Gov. Greg Abbott laid out his legislative priorities in his biennial “State of the State” address Monday evening.
Speaking to Texans and the legislature virtually, Abbott began his speech by praising Texas’ entrepreneurial spirit and mourning those who were lost to the virus. Citing job growth, he said the state was already making a comeback.
“Texans are returning to work,” Abbott said. “Students are returning to school. Families are reestablishing routines. With each passing day of more vaccinations and increased immunity, normalcy is returning to Texas.”
In reality, while newly confirmed cases in Texas have fallen since their peak in mid-January, they remain significantly above the rate of cases seen before the holidays. Texas’ testing positivity rate, or infection rate, is still above the state’s own “red flag” threshold of 10 percent.
The governor then boasted that more than 2 million vaccines have been administered so far, and promised to accelerate the vaccine process. The figure deserves a big asterisk considering CDC data show 3.6 million vaccines have been delivered to Texas and a recent Houston Chronicle analysis ranks Texas 49th in the U.S. for per capita vaccinations.
Abbott dedicated much of the remaining speech to his priorities for the current session, labeling some of them as “emergency items,” a proclamation used by Texas governors to signal their most important legislative goals.
Abbott’s emergency item wishlist included: expanding broadband access, preventing cities from defunding police, reforming the bail system (not to empty jails where poor Texans are languishing but to “keep dangerous criminals off our streets”) and an ambiguously ominous promise for election integrity. The last item, to protect individuals, businesses, and healthcare providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, was the only emergency item directly relating to the pandemic.
It’s no surprise a majority of the items listed were hot-button political issues that will drive Republican voters to the polls. Monday’s State of the State address was Abbott’s last before being up for re-election in 2022.
The contrast between Abbott’s 2019 State of the State address — where he listed school safety, teacher pay, property tax reform, and disaster response as emergency items — is crystal clear.
There were other red-meat staples throughout Abbott’s address that he spoke to without listing as emergency items. He promised to increase border security funding while falsely claiming that the Biden administration had “open borders” policies.
He said more laws needed to be signed to prevent abortion, which quickly garnered a response from Planned Parenthood’s state campaign arm:
“More than 2 million Texans have been infected with COVID-19, yet Gov. Abbott is focused on attacking people’s constitutionally-protected right to access abortion,” said Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Director Dyana Limon-Mercado reacting to the speech.
“This is a distraction — in the style of Trump politics — that ignores the real health care needs of Texans and prioritizes scoring political points with his base, much like when he temporarily banned abortion at the start of the pandemic,” Limon-Mercado said, adding that the state was already moving to prevent Planned Parenthood from providing Texans covered through Medicaid.
Elsewhere, the governor even found time to reference Beto O’Rourke while promising to erect a “complete barrier” against any government office treading on gun rights in Texas.
“Politicians from the federal level to the local level have shouted: ‘Heck yes, the government is coming to get your guns,’” Abbott said in his speech, misconstruing what O’Rourke said during a presidential debate last year about his support for a mandatory gun-buyback program of assault-style rifles.
Texas Democrats issued a 10-minute video response immediately after featuring elected officials from around the state. The response mostly focused on Abbott’s poor handling of the pandemic and legislative priorities for the session.
“Let’s be clear, no matter what Governor Abbott says we have suffered under his watch because of his actions,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “We’re all hurting. Texans are demanding an end to this pandemic and a fair shot to get ahead.”
Obama-era Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said the pandemic exposed how many families are struggling in the state and blasted the governor’s pandemic response.
“35,000 Texas families have lost loved ones to this virus,” Castro said. “The unemployment rate has more than doubled in the last year alone. And, our state leadership under Governor Abbott has failed to respond. Leaving Texas with one of the worst outbreaks and one of the worst responses in the entire nation. We have to hold our elected leaders accountable, we have to believe in science and listen to experts.”
Senate Democratic Caucus Carol Alvarado and Houston State Representative Senfronia Thompson honed in on the importance of expanding Medicaid in order to finally receive the federal dollars guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.
“The fallout from this pandemic is only going to exacerbate the cost of healthcare even more,” Thompson said. “But I am hopeful we will use our good senses to work together to provide 12 months postpartum care for women and draw down federal Medicaid dollars. For a long time we have been leaving billions of Texas dollars on the table that belong to us and it is time to bring that money home.”
“Texans are tough and resilient but in order to get through these difficult times we must get our priorities straight,” said Alvarado. “That’s why Texas Democrats have been pushing for years to expand Medicaid because we’re not okay with the fact that we are the nation’s most uninsured state.”
Regular session in the legislature began more than two weeks ago and will end May 31, 2021. Lawmakers were meant to tackle redistricting this session, but are currently awaiting on Census data required for drawing maps that is not expected to arrive until after the regular session. The legislature is also facing down an almost $1 billion budget shortfall as a result of weak tax revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, a crunch that may require lawmakers to tap into the state’s dusty rainy day fund or seek help via federal relief funding that is still being debated in Congress.
Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org