Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address on Tuesday, stayed on message about education and taxes, continuing State leaders’ so-far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.
Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises, and property tax relief, the issues he and the State’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections.
Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response, and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.
“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes – only 40 percent of third graders reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said; and less than 40 percent of students who took the ACT or SAT being prepared for college – “we must target education funding.”
“That starts with teachers in the classroom. … This session, we must pay our teachers more,” Abbott said, winning his first standing ovation of the speech.
“Rarely has Texas witnessed such a bipartisan and bicameral support for an issue this substantial this early in a session. … To keep this momentum going, I am declaring school finance reform and increasing teacher pay as emergency items,” the governor said to another standing ovation.
Abbott expressed support for a merit-based teacher pay system, praising Dallas ISD’s program as exemplary and asserting that “we must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most.”
Abbott pledged, as he did in his inaugural address last month, that this is the year lawmakers will finally unknot the entangled policy issues of school finance and property tax reform. Last week, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, along with leaders on the issue from both chambers, laid out identical property tax reform bills that they said would help lift the burden of skyrocketing property taxes.
Abbott praised House and Senate leaders for “working together in unprecedented fashion.”
“We can no longer sit idly by while property owners are reduced to tenants of their own property with taxing authorities playing the role of landlord,” the governor said.
In the wake of tragedy last May at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Abbott said “we must do all we can to make our schools safer.” He praised a proposal from Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) – filed as a priority bill Tuesday morning – that would create a broad-based mental health consortium. He made no mention of gun control measures.
Unlike in his first two state of the state addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. After tagging that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, Abbott didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion.
Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and the state has been sued three times by civil rights groups.
Abbott was vocal about the list when it was first released, and at a press conference last week he stood behind the list as a “work [in progress,]” even as local officials reported that, in some cases, all the names on it were erroneously included. But he made no mention of the list, or of election security, in the high-profile address Tuesday.
And the governor of the nation’s largest border state made little mention of immigration reform beyond a promise to continue to “step up and fully fund our border security program” since “the federal government still has not fulfilled its responsibility.” In their initial budget proposals, both the Texas House and Texas Senate proposed continuing to spend about $800 million on border security over the next biennium.