the session.

Among his emergency items, Abbott called for legislation to permanently prevent COVID-19 mandates, like local requirements to wear masks, get vaccines and shut down businesses. While Texas long ago lifted its statewide COVID-19 restrictions, Abbott has kept in place a disaster declaration for the pandemic that has drawn some criticism from his right, and he has promised to end it once lawmakers act.

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Notably, Abbott also nodded to conservative pushback by giving lawmakers more of a say in how he responds to the next pandemic.

“We must change how government responds to future pandemics, including requiring the Legislature to convene if another pandemic is ever declared,” Abbott said.

In his speech, Abbott alluded to some of the biggest tests of his governorship over the past two years, including the 2021 power-grid collapse. As he did in his inaugural address last month, he said he wants to build a power grid that will endure for many years to come, but he did not designate it as an emergency item. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has deemed it one of his highest priorities for the session and has vowed to force a special session if he does not get his way in the form of adding natural gas plants.

The grid was near the top of a list of 30 legislative priorities that Patrick released Monday. Patrick’s priorities featured a number of farther-right ideas that Abbott did not mention Thursday, such as banning “children’s exposure to drag shows,” outlawing gender-transitioning care for minors and eliminating tenure for public college professors.

Abbott also talked about the most likely policy response to come out of the 2022 Uvalde school shooting: school safety. He did not get too detailed, calling for the “safest standards” and more mental health professionals in schools.

When it came to guns, Abbott focused on getting tougher on crimes involving guns, calling for a 10-year mandatory minimum jail sentence “for criminals who illegally possess guns.” That is consistent with a top priority of the lieutenant governor this session.

When it comes to public safety, Abbott has named tougher bail an emergency item before but has struggled to get one proposal across the finish line: a constitutional amendment to expand the circumstances in which a judge can deny bail. Abbott said Thursday that lawmakers “did a lot last session” to tighten bail policies but still must do more.

Finally, on the border, the main proposal that Abbott mentioned was imposing a “mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least 10 years for anyone caught smuggling illegal immigrants in Texas.” That is a tougher proposal than the five-year minimum that Abbott suggested as recently as December.

Abbott has taken extraordinary measures to secure the border over the past two years, and he has signaled that his next major front is stopping the flow of fentanyl, a powerful and often deadly opioid. To that end, he reiterated his desire to prosecute fentanyl deaths as murders and increase the supply of Narcan, the life-saving overdose drug.

Harm reduction advocates have been pushing Abbott to go further.

“If the governor wants to confront the overdose crisis as he says he does, access to Narcan only scratches the surface,” said Cate Graziani, executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, calling for “harm reduction centers, safe use supplies, and supportive housing.”

Beyond his emergency items, Abbott peppered his speech with other pet issues. For example, he said “local communities need new economic development tools this session,” alluding to an effort to reinvent a popular corporate tax-break program that lawmakers let expire last year.

The governor has typically given the State of the State before a joint legislative session at the Texas Capitol. But Abbott chose to deliver the speech outside Austin for the second time in a row, after giving it in Lockhart two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, Abbott delivered the speech at Noveon Magnetics in San Marcos, a setting that has drawn some controversy. Attendees were initially asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, with his office citing “national security and corporate espionage concerns,” but the request was rescinded, according to the USA Today Network.

Reporters were not allowed to cover the speech in person, but it was broadcast live on Nexstar TV stations across the state and streamed online.

Abbott opened his speech by recognizing Noveon as a “cutting-edge business in the critical field of rare earth elements.” He warned that China currently dominates the rare earth materials market and that Texas needs to embrace companies like Noveon to become more self-reliant.

“The future of Texas and the United States should not depend on China,” Abbott said.

Ahead of Abbott’s speech, the head of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, issued a memo that said “the only emergency the Governor has in mind is that no one wants him to run for president other than himself.” Abbott has not ruled out a 2024 White House run, and his aides say it is something he will consider after the session ends in late May.

The Democratic response video, which at times was jarring because of the rapidly changing scripted segments featuring both lawmakers and everyday Texans, also included a nod to Democratic support for oil and energy jobs, responding to Republican attacks against the party. Democrats also promised to vigorously oppose legislation that would take dollars away from public schools for use at private schools and to fight to expand Medicaid, which is a near impossibility in Republican-dominated Texas.

Martinez Fischer closed the response by saying the session would not be easy.

“We can promise you Democrats are going to fight because you, the people of Texas, deserve the opportunity to succeed no matter your race, life background or where in this great state you call home,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat.

James Barragán contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.