Today, Governor Greg Abbott gave his second State of the State address in the Texas House. Apparently, Abbott had been squirreled away somewhere working in earnest on his speech for months. His team was mum about the contents.
For a governor who seems to have no real raison d’être other than Being Governor and trying to keep from being primaried from his right by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, this was a speech that was perhaps designed to help define a leader who just seems a bit out of focus.
Abbott’s speaking style is odd. It has a kind of Toastmasters quality, like a speech that’s been practiced a few too many times. He has none of the folksy charm of previous Texas governors. Still, he warmed to the task today, buoyed along by a couple rounds of heavy applause (abolishing sanctuary cities brought some in the gallery to their feet). He also liberally employed first-name shoutouts to individual lawmakers. Listen up, Dennis! Hey there, Paul. You know what I’m talking about, J.M.
The tone was mostly the sunny optimism of a late-20th-century American politician. Texas is “exceptional”; we have the second-most Fortune 500 companies; our economy is bigger than Canada’s. But on the whole, Abbott laid out a vision of government that is basically a libertarian state with lots of cops. His speech was filled with paeans to law enforcement (he proposes making attacks on cops a “hate crime”) while calling on citizens to solve complex, expensive social problems with volunteerism. Though he admonished the Legislature to “not underfund” the “rickety” child welfare system, he also urged citizens to create a “Network of Nurture” by taking in foster kids. (Few legislators have so far heeded this call, I regret to report.)
One of the governor’s four emergency items is getting the Legislature to support a Convention of the States, a far-fetched and potentially disastrous method of amending the U.S. Constitution. His Tentherism seems to be largely untempered by President Trump.
“We should demand that the federal government do two things,” Abbott said. “One: Fulfill important — but limited — responsibilities as written in the Constitution. And two: On everything else, leave us alone, and let Texans govern Texas.”
But his most dangerous confection of proposals comes in the area of budget and fiscal policy. On one hand, he wants to shrink the franchise tax, which was created in 2006 to help pay for public schools, “until we can fit it in a coffin.” He wants to cap property taxes and require voters to approve any increases proposed by “bloated local governments” — a really radical idea that would have the effect of starving cities of their main source of revenue. He wants to avoid “looting” (whatever that means) the estimated $12 billion in the state rainy day fund. He wants to pass a budget for the next biennium that is even stingier than the House version. He wants a hiring freeze on almost all state employees through August. He proposes a constitutional amendment to limit state spending to current levels, only adjusted for inflation and population growth. This is a recipe for austerity.
Oh, but he also has a shopping list. He wants to spend another $800 million on Texas’ border army, basically a bunch of cops and National Guardsmen writing tickets to folks in the Valley. He wants to fully fund the Texas Enterprise Fund, a corporate welfare fund that pours money into companies that arguably would’ve come to Texas anyway. He wants to completely redo the school finance system and set up a “school choice” program (read: vouchers.) He scolded the Legislature for not putting more money into pre-K, a pet project of his that suffers from both leaving conservative legislators cold and falling far short of what education advocates say is necessary.
In sum: cut taxes, shrink government, spend more money. This is an untenable combination, especially over the long haul. Texas government is already under tremendous strain. Years and years of short-sighted tax cuts and expensive political adventures (the fruitless border war) has left too many agencies limping from crisis to crisis. Other than a few Band-Aids, Abbott’s plan would only lead to more.