January 29, 2017
Gov. Greg Abbott will finally get his turn Tuesday to crystallize his agenda for the 85th legislative session, adding some clarity to the already spirited jockeying over what issues deserve the most attention from the state’s leaders.
Abbott’s State of the State address, set for 11 a.m. in the House chamber, comes as the state’s two other top leaders — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus — have already made clear what they are focusing on this session amid a tight fiscal picture and a newly installed GOP president in Washington. That is especially true of Patrick, who has marked 25 bills as priorities for the session — and who dictated much of the discussion throughout Texas leading up to it.
Abbott has been tight-lipped about the speech, including the quantity and content of the emergency items he will implore lawmakers to start working on immediately. He has been working on the address for months and hunkered down to finalize it after returning to Austin from President Donald Trump’s inauguration last weekend.
Abbott is not expected to take a new position on what could end up being the most controversial legislation of the session: the so-called “bathroom bill” that Patrick has championed. Abbott has taken a largely neutral stance on the legislation, saying it involves legitimate concerns held by many Texans but declining to say whether he is for or against the bill. That is despite a pointed comment from Straus earlier this month that Abbott’s stance on the bill could make a “big difference.”
Abbott’s legislative priorities are far from entirely unknown. He wants lawmakers to pass resolutions calling for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution, part of a high-profile crusade he began a year ago. He wants legislators to revisit ethics reform, which collapsed last session despite Abbott naming it an emergency item. And he wants the Legislature to fix the state’s troubled child protective services system, an area where he as unambiguous allies in Patrick and Straus.
In recent days, another Abbott priority has gotten heightened attention: outlawing so-called “sanctuary cities” — places where local officials do not fully enforce federal immigration laws. The governor’s ongoing showdown with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over her department’s new “sanctuary” policy has provided a dramatic pretext to Tuesday’s speech, which was already expected to prominently feature the issue.
A Senate hearing is set for Monday on a sanctuary cities bill, and Patrick has said his members are chomping at the bit to move it toward Abbott’s desk.
“I don’t know what the emergency items are, but we’re going to be ready,” Patrick told a San Antonio radio station Thursday. “If it’s an emergency item on Tuesday in the governor’s State of the State, we’ll have that bill passed over to the House within a week after that.”
Another issue Abbott is expected to treat with urgency is the state’s child welfare system, which a federal judge said in a 2015 ruling violated kids’ civil rights. Abbott and other state leaders got a decisive start in October, when they ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services to increase efforts to protect endangered foster children and reduce the backlog of kids waiting for homes.
Heading into Tuesday, there is still more pressure for Abbott to act on the issue. At least two fellow Republicans, state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown and state Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano, have asked the governor to make CPS reform an emergency item.
“The state of CPS is a state of emergency, and this needs to be the session that things truly change,” said Lee Nichols, a spokesman for the advocacy group TexProtects. Pointing to Abbott’s goal of having zero child fatalities in Texas due to abuse or neglect, Nichols added, “We know he’s onboard with us and we’re extremely encouraged by things he’s said.”
One more issue expected to top Abbott’s list Tuesday is education, though it remains to be seen how much weight he will give to the two most talked-about proposals on the topic: overhauling the state’s public school finance system and implementing a school choice program that would give public money to parents to send their kids to private schools. Abbott has said he believes lawmakers can accomplish both this session, and he erased any lingering doubt about his commitment to the latter — a longtime Patrick priority — when he appeared last week at a school choice rally with the lieutenant governor.
Lawmakers will also likely be listening closely to see what Abbott has to say about the budget, which is being crafted in the wake of a dour revenue estimate earlier this month by Comptroller Glenn Hegar. The initial budget proposals by the House and Senate are nearly $8 billion apart.
Abbott has been less alarmist about the situation than some other Republicans, saying it a natural part of the state having “some tight budgets and some flush budgets” every decade or so. “The answer is yes,” he flatly replied last month when asked if the state will have enough money.
When it comes to tax relief, Abbott has said he wants lawmakers to keep trimming away at the business franchise tax this session. But Republicans in general have been less bullish about tax cuts since Hegar’s announcement, and it is unclear whether Abbott will continue to give voice to them Tuesday.
Part of the budget discussion is also whether — and if so, how — lawmakers should tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund to plug the budget hole. “Stay tuned,” Abbott said earlier this month when asked whether he has any advice for legislators this session on the fund, which conservatives are generally wary of using.
“I think that we need to see how the winds are on that, for sure,” said state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who sits on the Legislative Budget Board. “I think that we need to have some consideration on how we might use that revenue to smooth out where we are in the economy right now.”
Emergency item or not, Abbott’s speech is sure to include some issues that he has expressed a deep personal interest in since taking office. Among them is ethics reform, which fell apart in 2015 despite Abbott asking lawmakers to “dedicate the session to ethics reform.” Abbott quickly pledged not to give up on it after that session, and the redo is already underway in the Senate, where state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is pushing a package that focuses on the measures that got the broadest support two years ago.
Then there is Abbott’s push for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution, which he launched a year ago as a way of ramping up his fight against what he saw as an overreaching federal government under then-President Barack Obama. Since Trump’s upset victory, Abbott has sought to reassure convention-of-states supporters that it is still needed, arguing that it will take more than one president to fix the problems facing the country.
Convention-of-states activists are making an effort to organize ahead of the speech, when they are being asked to flood the Capitol in a show of support for Abbott. They were set to hold a conference call Sunday night to finalize their plans.
“Really what we would like to hear is simply reinforce that this is a priority and the state of Texas is going to move it as quickly as possible though the Legislature this session,” said Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Convention of States Project. “Of course,” he added when asked if he hopes the issue rises to the level of an emergency item for Abbott.
There are other issues that could come up Tuesday, if not as emergency items. After the shooting last year in Dallas that killed five cops, Abbott proposed a so-called “Police Protection Act” that would make the target killing of officers a hate crime in Texas. He has also used the interim to push for more anti-abortion measures in the form of his LIFE Initiative, which he unveiled after the release of undercover videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the fetal tissue procurement process.
For Abbott, Tuesday’s speech will represent likely his last major policy push before his 2018 re-election campaign, which is expected to start not too long after the session. He has accrued a $34.4 million war chest that could be used to ward off any potential challenger — Democrat or Republican — neither of which has surfaced halfway through his first term.
“I think he stands very well with the grassroots,” said Cathie Adams, the former longtime president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. “I think most people find him very likable.”
But as she looks forward to Tuesday, Adams echoed a view held by many conservative activists, who have outsized influence in ruby-red Texas. “Being a true conservative,” she said, “I’m always going to be looking for more.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/01/29/abbott-fill-blanks-state-state/.