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.
Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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