By John Sharbaugh, CAE
Managing Director of Government Affairs
The following is an excerpt from the Last Week in the Legislature newsletter.
February 8, 2019 - This week in Austin, one of the big news stories was Governor Greg Abbott’s “State of the State” address on Tuesday. If you missed it and would like to read what the governor said, read his prepared remarks.
After some introductory comments in which Abbott heaped praise on the Texas economy and how the state attracts around 1,000 new residents every day, he then moved on to outline his vision for the current legislative session and to identify his list of “emergency items” for legislators.
In the Texas Legislature, lawmakers cannot take up proposed legislation for votes on the House or Senate floor during the first 60 days of the session unless the matter relates to one of the governor's emergency items. Thus, what the governor puts on his list typically elevates the issue in the legislature and those items normally receive heightened attention.
Abbott had six items on his emergency list this year and half of them related to schools and education. His agenda consisted of:
- School finance reform
- Increasing teacher pay
- School safety
- Mental health programs
- Property tax reform
- Disaster response
In his speech, Abbott stated, “Our mission begins with our students.” While he noted that more students in Texas are now graduating from high school than ever before, they are not ready for college or a career. He cited statistics that only about 40 percent of 3rd graders are reading at that grade level and less than 40 percent of students who took the SAT or ACT were prepared for college. Abbott said to improve those results, Texas must target education funding to help students achieve and the key to improvement starts with teachers in the classroom. He stated that “We must pay our teachers more … and we must create a pathway for the best teachers to earn a six-figure salary.”
Abbott then moved on to talk about safety in the classroom. He said that no student should be afraid to go to school and no parent should be fearful when dropping their child off at school. While the speech was light on the specifics of how to address this concern, he did make school safety an emergency item, so it will be up to the legislature to develop the ways to address this issue.
Abbott did offer one suggestion on school safety and it related to another emergency item on his list – mental health programs. Abbott said one of the ways to improve school safety was to improve access to mental health services for students. But Abbott also noted that mental health issues are not confined to schools and touch our entire society. He encouraged the legislature to address these needs and implement programs that would be responsive.
One item on the governor’s emergency list that was no surprise was his call for property tax reform. After all, Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen held a joint press conference a few weeks ago where they declared that property tax reform was a priority for action in this legislative session and they stated their intent to work cooperatively to achieve that goal. Identical bills (SB 2 and HB 2) had already been introduced in the House and Senate on that issue before the governor spoke this week and in his remarks, he acknowledged and applauded the Senate and House leaders for advancing those bills.
Finally, Abbott closed out his list of emergency items talking about the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and the need to develop better disaster relief solutions for the state. By declaring disaster relief an emergency item, he is giving the legislature more time to make Texas “more resilient to future disasters.” Abbott noted that the state has already committed more than a billion dollars to help communities and residents harmed by Hurricane Harvey and the federal government has appropriated more than $30 billion in aid. But, according to Abbott, more needs to be done and he commended the House and Senate for both proposing the use of the “Rainy Day Fund” to help rebuild Texas.
While disaster relief concluded his list of emergency items, Abbott went on to identify several other issues for the legislature to consider this session. He mentioned efforts to crack down on gangs in the state and noted the success of the six Texas Anti-Gang Centers that currently exist. He called for two new anti-gang centers in Waco and Tyler to rid those regions of dangerous gangs.
He knocked the federal government for not fulfilling its responsibility in securing the southern border and called on the legislature to “step up and fully fund our border security program.” He also called on the legislature to “increase funding to create six regional human trafficking squads and to work together to crack down on human trafficking and to protect victims of this heinous crime.” Abbott also said more needs to be done to ensure justice for survivors of rape and sexual assault and cited the thousands of rape kits in the state that have gone untested for years. He said this session, the legislature needed to “right this wrong” and called on them to provide more funding to eliminate the backlog.
Finally, Abbott noted that Texas is home to more than 1.6 million veterans and called on the legislature to do more to provide services to that community. He asked for full funding for veterans at the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) and for funding of the Texas Veterans Commission to help vets receive the VA health care benefits they have earned.
Many noted that the governor’s emergency list this year was absent of any controversial or divisive issues as was the case in the past. It was clear from his remarks that the governor was putting an emphasis on cooperation and collaboration in the legislature to get things done for the people of the state. The results of the last election undoubtedly helped drive this change in tone.
And Abbott even jokingly gave an example of that new spirit of cooperation. He acknowledged his willingness to work with Rep. Lyle Larson (R- San Antonio), whom Abbott had clashed with in the past, to reinstate the rivalry football game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Larson has introduced a bill (HB 412) to require such a game.
As the old saying goes – “talk is cheap.” While the governor worked to set the tone in his “State of the State” message this week, the bully pulpit can only take you so far. It will be up to the legislature to make any of his proposals a reality. Hopefully, they will take the governor’s words to heart and work cooperatively to achieve a number of items that would be in the best interest of the state. Only time will tell what the results will be and the clock is running on the current session.