On Feb. 1, Gov. Abbott gave the State of the State Address via live television broadcast from Lockhart. He began by discussing COVID-19 updates and the Texas economy. He emphasized that Texas is continuing to add new jobs, even in the face of the pandemic, stating that “normalcy is returning to Texas.” The Governor touched on the vaccine rollout and the importance that telemedicine has had during the pandemic. He urged legislators to use the current momentum toward telemedicine to permanently expand it this legislative session, although he stopped short of naming it an emergency item.
The Governor went on to name five emergency items for the current session. The declaration of certain priorities as emergency items allows lawmakers to bypass the Texas Constitution’s prohibition on passing bills during the first 60 days of session. These emergency items may be taken up and voted on prior to other legislation. The first emergency item named was expansion of broadband internet access. The Texas Association of Counties commends Gov. Abbott for designating broadband expansion as an emergency item, as both urban and rural counties have struggled with access to reliable internet throughout the course of the pandemic. Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) have filed Senate Bill 506 and House Bill 1446, respectively, relating to broadband expansion. TAC will be tracking these bills as they progress through the session.
Second, Gov. Abbott named restriction of local government efforts to divert or cut funding from law enforcement as an emergency item. Specifically, Gov. Abbott has stated recently that he’s exploring legislation that would force the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to hold local sales tax monies in abeyance with respect to any city that “defunds the police.”
Third, Gov. Abbott designated bail reform as an emergency item – specifically mentioning his proposed “Damon Allen Act,” which has not yet been filed this session, but was filed during the 86th legislative session as House Bill 2020 by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station). Specific proposals in the previous version of the Act included expansion of the criteria judges must consider when setting bail, increasing magistrate qualifications, and the creation of a uniform Court Management System through the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to close information gaps in defendants’ criminal history and mental health involvements.
Fourth, he named “election integrity” as an emergency item, with no specific recommendations given. More details may emerge when the Governor’s office releases the official proclamations declaring emergency items. A vast amount of legislation has been filed already on this topic, but it remains to be seen which bills will fall under the auspices of this item.
Fifth and finally, Gov. Abbott named civil liability protections for individuals, businesses and healthcare providers that operated safely during the pandemic as an emergency item. Texans for Lawsuit Reform applauded the naming of this emergency item, stating, “Abusive lawsuits make the goods and services we need more expensive and harder to get.” However, TexPIRG, a public interest advocacy group, feels that “Gov. Abbott’s desired legislation would reward companies that cut corners at the expense of companies that protect their workers and customers.”
More details about each emergency item will be forthcoming after the official proclamations are released.
For additional information on this article, please contact Amy Befeld.