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Abbott calls for expanding school voucher programs, increased border security in State of the State

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Courtesy of Nexstar Media Inc.
Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address on February 16, 2023 from Noveon Magnetics, a manufacturer of earth magnets based in San Marcos.

Gov. Greg Abbott named his priorities for this year’s legislative session on Thursday, which included increasing border security, fighting the fentanyl crisis and reducing property taxes.

It was Abbott’s first State of the State address since being elected governor for a third term.

“This session, we will ensure Texas remains the leader of this nation as an unflinching force in this world,” Abbott said. “Together, we will build a Texas for the next generation — the Texas of tomorrow.”

Abbott gave his speech from Noveon Magnetics, a manufacturer of earth magnets based in San Marcos. Traditionally, State of the State addresses are given in the chamber of the Texas House during a joint legislative session.

The speech was televised by Nexstar and was closed to press not affiliated with the television network.

According to Nexstar reporter Ryan Chandler, House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t attend the event.

Border security

Abbott spent much of the speech talking about border security, an issue that was a cornerstone of his last gubernatorial campaign. He called out President Joe Biden and claimed the Democrat is not enforcing immigration laws. But he praised Republicans in the Texas Legislature for supporting his border-security initiative Operation Lone Star. The Legislature has proposed spending $4.6 billion on the effort.

Abbott also proposed that the state prosecute those who might be “smuggling” unauthorized migrants into the country, even though the federal government enforces immigration laws.

“Illegal smuggling is being aided and abetted by U.S. residents — that must stop,” he said. “We must impose a mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least 10 years for anyone caught smuggling illegal immigrants in Texas.”

Yes to ‘education freedom’

Thursday’s speech signaled what many political observers already knew: Education, particularly school vouchers and school choice, will be a big issue during this year’s legislative session.

Abbott pushed for the statewide implementation of school voucher-like programs such as Education Savings Accounts. The state created Education Savings Accounts for special education students during the pandemic.

“Now what we need to do, we want to expand that program to provide every parent with the ability to choose the best education option for their child," Abbott said.

He added the program could be a vehicle to reform school curriculum and to fight “woke agendas” and “indoctrination.”

According to state law, parents are allowed to participate in the creation of curriculum for public schools. That access is not guaranteed in private schools.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement that Abbott’s speech “included many great ideas” to achieve some of the goals of the Legislature, like empowering parents “with the roles they play in the classroom and on social media.”

But Abbott’s focus on education missed a word many were expecting him to say: Uvalde.

Last year, an 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and killed 19 kids and two teachers and injured many more.

Since the shooting, the families of the victims and other advocacy groups have called on Abbott to change the state’s gun laws — including increasing the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle — to help prevent future mass shootings.

But Abbott never mentioned or acknowledged the school shooting.

He did name school safety as his priority during this year’s session, although he didn’t provide details.

“We must establish the safest standards, and then use the newly created Chief of School Safety to mandate compliance with those standards, and we must provide more mental health professionals in our schools,” Abbott said.

Democrats respond

Texas Democrats, members of the Uvalde community and others issued a response to Abbott’s speech.

The pre-recorded video, which at times was hard to follow because of sound issues, served as a platform for Democrats to talk about their work and priorities.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said the families of the Uvalde victims have been begging the governor to listen to them.

“It's too late for these families, but maybe if you show some political courage you can save the next family from having to endure this kind of hardship,” Gutierrez said.

In a statement, Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said Abbott’s speech was “nothing new.”

“But more importantly, not a word from the governor on Uvalde, not a word on healthcare, and not a word on inflation,” Martinez Fischer said.

“This is our … moment to correct thirty years of missed opportunities under Republican control of state government,” Martinez Fischer said. “House Democrats stand ready to get to work, to focus on kitchen table issues, and to work with anyone to deliver for working families."

Texas Public Radio’s Camille Phillips contributed to this report.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the Texas Capitol Reporter for The Texas Newsroom. Got a tip? Email him at smb@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel.
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