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The Texas Legislature is not short of emergencies that need attention, but Gov. Greg Abbott, who is giving his biennial State of the State speech next Monday, might have some ideas about that.
It’s customary for Texas governors to give this address early in every legislative session. It’s a time for governors to tell lawmakers how things are going and how they think things ought to be going.
It’s not a Lady Gaga concert. Like most talks in this particular genre, a State of the State is medicine for insomniacs. But these attempts to direct the Legislature’s agenda every two years have one feature of real importance: A Texas governor’s list of “emergency items” can be considered earlier in a legislative session than other proposals.
That gives Abbott, like his predecessors, a chance to put his top issues at the front of the line — if lawmakers go along.
In the 2021 session, with a set of urgent issues apparent to everyone — pandemic, recession, racial justice, police reform, and election and voting laws — lawmakers don’t really need a new to-do list to fix their agenda.
Their time in the Capitol might be limited by the pandemic. In its normal operation, the seat of state government is a perfect place to spread a contagious disease to all corners of the state. And lawmakers already have plenty to do.
But Abbott has dropped some hints that could show up in next week’s address.
He has loudly defended police departments against local government reforms — especially efforts to cut or redirect public safety funding in local budgets. Austin, in particular, is in the governor’s sights: He has proposed replacing local police in the central part of the capital city with state police, and skimming the city’s local sales or property taxes to pay for it.
More recently, echoing Republicans in Washington, Abbott has said he supports proposals to protect businesses from lawsuits from employees and customers who think they have been irresponsibly exposed to the coronavirus.
But with a session constrained by fears that too much social and legislative interaction might feed the pandemic, and with a clear list of crises that require response, why would a governor add to the list of emergencies?
Abbott has used previous speeches to prod legislators on border security, banning “sanctuary cities,” transportation, pre-K programs, higher education research funding, ethics reform, a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution, overhauling the state’s child welfare services, school finance, property tax relief and mental health programs.
Sometimes, lawmakers listen — often because they campaigned on the same issues a governor did. Sometimes (hello, ethics reform!), they ignore the call to action.
The governor is taking his 2021 speech directly to TV.
State of the State addresses are normally delivered around lunchtime in the first month of a session, and to a joint session of the Texas House and Senate. This year, Abbott’s talk will instead be broadcast live during prime time in most of the state’s television markets. That’s an old Ronald Reagan trick — going straight to the voters, to convince them to convince lawmakers to do something.
Governors are relatively well known, but most Texans don’t get to see one speaking at any length. For average voters, Abbott is more likely to be seen in snatches, in a quick interview here, quoted in a story there, or in a political ad.
The emergencies might not be the important part of this speech, politically speaking. Maybe it’s the exposure.