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Home | Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans in most counties to wear masks in public

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a nearly statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.

Abbott’s order specifies at least one group of people is not excepted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance.

Abbott released a video message along with the order, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”

“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”

In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record that was set the prior day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, the third straight day setting a new record. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifics that no one can get jail time for a violation.

Abbott’s order is effective as of 12:01 p.m. Friday.

Abbott had previously resisted calls for such a statewide requirement but allowed local governments to require businesses to mandate masks.

Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.

This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50%, among other things.

This developing story will be updated.

Author: PATRICK SVITEKThe Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texas bars to close again and restaurants to reduce to 50% occupancy as coronavirus spreads

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips, which have been blamed for a swift rise in cases in Hays County, and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars must close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

[Read more: Texas’ coronavirus positivity rate exceeds “warning flag” level Abbott set as businesses reopened]

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them. State officials have noted that case numbers in Texas began to increase around Memorial Day weekend, and have expressed worry about big public gatherings for Forth of July.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

Abbott put Texas under what was effectively a stay-at-home order for most of April, shutting down all but businesses considered essential by the state. After letting that order expire at the end of April, he moved forward with a phased reopening of the state that was one of the earliest and quickest in the country. By early June, Abbott had permitted almost all business to open at at least 50% capacity.

But cases have climbed rapidly in recent weeks. On Thursday, Texas saw another record number of new cases — 5,996 — as well as hospitalizations — 4,739. The hospitalization number set a record for the 14th straight day. During the increase, Abbott has cited Texas’ large hospital capacity and the availability of respirators. But many hospitals in Texas’ big cities have reported crowded intensive care units in recent days, and some cities have begun reviving plans to treat patients at convention centers and stadiums.

There has also been rapid rise in the state’s positivity rate, or the ratio of tests that come back positive. The rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has gone up to 11.76% — where it was at in mid-April and above the 10% threshold that Abbott has said would cause alarm for the reopening process.

Abbott specifically cited the positivity rate in explaining his actions Friday.

“As I said from the start, if the positivity rate rose above 10%, the State of Texas would take further action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

On Thursday, he announced the state was putting a pause on any future reopening plans, though none were scheduled and the announcement did not affect businesses that were already allowed to reopen. Earlier in the day, Abbott sought to free up hospital space for coronavirus patients by banning elective surgeries in four of the state’s biggest counties: Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Harris.

[Read more: As evictions resume in Texas, unemployed renters have few options]

“We want this to be as limited in duration as possible. However, we can only slow the spread if everyone in Texas does their part,” Abbott said. “Every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask, wash their hands, stay six feet apart from others in public, and stay home if they can.”

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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Gov. Greg Abbott pauses Texas’ reopening, bans elective surgeries in four counties to preserve bed space for coronavirus patients

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday morning that he will pause any further phases of reopening Texas and that he is once again putting a stop to elective surgeries to preserve bed space for coronavirus patients in certain counties.

Abbott’s latest action does nothing to reverse any of the reopening phases he’s already allowed for — meaning that bars, restaurants, malls, bowling alleys and other businesses are still allowed to remain open with some capacity limitations. “The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses, ” he wrote in a press release on Thursday, but the “pause will help our state corral the spread.”

The latest ban on elective procedures only applies to Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis counties, four areas where the number of patients hospitalized with virus is quickly progressing.

Just Tuesday, Abbott stressed that hospital capacity in Texas was “abundant.” A day later, Abbott acknowledged in a TV interview that capacity issues in some parts of the state “may necessitate a localized strategy” instead of a return to statewide action.

Statewide, the number of hospitalizations has reached record highs for a full two weeks, soaring to 4,739 on Thursday morning and tripling since Memorial Day. On Wednesday, there were 1,320 intensive care unit beds and nearly 13,000 available hospital beds, but with regional disparities.

In hard-hit regions, some hospitals have begun moving coronavirus patients from crowded ICUs to other facilities and local leaders have warned that hospitals could get overwhelmed if the number of infections keeps climbing. In the greater Houston area, the Texas Medical Center warns that the intensive care units are 30 beds away from filling up to their normal capacity. Hospitals and care facilities would then employ their surge plans to build out additional capacity.

Some hospital leaders had also pointed out that treating both patients could become unsustainable: “Should the number of new cases grow too rapidly, it will eventually challenge our ability to treat both COVID-19 and non-COVID 19 patients,” Dr. Marc Boom, head of the Houston Methodist hospital system, wrote in an email Friday.

Some counties could be added to the list if hospitalizations surge in other areas of Texas.

Laredo’s hospitals are also reported to be hitting their ICU capcity. The Laredo TV station KGNS reported Wednesday night that Dr. Victor Treviño, the health authority, has contacted the Commissioner of Texas Department of State Health Services, to fast track the diversion of COVID-19 patients to other hospitals.

As hospitalizations have jumped in recent weeks, Abbott had suggested one of the first major moves the state could make is to at least partially restore the elective surgeries ban that Texas put in place in late March.

That statewide ban lasted about a month before Abbott eased it, allowing hospitals to resume non-essential procedures under certain conditions, as long as 15% of beds were reserved for coronavirus patients.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Author: SARAH R. CHAMPAGNE – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott attends George Floyd visitation, meets with Floyd’s family in Houston

Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Houston on Monday to attend the public visitation of George Floyd, a black man who was killed recently in Minneapolis police custody. Abbott told reporters afterward that Floyd’s death was “the most horrific tragedy I’ve ever personally observed” and that he was heading to meet with Floyd’s family privately.

Floyd, whose death has sparked protests across the state and nation in recent days, was a longtime resident of Houston’s historically black Third Ward before moving to Minneapolis a few years ago, according to The Houston Chronicle. Floyd died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck until he lost consciousness and for minutes afterward. He was 46.

