SAN MARCOS, Texas (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced seven “emergency items” in his biannual “State of the State” address on Thursday, paving the way for the legislature to give early momentum to bills relating to his priorities.

These “emergency items” are now exempt from constitutional delays in the legislature. Normally, lawmakers are not allowed to hear or pass bills until March 10 — 60 days into the 140-day legislative session. But bills relating to the governor’s “emergency” topics may begin to move through the legislative process immediately.

The address, seen on 16 Nexstar stations in 14 television markets served by Nexstar, started at 7 p.m.

The Texas Democratic Party responded with a 10-minute rebuttal after Abbott’s address. The party’s response included criticisms of Abbott’s leadership in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde mass shooting, his stance on public education-related issues and grid reliability.

Cutting property taxes

Gov. Greg Abbott said he is in agreement with Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-League City, the chairs of the budget committees in each chamber, to spend $15 billion to reduce property taxes.

“Property taxes are suffocating Texans. We must fix that this session,” he said. “Hardworking Texans produced the largest budget surplus in Texas history. That money belongs to the taxpayers.”

Ending COVID-19 restrictions

Gov. Abbott called on the legislature to prohibit “any” mask or vaccine mandates, and to prohibit local governments from closing schools or businesses because of COVID-19.

“We must also change how government responds to future pandemics, including requiring the legislature to convene if another pandemic is ever declared,” he said.

Some members of the governor’s own party criticized his unilateral COVID-19 restrictions in the early stages of the pandemic and demanded he call a special session of the legislature. Abbott’s public health disaster declaration is still in place. He has said he will only rescind it after the legislature passes a law banning local mask and vaccine mandates.

‘Education freedom’

Gov. Abbott delivered perhaps his most full and unequivocal endorsement of “school choice” to a general audience to date. He introduced three families he said have had concerns over remote learning and “woke agendas.”

“That must change this year,” he said. “The way to do that is with school choice, through state-funded Education Savings Accounts.”

Democrats and Republicans alike have heavily criticized the use of state money to subsidize private education, also referred to as school vouchers. Last session, 115 representatives in the Texas House voted for an amendment that banned state money from going towards school vouchers or education savings accounts.

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Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address Feb. 16, 2023 in San Marcos (Governor’s Office Photo)

“Money appropriated by this Act may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic primary or secondary education,” stated Amendment 84 that became part of the 87th session’s budget bill.

The new chair of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Lampasas, voted for the amendment.

In the Texas Democrats’ response, party members criticized “so-called school choice” as a means of “defunding public education” and sending tax dollars to support private education.

The rebuttal included perspective from a Lubbock ISD teacher who left the profession after she said Republicans placed a “gag order” on teachers and related school curriculum. She said for rural districts like hers, school vouchers would destroy them.

On the topic of education, State Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, addressed his proposed $15,000 pay increase for Texas teachers. He said he filed the legislation so teachers can continue in their professions and educate the next generation of Texans.

School safety

Gov. Abbott called for more mental health professionals in schools and enforcing “the safest standards.” He touted the new position of Chief of School Safety and Security to help those efforts.

“We cannot let another school year go by without making our schools safer,” he said.

In a compilation of Democratic voters and lawmakers set to air immediately after the Governor’s address, the Texas Democratic Party led its rebuttal with Uvalde families calling for gun safety laws.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez said it is critical for Abbott and Republican leaders to listen to the families of the Uvalde victims and to show “some political courage” by enacting policies to prevent future gun violence tragedies.

Ending ‘revolving-door bail’

Gov. Abbott targeted Harris County in a criticism of “low bail” that he says has allowed violent criminals to commit murder while out on bond.

“We must shut and lock that revolving door by passing laws that keep dangerous criminals behind bars, and holding accountable the judges that let them out,” he said.

Securing the border

Gov. Abbott touted the additional $4.6 billion the House and Senate are proposing for border security efforts. He lauded his efforts to bus people seeking asylum to other states and called for one new specific measure: “a mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least ten years for anyone caught smuggling illegal immigrants in Texas.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called on state leaders to offer reimbursements to local governments aiding with migrant care in border communities, as well as investing in ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fentanyl crisis

Gov. Abbott’s last emergency item is “addressing the fentanyl crisis.” He introduced Veronica Kaprosy, whose 17-year-old daughter Danica died of a fentanyl overdose.

Gov. Abbott linked the danger of fentanyl in illicit pills to cartel dangers on the border.

“To end cartel killings of Texans, we must do two things: call fentanyl deaths what they are –poisonings – and prosecute them as murders,” he said.

Other, non-emergency, priorities

The governor mentioned other priorities he has for the state without denoting them as emergency items.

Community colleges

“We will reward community colleges that produce skilled, employable Texans,” Gov. Abbott said, elaborating on students’ stories from Odessa College. He did not provide specifics.

$100 billion infrastructure budget

Gov. Abbott announced a plan to spend $100 billion on transportation infrastructure, citing his partnership with Sen. Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. He provided no further details.

Grid reforms

The governor alluded to further reforms to the power grid, foregoing specifics.

“We will build a grid strong enough to power Texas for the next century,” he said. “In just the last month, multiple electric generation projects have been announced that will add reliable power to our grid.”

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Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address Feb. 16, 2023 in San Marcos (Governor’s Office Photo)

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called power grid enhancements his top priority this session. He said he will try to force a special session if the legislature does not complete his wish for more natural gas generation.

However, the Texas Democrats’ strongly critiqued the state grid, featuring stories from Texans who endured hundreds of thousands in damages due to the February 2021 winter storm.

The rebuttal’s message said grid failures directly caused hundreds of deaths statewide, citing figures from a Buzzfeed News report that estimated approximately 700 Texans died from the storm.

Mandatory 10-year minimum for gun crimes

Gov. Abbott echoed calls from Lt. Gov. Patrick to create a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 10 years for “criminals who illegally possess guns.” Patrick’s proposal would extend the minimum to anyone who uses a gun to commit a crime.

Raising pay for nursing home employees

“In addition to protecting our children in schools, we must also help our seniors in nursing homes by providing a pay increase for those who care for them,” Gov. Abbott said.

Why it matters

Denoting this list of topics is the main way the governor directly influences the legislative process. It is now up to the legislature to decide how, and whether, to act on these items.

The State of the State is traditionally delivered to a joint session of the legislature and the public inside the Texas Capitol. For the last two sessions, however, the governor has opted to deliver the address in a primetime broadcast from a private location.

The governor chose Noveon, a magnetics company based in San Marcos, as the venue for this year’s address. He used the venue to highlight Texas’ commerce and competition with China, claiming Noveon is the only American company to process rare-earth minerals outside of China.

“Most rare earth minerals now come from China,” Gov. Abbott said. “If that supply is ever disrupted, many of the things we do every day could come to a halt. The future of Texas and the United States should not depend on China.”

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The governor invited all 181 members of the legislature, state officials and the Texas Supreme Court to his address. The venue was closed to the public and to members of the press other than reporters affiliated with Nexstar, KXAN’s parent company which produced the broadcast. Those decisions came from the governor’s office.