Texas Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and laid out his legislative priorities, including an emergency item that could impact the city of Austin's ability to cut police funding, during his annual State of the State address on Monday.
"Normalcy is returning to Texas, but it has not been easy," Abbott said.
The governor pointed to the state's declining unemployment rate; the recent relocations of businesses such as Oracle and Tesla, both which have settled in Austin; and the rising number of vaccinated Texans as proof of the state's successful response. Two months into the statewide vaccine rollout, supply remains limited and half of the trauma service areas in the state are reporting at least 15% of their hospitalized patients have COVID, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In addition to the ongoing pandemic response, Abbott laid out his priorities for the Texas Legislature, whose members convened last month for its biennial session. He also designated five emergency items, on which the Legislature can vote within the first 60 days of the session. They were:
- Ensuring statewide broadband access
- Preventing cities from defunding police
- Reforming the bail system
- Ensuring "election integrity"
- Providing pandemic-related civil liability protections to individuals, businesses and healthcare providers
Abbott has been a vocal opponent of the Austin City Council's decision to cut funding for the Austin Police Department in the wake of mass protests against police violence and racial injustice.
"We will not let Texas cities follow the lead of cities like Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis by defunding the police," he said. "That's crazy."
Although the governor did not elaborate on what responsive legislation might look like, a few bills have already been proposed that might provide insight, including one that would prohibit municipalities from passing annual budgets that reduce funding for public safety agencies.
In a Facebook live recorded after the State of the State, Austin Mayor Steve Adler disputed the notion that Austin City Council had defunded its police department, saying that its members had instead redirected dollars to better ensure public safety, such as by investing in permanent supportive housing for homeless residents. "State interference in local governments is not the answer," he said. "The number one threat to public safety is this virus."
Abbott also discussed other goals for the current session, including:
- Bolstering civic education in Texas public schools
- Further restriction abortion
- Investing in mental health services
- Expanding access to telemedicine
- Prohibiting local governments from closing churches, as some tried to do during the pandemic
- Ensuring Texas is a "second amendment sanctuary state"
- Allowing restaurants and bars to continue to serve alcoholic beverages to go
Notably, Abbott did not discuss homelessness outside of expressing support for workforce training programs. He recently floated the idea of a statewide ban on public camping in response to the Austin City Council's 2019 decision to overturn a local such ban.
In response to Abbott's address, State Democrats painted a very different picture of Texas.
"The governor's speech was notable only for what he did not say: no mention of increasing health care access to millions of uninsured Texans, no mention of policing and criminal justice reform, no mention of gun violence in the wake of El Paso and Odessa and no relief from the STAAR test," Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said in a statement.
Texas is scheduled to receive 24,000 doses of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, with more on the way.
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