Thousands are expected to attend Monday’s public visitation of Floyd, which is being held Monday afternoon at the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston. Floyd is set to be buried in Houston next to his mother on Tuesday after a private memorial service, according to ABC13.

“Today is a sad day. Ever since his death has been a sad day,” Abbott told reporters before meeting privately with Floyd’s family, saying he would express his condolences and give them a flag flown over the Texas Capitol in Floyd’s honor.

Last week, Abbott said he would speak with Floyd’s family first before determining whether to attend Floyd’s burial.

“This is gonna be their choice,” Abbott told KFDX. “They need to have the opportunity to celebrate the life of George Floyd the way that’s most appropriate, and we want to do all we can to support the family.”

Abbott is not the only high-profile official scheduled to meet with Floyd’s family. Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden will also travel to Houston on Monday to meet with the family, according to CNN.

Author:  CASSANDRA POLLOCK – The Texas Tribune

President Donald Trump applauds Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of Texas reopening during White House visit

Gov. Greg Abbott met Thursday with President Donald Trump in the White House to discuss Texas’ response to the coronavirus pandemic as the state moves forward with restarting its economy.

Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Abbott touted the state’s ability to reopen while still responding to flare-ups in certain places. He also promoted the action he took hours earlier that prevents Texans from being jailed for violating his executive orders. That decision was prompted by the case of Shelley Luther, a Dallas hair salon owner who was jailed earlier this week for illegally reopening her business. She was freed as Abbott was at the White House.

“We should not be taking these people and put them behind bars,” Abbott said. “That is wrong, and that is why I issued another executive order today saying that in the state of Texas, no one can be put behind bars because they’re not following an executive order. It’s common sense.”

“That includes the woman that we’ve been reading about with the beauty salon?” Trump asked.

“She’s free today,” Abbott replied.

“Good,” Trump said.

Trump has been complimentary of Abbott’s leadership during the pandemic, most recently of the governor’s efforts to restore the Texas economy. The next phase of that process begins Friday, when Abbott is allowing barbershops and salons to reopen under certain restrictions.

“Gov. Abbott, when you look at the job he’s done in Texas, I rely on his judgment,” Trump said.

While discussing the reopening process with Trump, Abbott repeatedly pointed to the state’s new “surge response teams,” which are tasked with addressing flare-ups locally going forward. Abbott noted that most of the high concentrations of cases have been occurring at meatpacking plants, jails and senior centers, “and if it weren’t for those three categories, the people in Texas testing positive would be very minimal.”

“It’s like putting out a fire,” Abbott said of the work that the surge response teams are doing.

Abbott said Texas has “learned so much [over] the past few months” about combatting the virus.

“We now have all these strategies to make sure that we are able to contain any type of outbreak, and that allows the rest of the economy of big states like Texas to continue to go and grow while we manage and contain the outbreaks where they exist,” Abbott said.

The meeting including Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, whom Abbott regularly cites in defending his reopening efforts. Asked about Texas’ plans, she said she has remained in touch with Abbott, and in one instance, they had a “long discussion” about not including nail salons in his first round of business reopenings “because you can’t really physical distance.”

“We had that discussion, and he agreed, and we moved forward together,” Birx said.

Asked if Texas was a role model for other states, Birx replied, “Every state is different, so I don’t want to get in comparison with the governors because I talk to some incredible governors who are all doing quite a good job.”

The meeting came as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas rose to at least 35,390, with 973 deaths, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Eighty-five percent of Texas’ 254 counties — 217 — are reporting cases.

There have been 455,162 tests conducted in the state, according to the latest figures. While the daily number of tests has been on an upward trend, the tally is still not hitting Abbott’s own target, which is at least 25,000 per day.

Democrats have argued that Abbott is moving too quickly to reopen the economy, a point they reiterated ahead of his meeting with Trump.

“From a lack of testing at the federal and state level to reopening businesses before health experts say it is safe to open, Trump and Abbott have both mismanaged the coronavirus crisis,” Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Abbott is Donald Trump without the showmanship.”

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott promises far-reaching announcement on reopening Texas businesses, including restaurants, hair salons

Gov. Greg Abbott could make an announcement as soon as Friday about reopening a wide range of Texas businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, including restaurants, hair salons and retail outlets.

During a series of radio interviews Wednesday, Abbott gave the most details yet about the highly anticipated announcement, which he has been previewing since he announced preliminary steps to reopen the economy last week. He initially advertised the next wave of steps as scheduled for Monday but made clear in some of the interviews that they could now come sooner.

Abbott stressed in the interviews that he is seeking approval from medical advisers on the business reopenings and that they will reopen under new standards to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also suggested his announcement’s implementation could vary by county, depending on how prevalent the virus is in each place.

“We’re gonna be making an announcement opening so many different types of businesses, where you’re gonna be able to go to a hair salon, you’re gonna be able to go to any type of retail establishment you want to go to, different things like that, with a structure in place that will ensure that we slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, adding that businesses won’t be “fully opened, but … will be opened in strategic ways, in ways that are approved by doctors to make sure we contain the coronavirus.”

In a second radio interview, Abbott said the announcement will come “either this Friday or next Monday,” with the reopenings going into effect a week after the announcement. Business have said they need that weeklong period to “ramp up” again, according to the governor.

“This is gonna be happening in the first couple of days in May where you’re gonna be able to go back and go dining under safe standards, you’re gonna be able to get a haircut … but we’re gonna make sure there’ll be safe standards in place so that you will be able to do that without spreading the coronavirus,” Abbott said.

