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Gov. Abbott to outline legislative priorities in State of the State address

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks on the north steps of the Texas State Capitol during his inauguration for his third term as governor on Jan. 17, 2023.
Michael Minasi
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks on the north steps of the Texas State Capitol during his inauguration for his third term as governor on Jan. 17, 2023.

Gov. Greg Abbott will outline his priorities for the 88th Texas Legislature on Thursday evening in a televised speech in which he is expected to reiterate his vision for a more conservative Texas.

It marks the second consecutive session where Abbott has decided to forego the traditional State of the State address, usually held before a joint session of the Texas House and Senate at the Capitol, in favor of a private venue. The speech will be hosted by the Greater San Marcos Partnership and San Marcos Area Chamber of Commerce. The media was not invited to attend.

In 2021, Abbott held his State of the State address in Lockhart, due to concerns around the pandemic.

The governor’s speech comes as lawmakers have been assigned to their respective committees and hearings are already underway on the state’s biennial budget. Texas lawmakers have a $33 billion surplus at their disposal as they decide how to dole out funds to state agencies and programs.

The speech also comes less than a week after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveiled his priorities for the Texas Senate, which include fiscal issues like reducing property taxes and increasing funding for law enforcement. But the upper chamber’s list also includes a host of GOP-backed wedge issues, such as banning critical race theory and eliminating diversity, equality and inclusion programs at state agencies.

Abbott, a former state attorney general who was sworn into his third term as governor last month, has joined Republican lawmakers from across the country in railing against President Joe Biden over border security. And he has recently drawn the ire of minority lawmakers after he ordered state agencies to stop considering diversity in hiring practices and made clear his support for school vouchers and school choice.

Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist who has led the campaigns of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, said he expects Abbott to focus his speech on issues that are important to Texans, including education, immigration and border security, and the state’s strong economy.

Spotlight on the border

Abbott’s focus on Texas’ border will likely play heavily into his speech, as he continues to position himself as a leader on border security whose efforts have dwarfed what the federal government has done under Biden.

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, a controversial state-led effort on border security, nearly two years ago. The mission comes with a multibillion-dollar price tag — one that Abbott and House and Senate Republicans are looking to add to this legislative session. Both chambers’ versions of the proposed 2024-2025 state budget call for an estimated $4.6 billion for border security, which includes Operation Lone Star. The bulk of that money — $2.25 billion — would go to the Texas Military Department. But Abbott’s office has requested about $1 billion for OLS, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Abbott also garnered national attention after he ordered that migrants from Texas border communities be bused to cities outside of Texas that are run by Democrats, which he referred to as “sanctuary cities,” including Chicago, Washington, New York and Philadelphia. He’s also ordered the Texas Facilities Commission to spearhead construction of a border wall in Texas. And he’s using his official website to fundraise for both efforts. As of the first week of January, the transportation and border wall had raised about $409,000 and $55.4 million, respectively.

When Biden visited El Paso last month, Abbott greeted the president and handed him a letter in which the governor admonished Biden over his handling of the border.

“Your visit avoids the sites where mass illegal immigration occurs and sidesteps the thousands of angry Texas property owners whose lives have been destroyed by your border policies,” Abbott wrote. He also listed several steps he thinks Biden should take, including resuming construction on a border wall, labeling cartels that smuggle migrants as terrorist organizations, and resuming immediate expulsion of all unauthorized crossers.

Presidential ambitions?

The national attention Abbott has earned — and his defeat of Democrat Beto O’Rourke last year — has fueled speculation that he might have his sights set on a presidential run in 2024. So far, Abbott has said he’s focusing on his duties in Texas but that he hasn’t ruled anything out – at least not yet. During a January interview with Fox News on the eve of his third inauguration, Abbott said: "I think a more accurate way to say it is [a presidential run] is not something I’m ruling in right now. I’m focused on Texas, period."

In a separate interview, Abbott’s top campaign strategist, Dave Carney, told The Dallas Morning News: “What he’s always said is, you know, when the session is over, he will take a look at the situation and see if there’s a need for his voice, his experience, to get into the fray. But until then, we’re not going to New Hampshire or Iowa or South Carolina — or the things that you’d want to do if you’re blindly ambitious to run.”

Steinhauser said Abbott could use his speech Thursday to “position himself in a way that sets him up nicely in the Republican primary for president if he so chooses.” That includes Abbott’s public push for the Legislature to implement voucher-like programs for Texas students.

“Especially if he’s going to run for president, I think he’s going to have to do something big and bold on school choice,” Steinhauser said. “School choice is seen as an answer to a lot of the problems with curriculum, school shutdowns and mask mandates.”

On the economy, Steinhauser said he thinks Abbott will hit the Biden administration and Congress. According to a poll released by the Texas Lyceum last month, 59% of Texans say the economy is worse off than a year ago; only 15% said it’s better. But Steinhauser said the Texas economy is strong, despite inflation. He expects Abbott to drive home the point that the country’s economy should look more like Texas — and less like Washington, D.C.

“And point to the so-called Texas Miracle and draw that back to the policies that his administration and the Texas Legislature has pursued for years now,” Steinhauser said.

A prime-time address

The venue choice also signals that Abbott might be positioning himself for something bigger next year, Steinhauser said.

“This choice of timing and location indicates that the audience is much broader than the Texas Legislature, and broader than the Texas insiders,” Steinhauser told The Texas Newsroom.

He added Abbott will speak to the general public during the televised address, including people who live in other states across the country.

“I think it kind of allows him to be more open and free about what he says that needs to happen at the Legislature,” he said. “Maybe we can expect him to really be tougher on the legislators.”

Others don’t think a 2024 run is in Abbott’s future.

“I just really don't see Abbott running for president in 2024. I see him as being someone who wants to have his name in play and wants to be seen, rightfully so, as one of the principal leaders of the Republican Party nationally,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow at Rice University. “But I'm more skeptical that he has a very strong desire and ambition to run for president.”

Jones added that Abbott hasn’t made plans to visit early primary states, much less recruited personnel for a longer presence in those areas.

“We haven't seen any activity by him focused on Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or Nevada, both in terms of going there, as well as trying to set up an operation,” he said.

Jones added that as governor, Abbott is in a solid, respectable position he doesn’t need or want to abandon.

“Most serious politicians who have a stable position are going to be reluctant to jump on to what, from the get-go, will be a rudderless ship at best, a sinking ship at worst,” he said. “There are political costs to launching a presidential bid in that you go from being somebody who wins all of your elections to being somebody who failed. Just ask Rick Perry or Beto O’Rourke.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the former Texas Capitol reporter for The Texas Newsroom.
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