Shared from the 2/3/2021 Houston Chronicle eEdition


Abbott’s priority

His State of the State had plenty of red meat for partisans, little for struggling Texans.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck a hopeful tone during his State of the State address Monday as he laid out his legislative agenda.

Like him, we are optimistic that better days are ahead as the pandemic that has killed more than 36,000 Texans finally appears to be abating, but we are far less confident in his legislative priorities, which are mostly a disappointing mix of partisan pandering and frustrating half measures.

Abbott recognized that health care is a pressing concern and that the state needs to make sure that all Texans have better access — an understatement when Texas consistently has the highest number of uninsured in the country — but far more consequential was his signaling that he would not support Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Expansion could provide coverage to more than 2 million adults, with 90 percent of the cost subsidized by the federal government, and has the support of Democrats and some Republicans — not to mention 2/3 of Texans, according to recent polls.

We salute his promise to expand broadband access —a step which could improve lives in the more than 2 million Texas households that lack high-speed internet.

But his other top concerns amount to little more than an appeal to his base in a bid to secure his 2022 reelection. They include barring local governments from “defunding the police,” changing a“broken bail system,” guaranteeing “election integrity” and instituting civil liability protections for businesses against “frivolous” COVID-related lawsuits.

If you emerged yesterday from a long slumber, every single one of these priorities sounds virtuous. That’s the magic of political spin.

But we urge thinking Texans to consider reality: No serious Texas Democrat has argued for defunding the police in the wake of demonstrations that erupted after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Austin attempted to reallocate part of its budget for mental health and prevention services, a move that Abbott pounced on as he threatened to take over the city’s police force. What Abbott won’t tell you? Austin’s cuts last year came as it spent more per-capita on police than another other city in Texas —hardly making it a hot bed of anti-police fervor.

In his rush to build a straw man as an excuse to seize local control, he neglects necessary police reform that will keep the public and officers safe while ensuring accountability for the use of excessive force.

That’s especially evident when it comes to the bail “reform” he champions. He’s not for real bail reform; he’s worked doggedly against it. Bail practices across Texas hold people in jail before conviction because they cannot afford to post bond when those with money can get out — a system that federal courts have already ruled unconstitutional in Harris and Dallas counties, forcing major reforms.

Rather than demonizing systems that finally pass constitutional muster, the governor of Texas should ensure they’re fairly implemented throughout the state. That doesn’t mean joining liberal judges on some quest for leniency. It means embracing efforts by reformers in his own party — including Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

Nobody favors a bail system that lets dangerous criminals back out on the streets. That’s not what bail reform is about. Abbott, a former attorney general and Texas Supreme Court justice, knows that. He just hopes you don’t.

On election integrity, the governor is far more concerned with keeping Texas as the state with the most restrictive voting laws in the country than with any real effort to safeguard voting.

“One thing that all of us should agree on, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent, is that we must have trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections,” Abbott said, neglecting to add that it is people within his own party who have stoked fears over alleged widespread voter fraud that doesn’t exist. Is he seriously suggesting that the November election, which in Texas largely went for Republicans, was somehow tainted? That’s news to us.

His focus on limiting liability to businesses open during the pandemic is still more pandering. Of all the needs and inequities revealed by this terrible scourge on humanity, we fail to understand how tort reform stands out as the most pressing.

This kind of solution in search of a problem was a common theme as Abbott tossed out red meat to his base — ticking off priorities on abortion, border security and guns — and left little sustenance for struggling Texans.

As he ended his address, Abbott took a page out of President Joe Biden’s play-book and called on legislators to put away their differences and unite to meet the challenges facing the state.

“We must seize this opportunity to make our state healthier, safer, freer and more prosperous for all who call Texas home,” he said.

The opportunity is real, but if lawmakers follow the governor’s lead, it will be squandered.

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