Currently, Texans can patronize restaurants through takeout or delivery. Starting Friday, retailers will be able to deliver items to customers’ cars or homes under the “retail-to-go” model that Abbott recently announced. Abbott’s comments Wednesday seemed to suggest that Texans would soon be able to go inside those establishments, though they would still be required to follow unspecified standards to keep the virus at bay.

Abbott’s comments came five days after he announced his initial measures to restart the economy, naming a task force, reopening state parks, relaxing restrictions on surgeries and allowing “retail-to-go.”

He has faced pressure from some in the most conservative wing in his party to quickly reopen businesses as they struggle from the economic effects of the virus. Many Democrats, meanwhile, have urged him to slow down.

“If Abbott’s mismanaged timeline wasn’t already too quick, now he’s threatening to put Texans at-risk even faster, while we still rank near the bottom in terms of testing and have yet to hit our peak in deaths,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

On Wednesday, the number of coronavirus cases in Texas surpassed 21,000, with 543 deaths, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The virus has been identified in 200 out of the state’s 254 counties.

Some of the state’s most populous counties, such as Harris and Dallas counties, remain hotspots, and local leaders there continue to harbor concerns about reopening the economy too quickly. At the same time, some rural counties have had very few or no positive tests, leading some officials there to agitate for a return to normal.

Abbott told Hasty that he was taking those geographic differences into consideration as he plans his next announcement.

“We are looking at counties where there have been like zero cases, or just a low number of cases … and these would be mostly rural counties. They may be able to have an expanded version of being able to open up,” Abbott said. “And then on the flip side of that, there are some counties where the outbreak is still progressing too rapidly, and they may not be able to fully participate in the initial phase of reopening until they get the spread of the coronavirus in their county under control.”

During the radio interviews, Abbott also fielded questions about whether Texas schools will reopen in the fall. He announced last week that they will remain closed for the rest of this academic year.

Abbott said it is too early to tell whether schools can open again after the summer, noting the ongoing concern that the virus can make a “rebound” until a vaccine is finalized. However, he said he expects medicine that treats the virus to become widely available before the fall.

“Our goal is to be able to open schools in the fall, but we simply will not be able to make that call until we get closer to that time period,” Abbott told the conservative radio host Glenn Beck.

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott on Texas bars and restaurants: Expect an announcement Thursday

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will make an announcement Thursday about potential further statewide action to combat the new coronavirus, acknowledging that the spread of COVID-19 in Texas has increased dramatically over the past several days.

His remarks came in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday about whether he plans to shut down bars and restaurants statewide. Abbott has previously deferred to local governments on how to handle such closures, which has been part of the governor’s broader strategy so far in responding to the pandemic. Earlier this week, various cities and counties in areas such as Houston, Dallas and Austin ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons.

“Traditionally, the way disaster response works is that a governor will issue a disaster declaration, and that empowers local jurisdictions,” Abbott said at a news conference in Arlington, where he was joined by local and state officials. “We’re dealing with something, however, that is not just statewide in scope, not just nationwide in scope, but is worldwide in scope. I will be providing an announcement tomorrow that addresses all of this.”

Abbott said he wanted to hear from local elected officials Wednesday — “about your needs, your strategies, your thoughts and your input” — to help shape what he announces Thursday.

Abbott also acknowledged that things have changed drastically since he declared a statewide public health disaster last week.

“When I made my disaster declaration on Friday, since that time and today, the number of people who have tested positive have more than doubled,” he said. “Since I declared my disaster declaration, the number of counties impacted have more than doubled. It is clear that this virus spread is occurring across the entire state of Texas.”

Since Abbott’s announcement Friday, three coronavirus-related deaths — including two in North Texas — have been confirmed. Over 80 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, have been identified across 23 of Texas’ 254 counties, Abbott said Wednesday. More than 1,900 people are being monitored for the possibility of having the virus.

Abbott again warned during Wednesday’s news conference that, as more testing kits become available, the number of confirmed cases will significantly increase.

“By the end of this week, we’ll have capability of administering between 15,000 to 20,000 tests per week,” Abbott said. “As we see the increase and spread of this across the state of Texas, it is absolutely essential that every leader — whether it be city, county, whatever type of jurisdiction — every leader must employ the standards that have been established by [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Author:  CASSANDRA POLLOCK –  The Texas Tribune

Gov. Abbott warns Texas agencies seeing 10k attempted cyber attacks per minute from Iran

Gov. Greg Abbott is warning Texans to be “particularly vigilant” regarding potential cyberterrorism from Iran, suggesting that heightened tensions with the country have caused an increase in attempted attacks on state agencies.

“This is something that everybody in the state of Texas needs to be concerned, prepared and be able to address,” Abbott said Tuesday during a meeting of the Domestic Terrorism Task Force, which he formed after last year’s anti-Hispanic deadly mass shooting in El Paso. “I think it’s very important that everybody be particularly vigilant about what may happen out of Iran.”

Abbott, citing information from the Texas Department of Information Resources, said that as many as 10,000 attempted attacks per minute from Iran had been detected over the past 48 hours on state agency networks. He pointed to a cyberattack last year that involved dozens of local governments in Texas, stressing the importance of public and private sectors alike practicing “good cyber hygiene.”

Amanda Crawford, executive director of the department, told reporters after the meeting that “these sorts of attacks happen every day” — but that the state “is being extra vigilant” given recent clashes between the United States and Iran. Crawford also said that, to the department’s knowledge, no attempted attacks had so far been successful on any of the state agency networks that the department monitors.

“Today is no different than any other day,” she said, noting that the department sees “literally billions of probes on any given day.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has vowed to retaliate against the United States after President Donald Trump ordered a U.S. air strike that killed the country’s top general, Qassim Suleimani.

