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In North Texas, Abbott Stresses Legislative Priorities

Bill Zeeble
Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivering his state of the state speech to a packed Dallas ballroom of chamber of commerce members

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stopped in Dallas Monday after an ice storm kept him away earlier this month. With his first legislative session almost at its midpoint, the governor talked about his priorities, his experience and progress so far.

In front of a packed Dallas Regional Chamber lunch crowd, Abbott laid out his five emergency priorities for this legislature this session. Two call for more funding for pre-k and higher education, one focuses on ethics, and the others would send dollars to roads and border security.  Abbot explained why they’re labeled “emergency items.”

“It’s a term of art in the legislature, meaning it’s a priority for the governor that the governor is hinting that it better be accomplished if you want to avoid a special session," Abbott says. 

The tactic itself hints Abbott’s no tenderfoot in office even though he’s governor now just a couple months. His top priorities would bulk up pre-kindergarten funding and spend more to hire top college researchers. So far, he says senators and representatives are meeting the challenge.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
North Texas business representatives greeted Gov. Abbott Monday.

“And both have been moving swiftly in advancing early education initiatives through the House and Senate,” Abbott said. “It’s not if and it’s not when. Because both the House and Senate are going to pass early education.”

Abbott wants more dollars directed at roads and so do voters and lawmakers. After his talk, he explained to reporters why border security’s another focus.

“It is essential that Texas step up and do what the federal government has failed to do,” Abbott said. “We have to secure our border. On average, one sex offender a day is coming across the border.”

Abbott’s ethics focus would have lawmakers beef up rules they live by. For example, they would have to disclose contracts with public entities, and couldn’t vote on laws where they might profit.

“Rejection of my proposed ethics reform will rightfully raise suspicions about who it is the legislature really serves,” Abbott said. “You the people or legislators themselves?”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Gov. Abbott answered reporters' questions after his speech to the Dallas Regional Chamber.

Seasoned political observer Ross Ramsey, who’s executive editor of the Texas Tribune, sees it as a calculated risk.

“You’re asking the legislature you’re just starting to work with to begin by regulating themselves.  If they do something serious and robust - always a big question - that could turn out to be a signal program for him,” Ramsey said.

Former Dallas City Council member David Neumann likes Abbott’s focus on education, views border security as more complex because it’s a federal responsibility, and recognizes the governor’s need to define himself.

“He’s been open-minded, he has been inclusive, he’s reached out to both sides of the aisle I think,” Neumann said. “A new governor … that’s a challenge because he has to map his own course while still being consistent with the voters that put him in office.”

The legislative session reaches its halfway point near the end of March. Neumann, Ramsey and Abbott all say a lot will happen before it’s clear what measures will emerge from the Texas House and Senate that make it to the governor’s desk. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.