Texas Governor Pushes School Reforms in Annual Speech

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott arrives for his inauguration ceremony with his daughter, Audrey, in Austin on Jan. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(CN) – The top-ranked state in America for new job creation and exports, Governor Greg Abbott bragged about Texas’ economy Tuesday in his State of the State address but admitted the state lags in school funding and declared it an emergency issue for the 2019 legislative session.

Abbott said Texas has more students graduating from high school and college than ever before, but many are not getting a quality education.

“We have more students graduating who are simply not ready for college or a career. Only 40 percent of third graders are reading at third-grade level by the time they finish third grade,” he said in a 50-minute speech at the Capitol in Austin hours before President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

He urged state lawmakers to create a pathway for the best teachers to earn six-figure salaries.

Abbott also named school safety, property tax reform and natural disaster response as emergency items.

The designation means lawmakers can vote on these items right away. They are exempt from rules that block lawmakers from voting on legislation in the first 60 days of the 140-day session that started Jan. 8.

With his vision of the state at times sounding like a utopian pipedream, Abbott said Texas leads the nation in jobs created by African-Americans and Hispanic women, oil and gas production and has led the U.S. in exports for the last 16 years.

“Now more than ever, the most powerful label is ‘made in Texas,’” he said.

But the state’s Democratic lawmakers said in a news conference after Abbott’s speech that he had not mentioned one unflattering statistic.

“It was disappointing the governor did not address the fact that Texas still has the highest number of uninsured of any state in the country,” said Chris Turner, of Grand Prairie, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

The Democrats called on Texas’ GOP leaders to expand Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, gave all states the option of increasing the number of people eligible for Medicaid, a joint state-and-federal program that pays for health care for the poor.

Texas missed out on an estimated $100 billion in Medicaid funding the federal government would have paid it for expanding the program, an offer its leaders denounced as federal government overreach.

The state has an estimated 28.7 million residents, second to California’s 39.5 million, but it’s catching up fast, according to Abbott. 

He said almost every day 1,000 Americans uproot their lives and move to Texas.

“They were fed up with big government policies that increasingly run their lives, and impose burdensome regulations,” he said. “They were taxed out of the states that some of their families had lived in for generations. . . . They longed for freedom. They wanted hope. They found it in Texas.”

Rising property taxes are also pricing some Texans out of their homes because school districts were forced to raise taxes after the state cut $5 billion in education funding in 2011.

Abbott said he is endorsing two companion bills that would block the state’s largest school districts from raising property taxes more than 2.5 percent per year, and trigger an automatic tax ratification election if the districts propose to raise taxes more than that.

In his proposed budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, which he publicized Tuesday, Abbott estimates the tax cap will reduce school districts revenue by $3 billion per year. He recommended the state dip into its $12 billion rainy day fund to cover the cost.

The Texas Legislature meets every other year, so each session they pass budgets covering the next two years.

Abbott cited the May 2017 school shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston that left 10 people dead in endorsing a bill proposed by state Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Nelson’s bill calls for school districts to use telemedicine to partner with Texas’ universities mental health programs, to help the districts identify and remove dangerous students and provide counseling to troubled students.

Pivoting off Abbott’s comments about Texas’ booming population growth, Democrats said Abbott needs to do more to make voter registration and voting easier for Texans.

They blasted the governor for failing to mention Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, a Republican, had compiled a list of 95,000 “suspect voters” that he sent to voter registrars for the state’s 254 counties on Jan. 25, instructing them to notify people on the list the state believes they may have voted illegally.

Abbott thanked Whitley and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration” after Whitley released the list.

Civil rights groups and immigrants have challenged the attempted purge in three federal lawsuits, claiming it unconstitutionally targets naturalized citizens, the majority of whom are Hispanic in Texas.

Surrounded by fellow Democrats, state Representative Celia Israel of El Paso said at Tuesday’s news conference that Abbott is “passively condoning”  the voter purge.

“Texans are all too familiar with those who govern by politics over policy. Rather than support a politically charged attack on legitimately registered voters, we should be taking opportunity to work across party lines to increase voter participation,” she said.

To increase participation in elections, Israel said, she supports online voter registration —already in use by 38 other states and Washington, D.C. — in addition to declaring Election Day a national holiday and expanding early voting hours and days.

“The bottom line is that the governor’s priorities are out of sync with the majority of Texans when it comes to elections policy. So we have a lot of work to do,” she said.

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