Crawford said she did not have specific information about which state agencies Iran had targeted. And, asked whether the department had received federal direction to monitor attempted attacks, Crawford said agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had released bulletins on how to maintain vigilance, particularly on potential attacks from Iran.

Beyond that, Abbott mentioned other items the task force discussed during the closed-door portion of the meeting, including the possibility of pushing legislation during the next session that would define what domestic terrorism is.

Abbott formed the task force in August, just weeks after a gunman targeting Hispanics at an El Paso Walmart carried out a deadly mass shooting. He tasked the panel, comprising various federal, state and local officials, with analyzing current and emerging state threats to form prevention and response strategies.

Abbott also mentioned during Tuesday’s meeting that the Department of Public Safety had submitted a report in response to his eight executive orders issued last year, most of which focused on strengthening law enforcement’s ability to respond to and prevent future mass shootings.

The next public discussion surrounding mass violence is scheduled to happen Thursday in El Paso, where a House select committee on the issue will convene to hear testimony from people impacted by the mass shooting there last year.

Author: CASSANDRA POLLOCK – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott orders state agencies to reduce licensing regulations, cut fees

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered state agencies to review and overhaul their licensing requirements, with an eye toward providing Texans “the opportunity to earn a living free from unnecessary state intrusion.”

In an Oct. 8 letter to the heads of state agencies, signed by the Republican governor himself, Abbott directed agencies to trim licensing regulations, reduce fees and educational requirements for certain professions, and, “where appropriate,” remove licensing barriers for individuals with criminal records. He set a Dec. 1 deadline for agencies to tell his office which steps they plan to take. There are hundreds of professional licenses in Texas — from tow truck operators to physicians to laser hair removal technicians.

“Reforming Texas’s occupational-licensing rules must be a priority for all state leaders,” Abbott wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Sensible licensing rules, when necessary, can protect the public from legitimate harm, but overbroad rules stymie innovation, raise consumer prices, and limit economic opportunity. Overly burdensome licensing rules also discourage individuals from pursuing professions or prevent the unemployed — or former inmates who have paid their debt to society — from building a better life.”

Several state agencies confirmed they received the letter and are preparing their responses. The governor’s office declined to comment further on the letter.

The fees associated with occupational licenses generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the state annually. Some of those dollars flow back to the agencies that levy the fees, for overhead and other operational costs, while much of the money is fed into the state’s general revenue fund, where it can be directed to other efforts.

Abbott ordered agencies to reduce license application fees to 75% or less of the national average for comparable occupations.

Occupational licenses are intended to guarantee a minimum level of experience for practitioners so as to protect consumer safety. A licensed manicurist who has to pass regular inspections is less likely to leave customers with nasty infections, for example. But many licensing programs require steep qualifications; to obtain a massage therapy license, one must complete a minimum of 500 hours of training. Some conservatives argue that some of the state’s educational requirements and fees are excessive and present unreasonable barriers for would-be practitioners.

David Fleeger, president of the Texas Medical Association, said the advocacy organization “certainly agrees that rules can be overly burdensome, so we applaud Governor Abbott’s efforts to reduce those regulatory burdens.”

In 2015, many on the right applauded the Texas Supreme Court for striking down as unconstitutional a requirement that eyebrow threaders complete 750 hours of training in order to obtain a license.

“This case is fundamentally about the American Dream and the unalienable human right to pursue happiness without curtsying to government on bended knee,” wrote then-Justice Don Willett in a widely heralded 49-page concurring opinion. “It is about whether government can connive with rent-seeking factions to ration liberty unrestrained.”

The Legislature also acts regularly to roll back licensing restrictions. This year, the governor signed a bill abolishing the criminal penalty for acting as a “registered interior designer” without proof of voluntary registration.

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation — which oversees more industries than any other state agency — itself has deregulated nine license programs since 2003.

Abbott, a lawyer by trade, also wrote to state agencies in June 2018 with a hefty set of instructions. Then, he told agencies to submit any proposed rules to his office before they were made public — a move with the potential to slow the rule-making process and consolidate power in the governor’s office.

Earlier this year, the governor also acted independently, signing an executive order to keep alive the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners after the Legislature allowed it to shut down.

Abbott’s directives on licensing for individuals with criminal records come in conjunction with a bill passed in 2019 that limited authorities from considering license applicants’ arrests that did not result in convictions. The governor directed agencies to publish lists of specific offenses that disqualify applicants from obtaining an occupational license, as opposed to “relying on blanket exclusions for people with criminal records.”

In 2013, when Abbott was attorney general, he defended the state’s “sovereign right to impose categorical bans on the hiring of criminals” in a lawsuit against the Obama administration.

Author: EMMA PLATOFF – The Texas Tribune

Read related Tribune coverage

Gov. Greg Abbott signs $250 billion budget with no line-item vetoes

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the state’s roughly $250 billion budget Saturday, bringing a session-long effort to address the Legislature’s top priorities — school funding and property taxes — to a close.

A spokesman for Abbott confirmed that the governor signed the budget without issuing a single line-item veto, a mechanism that allows him to shrink the budget where he sees fit.

The 2020-21 budget, which state lawmakers approved in May, includes a significant boost in spending compared with two years ago. Lawmakers had billions of dollars more to spend thanks to a positive economic forecast and revised revenue estimates from oil and natural gas production taxes. Total spending is up 16% from the budget the Legislature approved in 2017.

Much of that extra money went to state leadership’s two two legislative priorities for 2019. Abbott has already approved a $11.6 billion school finance package that doled out $6.5 billion in new schools spending and $5.1 billion to buy down Texans’ property tax bills. In total, the state budget spends $94.5 billion on education, which includes funding for public schools and universities. Not including tax break funds, the Legislative Budget Board calculates that the education portion of the budget grew 10%.

