Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday unveiled a legislative agenda centered on the state’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and a series of more politically charged issues such as police funding and “election integrity.”
In his biennial State of the State speech, Abbott declared Texas is “brimming with promise” as it emerges from the pandemic and seeks to return to economic dominance. He pledged “hard-working Texans are at the forefront of our agenda this legislative session as we build a healthier, safer, freer and more prosperous state.”
Abbott designated five emergency items, or items that the Legislature can vote on within the first 60 day of the session, which began Jan. 12. Those items were expanding broadband internet access, punishing local governments that “defund the police” as he defines it, changing the bail system, ensuring what he described as “election integrity” and providing civil liability protections for businesses that were open during the pandemic.
Abbott also asked lawmakers to pass laws that would strengthen civics education in Texas classrooms, further restrict abortion and make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.” On issues stemming from the pandemic, Abbott called for legislation to permanently expand telemedicine and to prevent “any government entity from shutting down religious activities in Texas.” And Abbott briefly touched on the debate among some in his own party over how aggressively he has wielded his executive powers to respond to the coronavirus.
“I will continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open,” Abbott said.
Abbott gave the address from Visionary Fiber Technologies in Lockhart, eschewing the traditional setting of a joint legislative session inside the House chamber as lawmakers continue to worry about gathering en masse during the pandemic.
Democrats pushed back on Abbott’s speech by accusing him of giving an overly rosy view of the state’s coronavirus response. Calling Abbott the “worst Governor in modern Texas history,” the state Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement that Abbott “buries his head in the sand and pretends like nothing is happening.”
When it came to legislative priorities, Abbott was noticeably light on details in some cases. On election security, Abbott did not say what he was looking for beyond instilling “trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections.” Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, though the state’s Republicans are newly focused on the issue after fighting efforts by Democrats to make it easier to vote ahead of the November election due to the pandemic.
I’ll get to the voting stuff in a minute. It is true, as Ross Ramsey noted, that the declaration of something as an “emergency item” just means that a bill relating to it can be passed earlier in the legislative session than non-emergency items. One can certainly argue that the key challenges now are vaccinations, containing the spread of the virus, keeping hospitals running, and other things like that, which don’t require a new law being passed. One can also argue that at the State of the State Address, it would be nice for the Governor to actually focus a bit on this year-long pandemic and the effect it has had, beyond some rah-rah cheerleading, and what he as Governor is doing and will do and will tell the Legislature to do about it. I’m pretty sure the average voter doesn’t understand the nuances of “emergency items”, but rather would think of them in terms of what is of the greatest importance. Don’t you think COVID response and COVID vaccinations belong in that category? I’m just saying.
As for “election security”, putting aside all the bragging that Republicans in Texas have done about how well they did in this past election that they now claim was unacceptably insecure, it’s not clear what they would do about it. What I know is that I would campaign on the opposite message, that what we really need to do is make it as easy and convenient for everyone to vote as possible, which starts with making it easier to register and to cast a ballot by mail. I’m happy to have that argument all the way through next November and beyond. The Current and the Texas Signal have more.