Abbott outlines agenda, announces state hiring freeze


Highlights

Gov. Abbott declared ending “sanctuary cities” and improving the child welfare system legislative emergencies.

In his State of the State address, Abbott also stamped as urgent ethics reform and a Convention of States.

Abbott imposed a hiring freeze for most state agencies through the end of August.

Gov. Greg Abbott delivered his second of State of the State address Tuesday, calling for emergency action to ban “sanctuary cities” that refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and for an infusion of money to repair a “rickety” child welfare system that cost more than 100 children their lives in the last year.

Abbott also identified a renewed effort to enact ethics reform, and Texas joining a national effort to convene an Article V Convention of States to amend the U.S. Constitution, as emergency items that the Legislature can act on in the first 60 days of the session.

More immediately, Abbott imposed a freeze on state hiring through the end of August that he said “should free up about $200 million in our current budget,” and get the state through to the start of the new biennium, Sept. 1, despite “the downturn in the oil patch,” that has cost Texas revenue.

“And in the next biennium, I’m confident we can balance the budget without looting the rainy day fund,” Abbott said.

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According to a directive on the freeze from Abbott’s budget director, Steve Albright, the freeze does not apply to positions that have a direct influence on public safety, an exemption that includes Child Protective Services.

Late last year, lawmakers gave the Department of Family and Protective Services $150 million in emergency money to hire 829 employees — including 550 caseworkers and investigators — and fund a $12,000 raise for staffers to keep them from quitting. CPS will continue to hire for those positions, according to agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins, and fill other jobs not covered by the emergency money.

The temporary hiring freeze applies only to “agencies under the direction of the governor” — which would exclude the judiciary — and to positions supported by money appropriated by the Legislature. That might allow state college and university campuses to use tuition dollars to pay for some positions while shifting appropriated funds to other college and university expenses.

Sanctuary cities

Abbott’s choice of emergency items was “measured — a little red meat in regard to sanctuary cities and support for a Convention of States, but also something for general election voters in fixing CPS and achieving ethics reform,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

Gov. Rick Perry had made a ban on sanctuary cities an emergency item in 2011, but it never made it to his desk.

This time, Jones said, some kind of sanctuary cities legislation is a lock to get to Abbott’s desk.

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“This is the session we will ban sanctuary cities,” said Abbott, who has said he will seek to cut off state grants to Travis County, and remove the county’s Sheriff Sally Hernandez from office if she doesn’t fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.

“Some law enforcement officials in Texas are openly refusing to enforce existing law. That is unacceptable,” Abbott said. “Elected officials don’t get to pick and choose which laws they obey.”

In a videotaped reaction to the State of the State address, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the Senate would act on sanctuary cities legislation in committee this week and take it up on the floor next week and would do the same for ethics legislation.

Convention of States

Abbott didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, only alluding to the fact that his election didn’t lessen the rationale for a Convention of States and that the new president backs term limits, which might be one amendment the convention could act on.

The convention is a special passion for Abbott. “I wrote a book on it,” he said.

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“For decades, the federal government has grown out of control,” Abbott said. “It has increasingly abandoned the Constitution, stiff-armed the states and ignored its citizens. This isn’t a problem caused by one president. And it won’t be solved by one president. It must be fixed by the people themselves.”

The House gallery, stacked with supporters of the convention, roared its approval.

“We should demand that the federal government do two things. One: Fulfill important, but limited, responsibilities as written in the Constitution. And two: On everything else, leave us alone, and let Texans govern Texas,” Abbott said in a line that won whoops from the floor as well.

No bathroom bill mention

Despite Trump’s commitment to building a border wall and securing the border, the governor’s proposed budget for the biennium released Tuesday maintains $800 million in border funding.

“Texas will not flinch in our resolve to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said.

Abbott made no mention in his speech of legislation championed by Patrick that would require people to use bathrooms according to their birth gender in public schools, state and local government facilities.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has no use for the measure, and many business groups fear the state would pay the kind of economic price that North Carolina incurred when it enacted similar legislation.

Abbott has been noncommittal on the legislation, and Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Abbott’s omission of the issue from his speech might have been meant to signal that “he won’t necessarily be pushed around by what Lt. Gov. Patrick is doing.”

Otherwise, Henson said of Abbott, with a few exceptions, “I think most everything he mentioned is right in the wheelhouse of Republican primary voters in the state.”

Tax cuts

Abbott was predictably caustic in his attack on taxes.

“The only good tax is a dead tax,” he said. “We must continue to cut the business franchise tax until it fits in a coffin.”

And “we need property tax reform that prevents cities from raising property taxes without voter approval.”

But Abbott was also unsparing in his pleas for more spending to save the lives and improve the early education of Texas children.

“You will cast thousands of votes this session. Few will involve life or death decisions,” Abbott told the assembled members of the House and Senate gathered in the House chamber. “Your vote on CPS is one of them.”

“Last year, more than 100 children died in our Child Protective System,” he said. “You can vote to end that. We can reform the system so that no more children die in it.”

“To do this right, I’ve budgeted more than the House or Senate,” the governor said. “Do not underfund this rickety system only to have it come back and haunt you. Do it right. If ever we’ve had an emergency item, this is it.”

“If you do nothing else this session, cast a vote to save the life of a child,” Abbott said.

The governor’s budget add $500 million for reforming CPS.

Prekindergarten

The governor chided both houses for not budgeting more money for “high quality” pre-K programs, a relatively modest initiative that was the governor’s most controversial emergency item two years ago and the one that required the most personal persuasion by him and his staff.

“You brought high quality standards to a pre-K system that desperately needed meaningful improvement,” Abbott said. “So, I’m perplexed by the budgets submitted by the House and Senate. They nod in the direction of pre-K, but they turn a blind eye to the goal of achieving high-quality pre-K.”

Ethics was the one emergency item Abbott called for in 2015 that came to naught, but he said Tuesday that he was confident that state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, and state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would be able to “to avoid the pitfalls that led to the demise of ethics reform last session.”

“It’s time to let Texans know if elected officials have government contracts paid for by taxpayers,” Abbott said. “Voters deserve to know if officials are working for themselves or the people who elected them.”

Democrats react

Leading Democratic legislators said afterward that they were pleased with the governor’s commitment to better funding for CPS, but felt that he spent too much time talking, in the words of state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, “about distractions like sanctuary cities, like fetal remains.”

Howard also said that the governor’s warning about not “looting” the Rainy Day Fund, was off-base and that putting nearly $12 billion in taxpayer money off limits amounted to senseless “hoarding.”

“The rainy day fund — that is like money stuck in the mattress, that is money we could be using to fund necessary services in Texas this session,” Howard said. “There is nothing sacrosanct about the rainy day fund. Nothing. And its real name is the Economic Stabilization Fund and that’s what this is about, stabilizing the economy.”

Additional material from staff writers Andrea Ball and Ralph K.M. Haurwitz.



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