Here’s a look at the bills that Abbott vetoed Saturday:

HB 51 — Relating to the creation and promulgation of certain standard forms for statewide use in criminal actions.

HB 70 — Relating to a strategic plan goal by the Department of Agriculture to prevent crop diseases and plant pests in this state.

HB 93 — Relating to the inclusion of a magistrate’s name on certain signed orders.

HB 109 — Relating to the operation of open-enrollment charter schools on Memorial Day.

HB 345 — Relating to the automatic issuance of a personal identification certificate to a person 60 years of age or older whose driver’s license has been surrendered or revoked.

HB 389 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain Relating to a biennial report on stormwater infrastructure in this state.

HB 448 — Relating to the creation of an offense for failing to secure certain children in a rear-facing child passenger safety seat system.

HB 455 — Relating to policies on the recess period in public schools.

HB 463 — Relating to reciprocity agreements between certain air ambulance companies operating a subscription program.

HB 651 — Relating to the creation and operations of health care provider participation programs in counties not served by a hospital district or a public hospital.

HB 929 — Relating to the duties of a magistrate to inform an arrested person of consequences of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

HB 994 — Relating to appeals to justice courts of certain ad valorem tax determinations.

HB 1031 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain counties.

HB 1053 — Relating to the administration, powers, and duties of certain navigation districts; authorizing the imposition of a tax.

HB 1059 — Relating to a biennial report on stormwater infrastructure in this state.

HB 1099 — Relating to peace officers commissioned by the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

HB 1120 — Relating to the powers of certain county assistance districts.

HB 1168 — Relating to the offense of possessing a weapon in a secured area of an airport.

HB 1174 — Relating to the authority of certain county assistance districts to provide a grant or loan.

HB 1215 — Relating to the allocation of low income housing tax credits.

HB 1404 — Relating to the regulation of game rooms in certain counties.

HB 1742 — Relating to the mediation of the settlement of certain health benefit claims involving balance billing by out-of-network laboratories.

HB 1771 — Relating to a prohibition on prosecuting or referring to juvenile court certain persons for certain conduct constituting the offense of prostitution and to the provision of services to those persons.

HB 1806 — Relating to the use of water withdrawn from the Edwards Aquifer by certain entities.

HB 2111 — Relating to the period for which a school district’s participation in certain tax increment financing reinvestment zones may be taken into account in determining the total taxable value of property in the school district.

HB 2112 — Relating to salvage motor vehicles, including flood vehicles, and nonrepairable motor vehicles.

HB 2348 — Relating to the prohibition of certain employment discrimination regarding an employee who is a volunteer emergency responder.

HB 2475 — Relating to the indigent status of a person for purposes of the driver responsibility program.

HB 2481 — Relating to the creation and administration of certain specialty court programs; authorizing fees.

HB 2856 — Relating to restrictions under disaster remediation contracts; creating a criminal offense.

HB 3022 — Relating to emergency warning systems operated by municipalities and counties.

HB 3078 — Relating to the review of clemency applications from certain persons who were victims of human trafficking or family violence.

HB 3082 — Relating to investigating and prosecuting the criminal offense of operating an unmanned aircraft over or near certain facilities.

HB 3195 — Relating to juveniles committed to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and the transition of students from alternative education programs to regular classrooms.

HB 3252 — Relating to the posting of certain notices in a primary election.

HB 3490 — Relating to the prosecution and punishment of the criminal offense of harassment; creating a criminal offense.

HB 3511 — Relating to the creation of the Commission on Texas Workforce of the Future.

HB 3648 — Relating to the powers and duties of the office of independent ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

HB 3910 — Relating to the establishment of one or more supplemental county civil service commissions in certain counties.

HB 4703 — Relating to the creation of the Harris County Improvement District No. 28; providing authority to issue bonds; providing authority to impose assessments, fees, and taxes.

SB 390 — Relating to the creation of the Northeast Houston Redevelopment District; providing authority to issue bonds; providing authority to impose assessments or fees.

SB 550 — Relating to the eligibility of certain criminal defendants for an order of nondisclosure of criminal history record information.

SB 667 — Relating to probate and guardianship matters and certain procedures for persons who are incapacitated or have a mental illness.

SB 815 — Relating to the creation and preservation of certain records of criminal proceedings.

SB 1319 — Relating to certain taxes and to an annual report submitted to the comptroller concerning those taxes.

SB 1575 — Relating to governmental immunity for and adjudication of claims arising from a local governmental entity’s disaster recovery contract.

SB 1793 — Relating to purchasing and contracting by governmental entities; authorizing fees.

SB 1861 — Relating to certain public facilities financed, owned, and operated by a public facility corporation.

SB 2456 — Relating to the powers and duties of the Karis Municipal Management District of Tarrant County; changing the territory of the district; providing a civil penalty; providing authority to issue bonds.

Author:  RIANE ROLDAN – The Texas Tribune

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The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.


Gov. Abbott signs several school safety bills in wake of shooting at Santa Fe High

Capping off a yearslong effort to prevent another school shooting like the Santa Fe High tragedy, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a series of bills into law Thursday that would, among other things, strengthen mental health initiatives available to children and allot money to school districts that can go toward “hardening” their campuses.

sweeping school safety measureSenate Bill 11, instructs school districts to implement multihazard emergency operation plans, requires certain training for school resource officers, ensures school district employees — including substitute teachers — are trained to respond to emergencies, and establishes threat assessment teams to help identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent.

