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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.
Matthew McConaughey is reportedly weighing a run for Texas governor in 2022.
The Austin resident and Oscar winner has been "quietly making calls to influential people in Texas political circles, including a deep-pocketed moderate Republican and energy CEO" as he decides whether to run, according to Politico.
McConaughey said a gubernatorial run is "a true consideration" while on a March episode of Houston's "The Balanced Voice" podcast.
Although most political strategists doubt McConaughey's commitment and viability as a candidate, some are still intrigued by the possibility.
"I find it improbable, but it's not out of the question," Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist with a long history in Austin, told the political news site. He added that the big question is whether McConaughey would run as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, told Politico he's surprised McConaughey isn't being taken more seriously. "Celebrity in this country counts for a lot," he said. "It's not like some C-list actor no one likes. He has an appeal."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to run for a third term and remains popular among Republican voters, 77% of whom approve of his performance as of April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
Some strategists believe an independent McConaughey run would benefit Abbott. But a recent poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that McConaughey would beat Abbott, 45% to 33%, with 22% opting for someone else.
Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, mulled a McConaughey run in a recent opinion essay from the New York Times. "Texas may not be ready for a philosopher king as a candidate, much less governor," she wrote. "May the best man win, man."
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Some JuiceLand production facility workers and storefront employees are organizing to demand wage increases, better working conditions (including air conditioning in the warehouse) and pay transparency, among other asks. They are also calling on staff to strike and customers to boycott the Austin-based company until their demands are met.
JuiceLand responded on Saturday. "We are listening," the company wrote on their Instagram story. "JuiceLand crew now makes guaranteed $15 an hour or more companywide."
JuiceLand, which was founded in 2001 by Matt Shook and now has 35 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas, acknowledged the rising cost of living across Texas and the added stress of the pandemic in an email to employees on Saturday, part of which @juicelandworkersrights shared on social media. "There's no denying that times are tough and financial security means more now than ever," the company wrote.
Organized JuiceLand workers rejected this proposal, according to a recent post on the @juicelandworkersrights Instagram account, and reiterated their demands.
"Cost of living in Austin is rising exponentially and will only continue to get worse with the tech boom," the post read. "$15 is barely a sustainable living."