Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday laid out a largely expected agenda for the 85th legislative session while declaring four issues as emergencies for lawmakers to take up immediately: banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” overhauling the state’s broken child welfare system, implementing ethics reform and approving a resolution to support a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution.
In his State of the State address, Abbott said Texas remained “exceptional” and expressed optimism that the state’s economy would bounce back from an oil downturn. At the top of his priority list for lawmakers was the child welfare system, which a federal judge declared broken in 2015 and lawmakers have since been scrambling to overhaul.
“Do not underfund this rickety system only to have it come back and haunt you,” Abbott told lawmakers in a joint session of the Texas House and Senate. “If you do nothing else this session, cast a vote to save the life of a child.”
Beyond emergency items, Abbott announced Tuesday he was directing state agencies to impose a hiring freeze as a way of dealing with the state’s tight budget. He said the move would free up about $200 million in the current budget.
Abbott had sharp words for lawmakers on the pre-K program that he championed last session. He said he was “absolutely perplexed” by the insufficient attention given to it by the budget proposals both chambers unveiled earlier this month.
“They nod in the direction of pre-K, but they turn a blind eye to the goal of achieving high-quality pre-K,” Abbott told lawmakers. “If you’re going to do this, do it right or don’t do it at all.”
Abbott’s proposed budget, released after his speech, puts $118 million a year toward the pre-K program. That’s double the $59 million per year lawmakers put toward the project in the current budget and far more than either chamber has offered so far for the next budget. The proposed House budget maintains the current funding while the Senate’s proposed budget increases it to $75 million.
Abbott did not mention what could end up being the most controversial legislation of the session: the “bathroom bill” being pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Senate Bill 6 would restrict people to use public bathrooms that correspond with their “biological sex,” and Abbott has taken a largely neutral stance on it so far.