The bill is, in part, a product of Abbott convening lawmakers soon after last May’s shooting at Santa Fe High, which left 10 dead and another 13 wounded. Before signing the measure Thursday at the Texas Capitol, Abbott said that SB 11’s passage was made possible through the efforts of House and Senate lawmakers and fruitful discussions that came out of a series of roundtable discussions he hosted shortly after the shooting.

The legislation addresses “not only the tragedy that took place at Santa Fe,” Abbott said at Thursday, “but will do more than Texas has ever done to make schools safer places for our students, for our educators, for our parents and families.”

Republican state Sen. Larry Taylor and state Rep. Greg Bonnen — who both represent the Santa Fe school district — said they were pleased with lawmakers’ headway this session as it relates to school safety and mental health initiatives.

“It is unfortunate that the events such as what happened at Santa Fe occurred, but we are taking action to do everything that we can reasonably do,” Bonnen said.

The law, which Bonnen and Taylor authored, also resurrects this session’s largest mental health bill, and creates a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services.

Aside from SB 11, Abbott signed a separate mental health bill Thursday by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, that increases mental health training for educators and other school professionals and improves students’ access to mental and behavioral health services.

“We are taking a very significant step forward,” Price said of his legislation. “We’re reducing the stigma that is associated with mental illness, and we’re equipping our counselors, administrators and educators throughout the state of Texas to identify children in crisis — again, all with parental consent.”

While both the mental health and omnibus school safety measures garnered bipartisan support in the House and Senate, their success came as a number of other school safety bills drew heavy criticism from Democrats and gun control advocates. The third bill Abbott signed into law Thursday abolishes the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.

The signing of that bill disrupted the harmony between Texas Republicans and gun control proponents who, otherwise pleased with the bill signings, lamented that the marshal bill passed and another “red flag” law measure — which would have allowed courts to order the seizure of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat — never gained traction at the Capitol.

“I think ultimately that’s going to be something we need,” said Ed Scruggs, vice chair for Texas Gun Sense. “In most cases there are signs. There are threats that are made or social media posts — something is occurring that’s tipping people off that we could have a problem here.”

Asked by reporters Thursday whether he supports “red flag” laws, Abbott said that “right now” such a measure wasn’t necessary in Texas — though he asked lawmakers to consider the idea shortly after the shooting. “We think the best approach is what we passed in the combination of these bills,” the governor said.

Still, Scruggs gave a thumbs-up to lawmakers for their progress on school safety bills and said that “overall, things were positive.”

Author: ALEX SAMUELS – The Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, other top leaders, propose raising the sales tax to provide property tax relief

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

The idea is picking up solid but not unanimous support from conservatives. The Texas House Freedom Caucus, the hardline conservative faction of the House, said in a statement that it would back the idea if all the additional money went to property tax cuts, and if lawmakers also approve a 2.5% revenue cap on school districts. The caucus also wants to make sure the Legislature passes a bill requiring other local taxing units to get voter approval for property tax increases above 2.5%.

“There has to be a firm lid on local property taxes — including schools — that keeps the growth of property taxes from washing out the benefit you get over time,” said Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, a member of the caucus.

Since the tax swap would require a constitutional amendment on the upcoming November ballot, Huberty would need to convince 100 members — two-thirds of the lower chamber — to vote in favor of the resolution on the House floor. If all 83 Republicans vote yes, he’d also need 17 Democrats. Some Democratic opposition quickly emerged Wednesday.

“It’s a dangerous idea, one that increases taxes on working families to disproportionately provide tax cuts for corporations and the rich over everyday homeowners,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, a member of the House Democratic Caucus.

Romero suggested Republicans instead back a bill he filed to double the exemption homeowners are entitled to on their home values for school taxes, from $25,000 to $50,000, which would give an average yearly tax cut of about $325.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, has filed Senate Joint Resolution 76 and Senate Bill 2441, which would also use an increase in the sales tax to lower school district tax rates. The Senate would need 21 votes to pass the resolution.

Raising sales taxes for public education appears deeply unpopular among voters, with 74% of Texans in a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll reporting that the state Legislature should not consider increasing sales taxes to boost public education money. In fact, increasing the sales tax was slightly more unpopular than creating a state income tax, which 71% gave a thumbs down in the poll.

Arya Sundaram contributed reporting.

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Author: ALIYYA SWABYThe Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.


With major policy differences emerging, state leaders continue to project unity

The three Republicans who lead Texas state government have made it clear: They know what the state’s top problems are and they’re working together to fix them now, during the brief window they get every two years. But resolutions on those consensus issues have — predictably — proved harder to settle on.

As the 140-day session marks its halfway point this week, must-do reforms to the state’s property tax and school finance systems remain only partially baked. A property tax bill originally filed with identical language in both chambers remains in purgatory, with approval from the Senate’s property tax committee but without a vote from the full body; in the House, it’s yet to advance past the panel.

And the chambers are perhaps further apart on the second priority issue, school finance. The House is charging ahead on its version, but an as-yet unfinished Senate proposal takes a different tack.

But even with the different approaches the Texas Senate and House have adopted on those two issues — and despite the pace that’s causing some at the Capitol to worry about getting it all done in time — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, along with Gov. Greg Abbott, appear determined to keep the negotiations civil, at least in public. In the Legislature’s recent past, personal feuds stymied policy priorities; this year, even with public displays of cooperation, the challenges remain steep.

Of course, for some seasoned political observers, the current dynamic at the Capitol is to be expected — even when lawmakers agree on the focus, the devil is always in the details. Still, others wonder: In a session billed as one big campfire sing-along, what’s taking so long?

“Even though it sounds like we’re halfway through, it just kind of shifts into a second gear,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican shepherding property tax reforms through the upper chamber. “The halfway point really isn’t the halfway point. It’s really when things start picking up.”

