SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The issues Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would like the state legislature to tackle first this year include many Republican priorities like property tax cuts, school choice and additional border funding.
The governor specifically identified seven emergency legislative items during his State of the State address Thursday evening. These will dictate what kinds of proposals state lawmakers can vote on within the first 60 days of the 88th regular legislative session, which officially began on Jan. 10. In practical terms, that means if a bill is related to a governor’s emergency item, members can vote on it earlier in the session, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas.
Abbott’s speech Thursday happened at Noveon Magnetics, a manufacturing company based in San Marcos that specializes in rare earth materials. He said it’s helping to make the U.S. less reliant on China when it comes to developing coveted materials that go in things like cell phones and health-screening equipment. After acknowledging the setting for his address, the governor named one of his main re-election campaign promises as his first emergency item: property tax relief.
Cutting property taxes
Abbott said he would like the state to spend $15 billion from its record budget surplus on cutting property taxes.
“Property taxes are suffocating Texans. We must fix that this session,” Abbott said Thursday. “Hard-working Texans produced the largest budget surplus in Texas history. That money belongs to the taxpayers. We should return it to you with the largest property tax cut in Texas history.”
This priority for the governor mirrors the thinking of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate. He also included additional property tax relief on the list of his top 30 policy picks for this session. Both state leaders mentioned this plan, too, during their inaugural addresses in January.
Banning COVID-19 restrictions ‘forever’
The governor would also like to codify his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions into law during this session. This request Thursday came after a flurry of executive orders months into the pandemic that, for example, barred communities and school districts from mandating mask wearing. He specifically said the emergency legislative item this time should be “to end COVID restrictions forever.”
He called for laws to prohibit mask mandates, COVID-19 vaccine requirements or governments from closing businesses or schools because of the virus.
“These actions will help Texas close the door on COVID restrictions,” Abbott said. “We must also change how government responds to future pandemics, including requiring the legislature to convene if another pandemic is ever declared.”
When it came to health care policy, Abbott made only one mention of it when he said the state should better prepare more Texans to work in this high-demand industry — along with technology and energy.
During an interview Wednesday with KXAN, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said expanding quality, accessible health care options, particularly extending postpartum care to 12 months, would factor into the budget negotiations in the lower chamber. The lieutenant governor, though, did not include that in his 30 legislative priorities for the Senate, and Phelan addressed that.
“I think it is a priority for all Texans, and I think the Senate will realize that as we pass over very meaningful health care reforms that were popular throughout the country last session,” Phelan said. “The Senate has priorities that may not be priorities in the House and so we will figure all this out between now and the end of May.”
A large section of Abbott’s speech focused on school-related proposals that he deemed “education freedom.” The list of policies he mentioned Thursday largely fell in line with ideas pushed more broadly by other GOP leaders across the country, like calling for a “parental bill of rights.” Abbott mentioned that Texas parents “deserve access to curriculum, school libraries and what their children are taught.”
“Let’s be clear: schools are for education, not indoctrination,” Abbott said. “Schools should not push woke agendas — period.”
The governor did not go into detail about what he meant by that, but critics suspect that might mean limiting books and other materials in schools that teach about things like race relations, sexual orientation or gender identity. Lt. Gov. Patrick laid out more specifics in his own curriculum-related priorities for the Texas Senate this session. That included “protecting children from obscene books in libraries” and “banning critical race theory (CRT) in higher education.”
Abbott also called for expanding state-funded education savings accounts in Texas to promote school choice for families. According to the nonprofit EdChoice, which advocates for “education freedom,” the idea could mean allowing parents to withdraw children from a public or charter school and then receive public funds in a government-authorized savings accounts that would have specific uses, like possibly covering private school tuition and fees.
“Now it’s time to provide every parent with the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” he said. “To be clear, under this school choice program, all public schools will be fully funded for every student.”
These savings accounts are often called school vouchers. Speaker Phelan told KXAN that this concept is not dead on arrival this session, adding there will be a “very meaningful discussion.”
“Ultimately, it’s going to come down to whether or not it has the votes in the Texas House,” Phelan said. “In the past, it has not, and the appointment to that [public education] committee was not reflective of that. There were members who were interested in having those discussions, so I would say that it’s going to be a very interesting, long session — not just on school choice, but on anything that comes before the Texas House because we, at the end of the day, represent 30 million people, very diverse population. We’re excited to do that, and we’ve got a short period of time which to do so.”
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education changed its mind on “school choice” when it voted to reverse its previous stance of asking Texas lawmakers to reject school vouchers or anything that gives public funding to private schools.
Abbott said the state needs to create new safety standards for schools and provide them with more mental health workers. Without mentioning the tragedy specifically, the governor perhaps raised these proposals because of the Uvalde school shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers last year.
“We cannot let another school year go by without making our schools safer,” the governor said before naming school safety officially as an emergency item.
Speaker Phelan said it will be important to make sure school entry doors are “hardened” and work properly. He also expressed support Wednesday for funneling more mental health resources to Texas schools because of concerns about young people’s wellbeing.
“They’re experiencing more and more mental health challenges than we’ve ever seen,” Phelan said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that, and I think that has a lot to do with what’s in the back pocket, which is a phone connected to social media companies that are quite frankly predatory. Their algorithms are taking advantage of our youth, and Texas is going to lead on taking those companies to task this session. We’re going to crack down on those predatory algorithms once and for all in the state of Texas.”
Tougher bail requirements for suspected criminals emerged as another of Abbott’s emergency items Thursday. He deemed it as “ending this revolving-door bail,” claiming that criminals released with multiple felony bonds killed more than 100 people in Houston in the last two years.
“We must shut and lock that revolving door by passing laws that keep dangerous criminals behind bars and holding accountable the judges that let them out,” Abbott said in his speech.
Ahead of the legislative session starting, the governor called for reforms around ankle monitor violations, but he did not mention that during his State of the State address. That, however, does not mean it won’t come up later in session for a vote.
Abbott said he does want a 10-year prison sentence as a mandatory minimum for criminals caught illegally having guns, which he mentioned while bringing up gun crimes as an ongoing public safety issue for the state.
He would also like the state legislature this session to create a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 10 years for anyone caught smuggling people across the border into Texas.
Abbott also said he supports the proposal to pour an additional $4.6 billion of state funding into the Operation Lone Star border security efforts. The governor created this initiative in response to an increase of people crossing illegally from Mexico.
On the first day of the session last month, Speaker Phelan told the other state representatives in a speech that the state should measure the success of the billions going to Operation Lone Star. He told KXAN Wednesday that that will mean hearing from those taking part in the initiative, like the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard, to determine what’s working and what’s not.
“I think the Texas House is going to have a very innovative solution coming out very soon that we’re not ready to actually share right now,” Phelan said, “but we’re going to have a very impactful discussion on border security. It is a concern not just across state of Texas but across the entire country.”
Similarly, Patrick said a number of the Senate’s policy priorities are addressed in the budget, as opposed to a separate bill.
“One example is Texas border security funding. Since President Biden took office and implemented his open border policies, Texas has stepped into the breach. Texas should not have to use our tax dollars to do the Federal Government’s job, but it is vitally important that we maintain our law enforcement and National Guard presence,” Patrick said.
The last emergency item Abbott announced in his speech focused on doing more to address what he labeled the “fentanyl crisis” in the state. He specifically called on cracking down Thursday on drug cartels by prosecuting overdoses as murders and designating fentanyl-related deaths as poisonings.
Abbott also said he would like to increase the supply of Narcan, which is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.