On Gov. Abbott’s top legislative priorities, 1 has broad support, 4 not so much
By Chuck Lindell
Gov. Greg Abbott put five issues on the fast track for action by the Legislature, but only one emergency item has received widespread, bipartisan support — increasing broadband internet access across Texas.
The other four issues, also announced Monday night in Abbott’s State of the State address, left opposing sides jockeying for advantage and debating the potential benefits and harms of the governor’s top legislative priorities.
The governor’s wish list included crackdowns on cities that “defund” police, limits on criminal bail, and protection from lawsuits for businesses operating during the pandemic.
For his fifth issue, Abbott stepped into the minefield left behind by continued partisan fighting over the 2020 election by urging lawmakers to promote “election integrity,” a term he did not define but which has come to mean anti-fraud efforts that Democrats call unnecessary restrictions on voting rights and Republicans support as promoting trust in election results.
GOP lawmakers have already filed bills requiring every voter to be verified as a U.S. citizen, including one that would require officials to scour voting rolls to remove noncitizens or face jail time.
Other Republican bills would create a new felony for those who try to count invalid votes or fail to count valid ballots; would ban local officials from sending unsolicited vote-by-mail applications to registered voters; and would ban electronic voter registration, requiring all applications to be done on paper.
On the other end of the spectrum, Democrats are pushing bills to allow all voters to cast a ballot by mail if they choose; allow same-day registration at polling places; and expand early-voting periods.
It’s an issue with little opportunity for bipartisan agreement, setting up potentially bitter divisions depending on which election-related bills are given priority by Senate and House leaders.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said Tuesday that he had worked closely with the governor’s office on the five emergency issues and other priorities mentioned by Abbott.
“The governor’s priorities will be included in the 31 priorities that I will announce in the next few days,” he said Tuesday.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, chose to highlight Abbott initiatives that have broad support, tweeting thanks to the governor for emphasizing improvements to broadband, telemedicine and public education.
By designating his five priorities as emergencies, Abbott freed lawmakers to act and vote upon the issues during the first 60 days of the session, when most legislative action is paused — providing a potential advantage in the increasingly frantic days that will follow March 12.
But it remains to be seen how quickly lawmakers will be able to act in a session hampered by the pandemic.
Both chambers will not convene until next Tuesday after a 14-day break for the Senate and a 13-day break for the House. In addition, Phelan has not yet assigned members to House committees, where most of the work on bills takes place.
One of Abbott’s emergency issues followed through on his promise to oppose “defund the police” efforts, particularly in Austin, stemming from demonstrations against police brutality after the death of George Floyd last year.
Several such bills have been filed by Republicans, including House Bill 638, which would ban blanket budget cuts for police, fire and emergency medical services, while HB 741 would require voter approval for budget cuts of 5% or more.
Speaking Tuesday, Abbott said he endorses a third approach, withholding sales tax revenue from cities that cut police budgets. It does not appear that such a bill has yet been filed.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union, praised Abbott for promoting public safety measures over the past year, when Austin leaders cut $21.5 million from the police budget by canceling three cadet classes, and shifted $80 million in forensics, communications and other spending outside of the department.
“He boosted our officers’ morale with his leadership in taking on the misguided defunding of our department by the Austin City Council,” Casaday said in a statement provided by Abbott’s office.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, speaking on Facebook Live after Abbott’s Monday night address, said funding decisions were done to focus police on dealing with crime in a city that is safe enough to attract a steady stream of companies that have relocated to Austin.
“That’s not despite the policies that we have but because of that,” Adler said.
Abbott’s call for protection from lawsuits against businesses and people who operate safely during the pandemic was praised by Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
“We applaud the governor for highlighting the very real threat abusive and unnecessary COVID-19-related litigation presents for the well-being of Texas families and our economy,” said Richard Weekley, senior chairman of the organization. “Abusive lawsuits make the goods and services we need more expensive and harder to get. They kill job growth and they slow investment in our communities.”
But Bay Scoggin, director of TexPIRG, a public interest advocacy group, said Abbott was seeking to strip consumers of their right to a day in court, adding that there was no indication that a tidal wave of such lawsuits will come.
“Gov. Abbott’s desired legislation would reward companies that cut corners at the expense of companies that protect their workers and customers,” Scoggin said. “When nobody is accountable, nobody is safe.”
Abbott also made it a top priority to pass the Damon Allen Act, a bail-reform measure his office unveiled in 2018 after state trooper Damon Allen was fatally shot during a traffic stop by a suspect who had been freed on bond by a judge who did not know about his prior conviction for assaulting a law officer or his earlier arrest for aggravated assault on a public servant.
The act, which passed the House in 2019 but made no progress in the Senate, would have required judges to weigh a defendant’s criminal history before granting bond. A version of the Damon Allen Act has not yet been filed this session.
Opponents argued that assessing a defendant’s risk is an imperfect endeavor, raising the potential for bias and discrimination and keeping people incarcerated despite the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
But Abbott said the current process “recklessly allows dangerous criminals back onto the streets.”
“Too many Texans like Damon Allen have been murdered because of our broken bail system,” he said Monday.