The chambers have hardly stalled. A House committee is expected to vote on its budget proposal Monday. That budget bill, House Bill 1, could then hit the floor of the lower chamber by the end of March — the earliest House members have debated the only piece of legislation that’s constitutionally required to pass in several years. The Senate, meanwhile, has already unanimously passed its supplemental budget, which would put roughly $6 billion toward leftover state expenses, such as Hurricane Harvey recovery, and work continues on its own budget proposal.

Still, the pace is notably more sluggish than the most recent legislative session, particularly in the Senate. By March 1, 2017, the upper chamber had passed all four of the governor’s legislative priorities — along with a controversial anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that would prove among the most divisive measures of the legislative year. This year, that same milestone came and went without even a public unveiling of the lieutenant governor’s priority bills. Those were announced a week later, in a Friday evening press release that included a host of priorities Patrick has made little mention of in recent months.

Patrick has said the upper chamber’s slower start this year is by design — a chance for new leadership in the House to keep pace — but skeptics wonder if some of his priority measures simply don’t have the support to move.

“We moved very fast in the Senate the last two sessions, pushing a lot of strong conservative legislation to the House because the former speaker had a different view on things,” Patrick told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty last month. “Now, it’s not as important. … It’s more important that we try to work together. The House will lead on some issues; we’ll lead on some issues. It’s a different pace.”

Still, with that cooperation ongoing, inter-chamber policy differences continue to dog Republican leaders, particularly on school finance — an issue that state leaders have long been promising to fix. After proposed overhauls ended in stalemate during the 2017 legislative sessions, a group of legislators appointed by Abbott, Patrick and former House Speaker Joe Straus spent months studying ways to improve the system as part of a school finance commission.

That panel — including House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood — released more than 30 recommendations aimed at addressing deep flaws in the state’s public education system. Now, the chambers have unveiled proposals that are at odds in significant ways.

Surrounded by dozens of his House colleagues, Huberty unveiled earlier this month a roughly 200-page bill that would put $9 billion toward public schools and property tax relief. Days later, amid a Friday evening filing deadline, his Senate counterpart, Taylor, filed an incomplete version of his own bill. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would institute some type of outcomes-based funding for school districts, paying them more based on how well third graders perform academically. The House has proposed compressing property tax rates by 4 cents, meaning lower bills for homeowners; such a proposal doesn’t appear in the Senate version, at least in its current form.

Beyond that, the Senate’s school finance proposal is difficult to scrutinize, as it’s not finished. Bettencourt said he and Taylor are still working on the meat of the proposal, a pitch for how to overhaul school district property taxes, which constitute a significant chunk of homeowners’ property tax bills. Until that takes shape, the tax chairman added, he’s not whipping the Senate floor for a vote on the property tax bill he filed in January.

Perhaps the most notable break between the chambers is over teacher pay. All three state leaders have made clear that it’s a priority, but their approaches have differed: While Patrick has pushed heavily for a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise — that measure passed the Senate unanimously — Bonnen has suggested that he would prefer to let school districts decide how to best use their education dollars. Those differences sharpened earlier this month, when the House unveiled its school finance bill that instead proposed tackling the issue by raising minimum salaries for educators and increasing health and pension benefits, among other things.

Asked about the Senate’s teacher raise proposal, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000, across-the-board teacher pay raise” a “plan.”

“What we have is a plan,” Bonnen continued. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

Through a spokesperson, Patrick acknowledged at the time that the two chambers “have taken different approaches” on the issue but emphasized that both remain focused on property tax and school finance reform.

Last session, such stark policy differences might have devolved into inter-chamber finger pointing. The 85th Legislature was defined by a showdown between Patrick and Straus, the former House speaker who Patrick blasted as uncooperative and insufficiently conservative. Amid a policy stalemate, Patrick ended the legislative year by slamming Straus in the most insulting Texas terms.

“Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo,” Patrick said. “He might have been the first one over the wall.”

But this year, with a new speaker who those on the right and left are still hesitant to criticize, leaders have taken care to give off the impression that negotiations remain on the rails. At least publicly, the “Big Three” have maintained the unified front that kicked off the session with joint press conferences hailed as historic.

Bonnen, in an effort to keep negotiations running smoothly, told his top House lieutenants at a weekly lunch meeting last Monday to avoid publicly disparaging the upper chamber over differences on school finance. Bonnen’s message during that meeting, according to several people who heard the speaker’s comments, was clear: Let’s not poke the bear in the Senate.

Patrick, meanwhile, told conservative activists in North Texas later that day that his “number one goal this session” is to ensure Bonnen is re-elected as speaker in 2021.

“I love it,” Bonnen told Hasty, the Lubbock radio host, in February. “We will disagree at some point, but we’re not going to get on your radio show … and talk about those disagreements.”

In a separate interview with Hasty, Patrick had made much the same point: “If we disagree, we’re gonna disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

But even if everyone’s playing nice, the thorny issues that have stymied lawmakers in sessions past aren’t getting easier to resolve. And the pressure is only mounting as they near the finish line — the official end, or “sine die,” to the session on May 27.

The pace beneath the Capitol dome has some insiders quietly questioning whether the 140-day session will be long enough, or whether the governor might need to call lawmakers back to Austin after May for additional work. For their part, state leaders remain confident the issues will be addressed this legislative year — no matter how long it takes.

“They have to be passed. If they have to be passed in a special [session], they have to be passed in a special,” Bettencourt said. “I’m optimistic that we won’t have to do that. But I also told my landlord I need the place.”


Gov. Greg Abbott names school finance, property tax reform emergency items

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address on Tuesday, stayed on message about education and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so-far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third graders reading at grade level by the end of their third grade year, he said; and less than 40 percent of students who took the ACT or SAT being prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

“That starts with teachers in the classroom. … This session, we must pay our teachers more,” Abbott said, winning his first standing ovation of the speech.

