Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday unveiled his top 31 priorities for the 2021 legislative session, a mix of newly urgent issues after last week's winter storm, familiar topics stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and a fresh injection of conservative red meat into a session that has been relatively bland so far.
Patrick said in a statement that he is "confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time" and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state's electrical grid operator, as well as "power grid stability."
Patrick's specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.
The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that "defund the police." Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a "Star Spangled Banner Protection Act" that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.
However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick's agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick's eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a "heartbeat bill" that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an "abortion ban trigger" that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.
Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick's list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put "Fair Sports for Women & Girls," an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: "Protect Second Amendment Businesses," "Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts," and "Second Amendment Protections for Travelers." It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.
Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott's speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.
While the new state House speaker, Dade Phelan, has been a proponent of outlawing taxpayer-funded lobbying, it remains to be seen how receptive the lower chamber will be to the rest of Patrick's agenda. The House, especially under previous Speaker Joe Straus, has a history of slowing — or stopping — at least some of Patrick's most controversial ideas. Phelan has not released a similar list of priorities.
To be sure, though, Patrick's list covers all five emergency items that Abbott designated in his State of the State speech, when the governor vowed to use this session to aid Texas' recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Patrick said in a statement that he backs Abbott's priorities "as well as other legislation to make sure the Texas economy continues to come back stronger than ever following the pandemic."
Patrick's priorities drew the swiftest pushback from abortion rights advocates. Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said Patrick was elevating the wrong issues, especially after the winter storm.
"Just when we think state leaders can’t go any lower, Dan Patrick throws out this list—nothing more than a political stunt and a weak attempt to save face with his base, while Texans still need essential health care and critical community support," Limon-Mercado said in a statement.
For Patrick, the priority list marks something of an end to a relatively quiet start to the session for the typically outspoken lieutenant governor. He has increased his public profile in recent days, including by announcing his plan for the national anthem legislation after a report that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided to stop playing the song during home games this season.
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.