Abbott’s Motivation to Strike a More Moderate Tone

Yesterday Governor Greg Abbott delivered the 2019 State of the State Address. Like the convening of the Texas legislature, the State of the State Address is a bi-annual affair. The governor traditionally delivers the speech near the beginning of the legislative session to laud the accomplishments of his administration, to promote his political and legislative priorities, and perhaps most importantly, to declare certain “emergency items.” 

Labeling particular objectives as emergency items does more than focus political attention — it allows lawmakers to get to work immediately on these issues. The Texas Constitution prohibits legislators from considering most bills during the first 60 days of the session unless the governor deems them “emergency items.”

Yesterday Abbott announced six emergency items – school finance reform, increased teacher pay, property tax reform, disaster relief, mental health, and school safety. 

Abbott also trumpeted several other issues he would like to see addressed this session without elevating them to “emergency item” status. These included border security, anti-gang centers, anti-human trafficking efforts, eliminating the backlog of forensic rape kits, and increasing services for veterans. 

A Change in Tone

In contrast to Abbott’s last two State of the State Addresses (2015 and 2017), yesterday’s address was remarkably more moderate and conciliatory towards Democrats. Several items were notably missing from Abbott’s agenda. Unlike his previous two addresses, Abbott did not mention government ethics reform or increased government transparency. He also omitted efforts to ensure election integrity, perhaps because his Secretary of State, David Whitley, has come under withering attack — including three lawsuits — in recent weeks over his announcement of 100,000 illegal names on Texas’s voter rolls. Likewise, there was no mention of classic conservative issues such as abortion restrictions, school choice, or any actual tax reduction. His property tax proposal limits the rate of property tax increases without voter approval but does not actually reduce the taxes paid by any Texan.

Possible Reasons For Abbott’s More Moderate Approach: 

  1. Elections Matter.
    In the Republican primaries last March, Abbott came out swinging by endorsing several challengers to sitting Republicans who had sided with liberal Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and against Abbott’s more conservative agenda in the last Session and Special Session. Two of the three challengers endorsed by Abbott lost. When the general election rolled around in November, things didn’t go much better. Although Republicans continue to hold every statewide office in Texas, they won by much narrower margins in 2018 than they are used to. Take Attorney General Ken Paxton, for example: in 2014 he won by 21 percentage points, but this time he won reelection by about four percentage points. In the Texas House, Democrats flipped 12 seats into their column, and took two seats from Republicans in the Texas Senate. Democrats also took control of four major appeals courts, including Houston, Dallas, and Austin. With narrower margins than Republicans have seen in more than a decade, perhaps Abbott believes he needs to avoid controversial conservative issues and instead present a more moderate slate of proposals.
  2. Focus yields results.
    Abbott seems to be “betting the farm”, or at least the 86th Legislative Session, on two issues – school finance and property tax reform. In fact, identical property tax bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate. These bills require that any property tax increase greater than 2.5 percent must be approved by a vote in a November election. It came as no surprise, then, that property tax and school finance were declared emergency items. Perhaps Abbott intentionally chose relatively non-controversial issues as the other emergency items (disaster relief, increased teacher pay, mental health services, and school safety) so he wouldn’t take focus away from his top two priorities.
  3. Money Talks.
    The most conservative names on Abbott’s list of top donors are Holloway Frost and Kathaleen Wall ($293,000) and Mary and Michael Porter ($285,947). The rest of Abbott’s list of heavy hitters reads like a Who’s Who of moderate to liberal donors, including those who give to the top politicians in the state regardless of ideology, presumably to ensure access. The top two PACS on Abbott’s donor list are the Republican Party of Texas ($280,049) and Border Health ($252,462). The donations from the Republican Party to the sitting Republican governor are no surprise, but more than a quarter-million dollars from Border Health, a PAC which typically supports Democrats, is indeed news. Abbott also received $250,000 from Charles Butt, CEO of H-E-B grocery stores, after the November election on December 7th. Mr. Butt donates heavily to groups and candidates that oppose school choice and support increased public school funding.

Whatever the motivation, Abbott seems to understand that Republicans will need some significant accomplishments to show voters in 2020 if they want to stem the rising tide of Texas Democrats. 

Throughout the 86th Legislative Session, Transparency Texas will be keeping track of these issues, along with many others, outlining the players and how their motivations, financial and otherwise, might be influencing their decisions. Join us here to get the latest analysis delivered straight to your inbox.

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