“Rarely has Texas witnessed such a bipartisan and bicameral support for an issue this substantial this early in a session. … To keep this momentum going, I am declaring school finance reform and increasing teacher pay as emergency items,” the governor said to another standing ovation.

Abbott expressed support for a merit-based teacher pay system, praising Dallas ISD’s program as exemplary and asserting that “we must provide incentives to put effective teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are needed the most.”

Abbott pledged, as he did in his inaugural address last month, that this is the year lawmakers will finally unknot the entangled policy issues of school finance and property tax reform. Last week, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, along with leaders on the issue from both chambers, laid out identical property tax reform bills that they said would help lift the burden of skyrocketing property taxes.

Abbott praised House and Senate leaders for “working together in unprecedented fashion.”

“We can no longer sit idly by while property owners are reduced to tenants of their own property with taxing authorities playing the role of landlord,” the governor said.

In the wake of tragedy last May at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Abbott said “we must do all we can to make our schools safer.” He praised a proposal from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — filed as a priority bill Tuesday morning — that would create a broad-based mental health consortium. He made no mention of gun control measures.

Unlike in his first two state of the state addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. After tagging that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, Abbott didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion.

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and the state has been sued three times by civil rights groups.

Abbott was vocal about the list when it was first released, and at a press conference last week he stood behind the list as a “work [in progress,]” even as local officials reported that, in some cases, all the names on it were erroneously included. But he made no mention of the list, or of election security, in the high-profile address Tuesday.

And the governor of the nation’s largest border state made little mention of immigration reform beyond a promise to continue to “step up and fully fund our border security program” since “the federal government still has not fulfilled its responsibility.” In their initial budget proposals, both the Texas House and Texas Senate proposed continuing to spend about $800 million on border security over the next biennium.

Author: EMMA PLATOFF – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Abbott, Challenger Lupe Valdez Spar Over Arming Teachers, Harvey Recovery in Debate

Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor, swung away at Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in their first and only debate Friday evening, while Abbott largely ignored her and defended his first term.

Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, hammered Abbott in response to nearly every question, accusing him of focusing on the wrong issues in his first term. Abbott often responded to the criticism obliquely and rarely mentioned his opponent.

There were nonetheless tense moments, such as when Valdez criticized Abbott for not calling a special session after Hurricane Harvey last year to tap the state’s savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund.

“He calls a special session for bathrooms but does not call a special session when people are dying,” Valdez said, alluding to the “bathroom bill” that was among Abbott’s agenda items for a special session last summer. “The Rainy Day Fund is the biggest savings account in the United States. Governor, it rained!”

Abbott explained in response that the governor “has the authority to spend state money without having to call a special session to tap the Rainy Day Fund. That money, he said, will be repaid from the fund when the legislature meets for its next session in 2019.

Abbott made news on several fronts, starting with providing his clearest position yet on the historically inaccurate Confederate plaque at the Capitol that has drawn calls for removal by many Democrats and some Republicans. He said it was installed by a vote of the Legislature and thus lawmakers have a responsibility to take it down.

“Should they take it down because of a factual inaccuracy?” Abbott said. “Absolutely.”

Valdez was more forceful about removing the plaque, saying, “We just need to take care of it and get it done.”

Abbott also made clear that he will not be prioritizing a “bathroom bill” next session similar to the one that drew a business backlash last year, saying it is “not on my agenda” for 2019. However, he declined to say whether he would sign such a proposal if it made it to his desk, saying he “won’t sign hypothetical bills.”

Finally, Abbott expressed openness to reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana — 2 ounces or less — from a class B misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor. “We agree on something,” Valdez subsequently declared.

Other moments showed stark differences between the two, particularly when it came to guns. Abbott reaffirmed his support for letting teachers be armed in the aftermath of the deadly shooting earlier this year at Santa Fe High School. Valdez, meanwhile, insisted “teachers should be teaching, not being armed and in defense.”

The two also split on red flag laws, which would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat by a judge. Abbott raised due process concerns about such legislation, while Valdez said she supports it and accused Abbott of having “confusion between gun ownership and gun violence.”

Valdez continued to confront Abbott when it came to immigration, particularly over the 2001 Texas DREAM Act, which gives in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants. Valdez said she believes in a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children — “and therefore we need to prepare them to be here and be educated.” Abbott called the law flawed and in need of fixing, claiming it has no way to ensure that recipients are working toward legal status while receiving tuition.

Valdez then charged Abbott with “blaming the students for a broken immigration system.” Given an opportunity to respond, the governor again declined to mix it up with her while emphasizing “our job first is to make sure we educate Texas students.”

Abbott did directly acknowledge Valdez at least once — after she expressed support for expanding Medicaid in Texas.

“She wants to make a deal with a federal government that’s $21 trillion in debt,” Abbott said. “She’s willing to write a blank check to the federal government that I will not write.”

“Lying again, lying again,” Valdez said as moderators moved on to the next question.

Abbott and Valdez do not have another debate planned between now and Election Day, when Libertarian Mark Tippetts is also on the ballot. Tippetts was not included in Friday’s debate and held a news conference before it to voice his objections.

The hourlong event was was hosted by the Nexstar Media Group and held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Abbott and Valdez had a back and forth over debates. Abbott made the first move in July, announcing he had accepted an invitation to the Nexstar debate. About a week later, Valdez said she was planning to participate in a separate debate that had been planned for Oct. 8 in Houston. But Abbott held firm on the Nexstar debate, and Valdez agreed to it last month while claiming victory in getting Telemundo on board as one of the sponsors.

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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