Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he wants to protect businesses from Covid-19 lawsuits and ensure that religious activities don’t get shut down — for any reason.
(CN) — In his State of the State address Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott gave lawmakers the green light to immediately get to work on his legislative priorities, including anti-abortion measures and laws to prevent defunding the police and to protect freedom of religion.
Abbott, a Republican, is in his sixth year leading the nation’s second-most populous state. He was the state’s attorney general from 2002 through 2014 before he was elected governor.
He also served as Texas Supreme Court justice for five years until he resigned in 2001 to run for higher office.
Thanks to the state’s relative lack of regulations on businesses, Abbott said, numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Hewlett Packard, Charles Schwab and Oracle moved their headquarters to Texas in the past year.
“Get this: Texas has been ranked the No. 1 state for business for 16 straight years,” Abbott said. “For the past eight years we led nation in economic development and we have led America in exports for 18 straight years.”
If Texas were its own country, Abbott continued, it would have the ninth-largest economy in the world.
To help business owners and students who struggle with reliable internet access in the state’s rural areas, Abbott said he is making expansion of broadband access an emergency item during this session of the Texas Legislature.
This emergency designation allows lawmakers to pass bills dealing with these wishlist items of the governor ahead of a constitutional rule that bars the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session, which started Jan. 12. The Texas Legislature meets for its regular sessions once every two years for 140 days.
In another salve for businesses struggling through the pandemic, Abbott said he wants a measure to protect them from Covid-19 related lawsuits. “I’m asking for legislation to quickly get a bill to my desk that provides civil liability protections for individuals, businesses and health care providers that operated safely during the pandemic,” he said.
Abbott typically gives this yearly speech in the afternoon at the Capitol in Austin. But this year he spoke from the offices of Visionary Fiber Technologies, a biodiesel producer in Lockhart, Texas.
A practicing Roman Catholic, Abbott also doled out red meat to his Christian conservative base.
He said he wants a law that prevents government entities from shutting down religious activities in Texas.
“Some government officials across the country shut churches down during the pandemic,” he said. “Even in Texas some local officials tried closing churches. That is wrong. We must ensure freedom of worship is forever safeguarded.”
Abbott has long supported anti-abortion laws and this year is no different. Without citing his source, the governor said estimates show more than 40 million fetuses were aborted last year.
“That’s shocking. It’s horrifying. It must end,” he said. “This session we need a law that ensures that the life of every child will be spared from the ravages of abortion. We should make explicit what should be obvious: no unborn child should be targeted for abortion on the basis of race, sex or disability.”
Abbott’s professed preference for small government seemingly does not apply to his home city. He has frequently clashed with Austin’s Democratic officials.
Shortly after the Austin City Council unanimously voted in August to divert $150 million from the police department’s budget to social and mental health services, Abbott threatened to block cities from increasing property taxes if they defund their police departments.
Though he did not mention any property tax freezes for rogue cities Tuesday, he designated public safety a priority this year, saying Texas has always been a law and order state.
“We aren’t going to let cities in Texas follow the lead of cities like Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis by defunding the police. That’s crazy,” he said. “To discourage cities from going down this dangerous path we must pass laws that prevent cities from defunding the police.”
The recent settlement of a federal class action in Harris County, home of Houston, mandated the release of most misdemeanor arrestees on personal bonds, for which little to no upfront payment is required. And Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht supports legislation in favor of releasing nonviolent people on personal bonds. But Abbott wants to move in the other direction.
“Public safety is also at risk because of a broken bail system, a broken bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back out onto our streets,” Abbott said.
He called for passage of the Damon Allen Act, named after a Texas state trooper who Abbott said was killed by a man who had been released on a $15,000 bond, despite his arrest on charges of aggravated assault of a public servant.
Abbott said “election integrity” is another of his emergency items for the Texas Legislature, although Texas election results in November were not delayed by the accusations of voter fraud from former President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
As for the coronavirus pandemic, Abbott focused on the positive. He said more than 2 million Texans have recovered from Covid-19 infections and Texas was the first state to vaccinate 1 million people against the respiratory illness, reaching 2 million just two weeks later.
Abbott’s handling of the pandemic has drawn the ire of both Republicans and Democrats.
Under pressure from Republicans to restart the economy following business closure orders last spring, he permitted businesses to reopen in May and eliminated the ability of local officials to issue stay-at-home orders and mask orders.
But a post-Memorial Day wave of Covid-19 illnesses led him to order bars to shut down again, roll back the indoor dining capacity of restaurants and institute a statewide mask order July 2.
His Republican critics complained throughout 2020 he was acting like a king and usurping the sole authority of the Texas Legislature to suspend laws. He’s issued 25 executive orders regarding Covid-19 since he declared the pandemic a disaster in early March.
Covid-19 has killed more than 35,000 Texans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the few bright spots in the pandemic for Texas restaurants was an Abbott order allowing them to sell alcohol to go. Abbott said Tuesday he wants to make that a permanent option for restaurants.
He also said he wants measures passed enabling more widespread use of telemedicine. “It’s convenient for patients and doctors. We should seize the opportunity this session to permanently expand telemedicine so every Texan in every region of state can benefit from it,” he said.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner laid out state Democrats priorities in a short interview with KVUE, Austin’s ABC affiliate, following Abbott’s speech.
Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the U.S., Turner said, and it is one of just 12 states who have declined to expand Medicaid, a state-federal partnership, under former president Barack Obama’s signature legislation the Affordable Care Act.
Texas has challenged the law in court and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on the case. Texas argues the whole law should be struck down because the Trump administration removed a mandate from it that required people to buy insurance or pay penalties.
Turner, who represents the Dallas suburb Grand Prairie, said if Texas expanded Medicaid it could be receiving billions of dollars in federal funding that other states are taking advantage of.
“We need to take advantage of that and draw down those needed federal dollars to insure more than 1 million Texans overnight. That would go a long way to improving health of our state and also building our economy,” he said.
He also said Abbott should focus on state business and not worry about the Austin City Council’s decisions on police funding.
“The governor is not on the Austin City Council. We’re elected to deal with issues for the entire state and we have a lot of those issues to deal with,” Turner said. “We shouldn’t be in the business of trying to make budget decisions for the city of Austin or any other city in the State of Texas that’s why we have city councils and mayors.”