Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 6, 2019

(Austin)  Texas has never had a stronger economy or a brighter future, Governor Greg Abbott said before a joint session of the Legislature in his biennial State of the State address on Tuesday. “When you combine our legislative accomplishments with our record-breaking prosperity, you have elevated Texas to rarified status,” he told the assembled lawmakers. “I am proud to tell you that the state of Texas has never been better.”   Abbott also named a number of items as emergencies, allowing lawmakers to begin work on them immediately before the constitutional 60-day prohibition on legislation expires. In all, he picked six topics: education reform, teacher pay, school safety, property tax reform, mental health services, and disaster response.

Half of the issues deal directly with public education, more if you count property tax reform, which is inextricably linked with school finance.   The Senate and House have filed identical bills to place a 2.5 percent cap on property tax growth before voters get a say. For education funding, both budgets include billions more for public schools.   Abbott believes that attracting and retaining the best teachers should be at the forefront of education reform. “We must target education funding to help our students achieve in school,” he said. “That starts with our teachers in the classroom.”  The Senate budget includes money to pay for a $5000 across-the-board pay raise for all teachers in Texas.

Abbott said that the response to Hurricane Harvey from elected officials, first responders and ordinary Texans showed incredible resolve and compassion.  “In the face of the greatest natural disaster our state has ever seen, our fellow Texans showed the world that no earthly force is more powerful than Texans’ spirit,” he said.  While he praised lawmakers for tapping the Rainy Day Fund to address immediate needs, Abbott asked the Legislature to look to the future and pass legislation to improve the response to not only the next storm to hit the Texas Gulf Coast but any disaster in the state.  Abbott said the state needs a disaster response plan that cuts through red tape.

For mental health, Abbott praised the legislative package filed by Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound.  Nelson, who chairs the Finance Committee and filed the base Senate budget, including $7.1 billion to create a mental health consortium across 21 state agencies to improve access and outcomes of mental health treatment.   It includes money to fund programs to identify mental health needs in children and improve access to treatment, as well as millions for community-based mental health facilities.

Though he didn’t give them the emergency tag, Abbott identified a number of other priorities for the session. He wants two more anti-gang centers in Waco and Tyler to complement the six that already exist, saying these centers have been successful in combating gang operations.  He also wants legislation to create six anti-human-trafficking centers and mandatory jail time for those convicted of the crime. Staying in the area of public safety, Abbott told lawmakers that their budgets should include enough money to eliminate the rape kit backlog, evidence collected in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault that can provide critical evidence for prosecutors.  The Senate budget includes nearly $50 million for this purpose, as well as $7.5 million to increase the capacity of rape crisis centers and provide survivor services.

For border security, Abbott said that once again he hopes the federal government will take responsibility, but until then the state should step in and fully fund border security as it has in the past.  Abbott also highlighted the need for better veterans’ services, asking for full funding for veterans’ programs at the Health and Human Services Commission as well programs to help veterans secure desperately needed VA health care benefits.

Abbott’s last priority, presented with a grin, drew cheers from the assembled legislators: he wants to find a way to restore the annual rivalry football game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin.  

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 6 at 10 a.m.