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What's an emergency item? Here are Governor Abbott's seven and why they matter

Governor Greg Abbott delivering his biennial State of the State address in San Marcos on Thursday, February 16, 2023.
Courtesy of the Texas Governor’s Office
Governor Greg Abbott delivering his biennial State of the State address in San Marcos on Thursday, February 16, 2023.

Governor Greg Abbott devoted the bulk of his 2023 State of the State address on Thursday to laying out his top priorities for the 88th Texas Legislature. To this end, Gov. Abbott designated seven emergency items for lawmakers.

So, why do emergency items matter? According to the Texas Constitution, the House and Senate can’t pass legislation during the first 60 days of a regular session – which this year started on January 10. There are only two exceptions: When four-fifths of either chamber votes to suspend that rule or if the governor declares the matter an emergency.

Now that Abbott has declared his emergency items, lawmakers can immediately vote on bills related to those topics.

Here’s a complete list of Abbott’s emergency items.

1. Cutting property taxes

Abbott already signaled this would be a top priority during his inauguration last month. When naming property tax relief as emergency item number one, Abbott pointed to the state’s record budget surplus.

“Working with Senator (Joan) Huffman and Representative (Greg) Bonnen, we’ve all proposed using $15 billion to cut property taxes,” Abbott said. “Now we must ensure that it provides lasting property tax relief.”

Texans pay some of the nation’s highest property taxes, and it looks to be an issue both Republicans and Democrats in the state can both rally around.

2. Ending COVID restrictions forever

Emergency item number two would bring an end to remaining COVID restrictions throughout the state, blocking local governments and school districts from enacting or continuing the use of COVID-related emergency powers or mandates. Carried to its logical end, this would limit Abbott’s own emergency powers, which have remained in force since March 2020.

“Also, we must change how government responds to future pandemics,” Abbott said, “including requiring the Legislature to convene if another pandemic is ever declared.”

3. Education freedom for all Texans

Abbott’s third emergency item, presented as “education freedom,” appeared to contain a number of conservative priorities — including expanding school choice through greater use of Education Savings Accounts — as well as taking aim at alleged liberal influence on school curricula.

A number of rural Republicans have expressed concerns that Abbott’s school choice programs would defund public schools that represent the only options for most of their students, while diverting money to private schools only accessible to the wealthy. In his address, Abbott claimed any efforts to expand school choice would come while providing full funding for public schools.

4. School safety

Abbott provided few details for emergency item four, described as strengthening school safety. He declined to make reference to any specific events that may have inspired the item, notably the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last year. Families of the 19 students and two teachers killed in that tragedy have vowed to visit the Capitol weekly and push the governor to enact stricter gun laws.

On his website, he followed up by posting details of his school safety initiative. It includes calls for expanded funding for technology upgrades, hardening equipment, and expanded mental health resources – but no firearms restrictions.

5. Ending “revolving door” bail

The governor was much more explicit in pointing a finger at Houston and Harris Count in giving his motivation for emergency item number five, a further tightening of bail restrictionsto build on those the Legislature passed in September 2021. He pointed to the case of Harris County constable’s Deputy Omar Ursin, whose alleged killers were out on bail for murder at the time Ursin was shot to death.

“Harris County’s revolving bail practice is literally killing people,” Abbott said. “Now, we did a lot last session with Senator Huffman and Representatives (Andrew) Murr and (Reggie) Smith to impose tougher bail. But this session, we must shut and lock that revolving door, by passing laws that keep dangerous criminals behind bars and holding accountable the judges who let them out.”

Harris County is currently under a federal court consent decree regulating its misdemeanor bail system, following a finding that its prior cash bail system was unconstitutional. Its felony cash bail system is the subject of a separate, ongoing lawsuit.

6. Securing the border

Emergency item six would build on Abbott’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the border, blaming President Joe Biden for what he described as a crisis. “We must impose a mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least ten years for anyone caught smuggling illegal immigrants in the United States or here in Texas,” Abbott said, noting that House and Senate leaders had proposed adding $4.6 billion to strengthen border security.”

7. Fighting The Fentanyl Crisis

Finally, emergency item seven would address the fentanyl crisis, which Abbott linked to the border crisis through the actions of Mexican drug cartels.

“To end cartel killings of Texans, we must do two things,” Abbott said. “Call fentanyl deaths what they are — poisonings — and prosecute them as murders. We must also increase the supply of lifesaving Narcan, so that we can save more Texans who are ambushed by fentanyl.”

Abbott has a relatively good track record of getting his emergency items through the legislature. During the last session in 2021, Governor Abbott designated as emergency items the expansion of broadband internet access, providing civil liability protections for businesses that remained open during the pandemic, punishing local governments that reduced funding for law enforcement agencies, tightening bail requirements for those accused of violent crimes, and toughening the state’s election laws.

His first three emergency items passed during the regular session that year, but the final two priorities did not pass until the second special session later that summer.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Andrew Schneider | Houston Public Media