Above: Governor Greg Abbott delivers the State of the State address at the Texas Capitol on February 5, 2019.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott spent the first 15 minutes of his State of the State address Tuesday painting a picture of Texas as the Promised Land. A thousand refugees (no, not those kind of refugees) are streaming in to the state each day as they flee their liberal, high-tax, special-interest ridden, over-regulated home states. “They needed an escape. They longed for freedom. They wanted hope. They found it in Texas,” the governor professed.
It was a bit much, but let’s credit Abbott for showing some gubernatorial restraint by not again declaring himself more powerful than Putin.
Once the two-term governor finally got around to the substance of his speech — the introduction of his emergency items — the only major surprise was how he avoided any sort of loonie right-wing ideas in his policy agenda.
Just days ago, he was crying “voter fraud!” and calling for prosecution after his former aide and now Secretary of State David Whitley alleged that tens of thousands of non-citizen voters were infiltrating state elections (Spoiler: they weren’t). But he made no mention of voter fraud, abortion, illegal immigration or bathrooms in the Texas House chambers on Tuesday.
Rather than focus on the culture wars of the past, Abbott is insisting, as are House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, that this session is going to be different — damn the naysayers, the cynics, the critics.
He introduced his first emergency item — school funding and teacher pay raises — with a lofty declaration: “Rarely has Texas witnessed such bipartisan, bicameral support for an issue” so early and with such widespread backing. While he didn’t provide any specifics — like, say, a dollar amount — for his school funding priority, he said that Texas lawmakers should create a pathway for the state’s “best teachers to earn a six-figure salary” and alluded to the creation of a statewide merit pay system. (The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers quickly responded to the proposal by calling it a “scheme” attached to STAAR results and accusing Abbott of a “fixation on money for test scores.”)
Abbott also included school safety, increasing mental health resources and disaster recovery aid on his list of emergency items, which can be passed before the typical 60-day moratorium on non-emergency bills. A year and half since Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, Abbott finally voiced support for using the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide additional disaster relief aid — something that many hoped he would do through a special session 16 months earlier.
But the GOP’s principal focus this session is to deliver “relief” from skyrocketing property taxes to Texas’ ailing homeowners. To do that, Abbott, Bonnen and Patrick have united behind a plan to cap annual property tax increases at 2.5 percent unless approved at the ballot box. The governor took his plan a step further in his speech. “It’s about restoring power to the people of Texas,” Abbott said. “That’s why I proposed giving taxpayers the ability to fire their property tax appraiser and elect a better one.” (While the county tax assessor, who levies property taxes, is an elected position, the property tax appraiser is appointed.)
And amid what President Trump has called a “national emergency” along the U.S.-Mexico border, Abbott said the federal government has still not done its duty to provide adequate border security in Texas. While it didn’t make his official list of emergency items, he reluctantly stated that the state will not let up on The Border Surge and called on the Legislature to spend another $800 million to station DPS troopers on the side of borderland highways.
“What I’ve outlined today is a transformative agenda for Texas,” he said, but warned that “naysayers” and “those who want to cling to status quo” will make it difficult to achieve.
Critics of the GOP’s property tax cap have blasted it as a cynical, unserious attempt at reform — and one that likely won’t even provide much in the way of relief, especially if the Legislature doesn’t inject millions of new dollars in public school funding, which is mostly paid for through local property taxes. As the Dallas Morning News reported, more than half of the state’s 254 counties and the vast majority of its cities will be exempt from the GOP’s current 2.5 percent property tax cap proposal. This is a clear ploy to ensure rural Republican support in the House and Senate, Democrats say.
“That’s the only way they know they can get this to the floor. That is just not good governing,” Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, said at a press conference.
Despite all the promise of bipartisan kumbaya, the battle lines are already being drawn. On one side are Democrats (including a robust new coalition of suburban freshmen), big city and county governments and school districts. The GOP will spend an inordinate amount of time casting local government and school leaders as spend-happy liberal bureaucrats out of touch with the mounting bills of the Texas homeowner while ignoring the reality that the state is largely responsible for the current property tax crisis.
On the other side is the GOP, which is appeasing rural Texas with its property tax cap exemptions.
They’re playing to the rural resentment of liberal cities by hamstringing the big local governments and school districts (the ones that often subsidize poor rural districts through Robin Hood). Then they’ll try to form wedges on the other side by demonizing the school finance system’s “recapture” system, playing to the resentment of many urban and suburban parents. Meanwhile, perhaps they’ll get around to returning overall state education funding to the meager level of several years ago, when per-student funding still lagged behind much of the country.