The ongoing 87th Legislative Session has already proven to be unique when compared to previous cycles. Adding to this oddity was the announcement that Gov. Greg Abbott will give his biennial State of the State address in front of television cameras, opposed to in front of a joint session of the Legislature, as is tradition.
Much can be speculated as to the reasons for this, but this will undoubtedly be the first time many Texans have seen the governor speak in a lengthy capacity, opposed to the short clips they are likely accustomed to. The governor’s address will be broadcast live on Monday, February 1, at 7:00 p.m. on most major television markets in and around the state.
Unquestionably, there are a few motivations for this decision. In a seemingly shrewd political move, this could help garner public support, which in turn will apply more pressure on lawmakers to do the governor’s bidding. This event will also likely serve as a decent backdrop for any future gubernatorial campaign efforts, as well as any other potential political aspirations one might have in the foreseeable future.
One might go as far as to imagine this address may be given in front of a desk or podium with flags in the background, adding emphasis to the desire to lead on the issues.
There is no requirement that lawmakers listen to the governor and turn his priorities into legislation, however. In the event they do, those bills would be given a special status. There is a 60-day moratorium on passing bills at the beginning of the session. These emergency items, however, are exempt from that requirement and can be front-loaded in the legislative process.
Historically, the governor has listed off a litany of items over his tenure to mixed legislative outcomes, such as border security, pre-kindergarten programs, ethics reform, school finance, and property tax relief.
The overarching question is: What will he prioritize this time? This session convenes with the backdrop of a pandemic and leads into a re-election campaign for the governor himself. It is likely his address will attempt to thread the proverbial needle by setting expectations somewhat low to curtail any potential messaging centered around encouraging lawmakers to meet any longer than deemed necessary due to COVID concerns, while also simultaneously trying to address “key” issues facing the state to help bolster his election efforts.
It is not as if there isn’t already a template available for him to use.
His political party, the Republican Party of Texas, produces a lengthy document full of policy positions, as well as a specific listing of legislative priorities as the result of their convention process. On top of that, conservative organizations banded together to create their own legislative agenda—dubbed the Lone Star Agenda—to address priorities, many of which have plagued the state for years.
Will Abbott address any of those, as the GOP maintains control over all statewide elected positions and both chambers of the Legislature?
There has already been a small amount of insight into a few priorities. Recently, Abbott has held press conferences to discuss issues like funding protections for law enforcement around the state and potential actions against municipalities that “deprioritize” public safety. He has discussed liability protections for businesses concerning COVID-19 and has specifically talked about extending the “alcohol-to-go” regulatory suspensions that were enforced last summer by executive order.
When compared to previous legislative session cycles, however, there has been little messaging around much else, fueling speculation that statewide leaders may just want to pass a budget, address redistricting, and go home.
One thing is certain: Elected state leaders have been less explicit about their priorities this session, and as a result, lawmakers have largely been hesitant to come out publicly in any big way, in the fear of being contrary to the priorities of the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House, as evidenced by the number of bills filed this session being significantly lower than usual.
As he announces his emergency priorities on Monday evening, Abbott will have the opportunity to provide more clarity to lawmakers and citizens alike.