Texas Governor Freezes Hiring, Outlines 2017 Priorities: CPS, Ethics, Sanctuary Cities

by | February 1, 2017

By Mike Ward and Brian M. Rosenthal Houston Chronicle

Gov. Greg Abbott detailed his vision for Texas on Tuesday, imploring lawmakers to approve "emergency" legislation on child protection, ethics and so-called sanctuary cities, ordering a hiring freeze for most state agencies and proposing a budget that would cut business franchise taxes by $250 million.

"Let's keep Texas the most exceptional state in America," the first-term Republican said in his State of the State speech to lawmakers.

The ambitious agenda, which included calls for lawmakers to criminalize the donation of organs of aborted fetuses, increase funding for pre-kindergarten and approve a resolution for a constitutional Convention of the States, is expected to kickstart the legislative session.

Some legislative leaders quickly pushed back on Abbott's proposals, saying they were misguided and potentially unaffordable for a state with many more fundamental needs and an economy weighed down by an oil downturn.

Others complained about what was not mentioned, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's plan to force people to use the bathroom of their birth gender in government bathrooms, House Speaker Joe Straus's proposal to boost funding for mental health programs, controversial cuts in Medicaid therapy rates and a longtime special education enrollment benchmark that has denied services to thousands of disabled kids.

Abbott made his priorities known by opening with a call for $500 million more for Child Protective Services, more than either the House or Senate has proposed in their draft budgets.

"Last year, more than 100 children died in our Child Protective System," Abbott said, calling the system "rickety." "You can vote to end that.

"If ever we had an emergency situation, this is it," said Abbott, whose emergency tag -- put on child protection, sanctuary cities, ethics and the convention of states -- will let lawmakers pass bills quicker than otherwise allowed.

Child advocacy groups cheered Abbott's proposal for additional funding to effect the sweeping reforms they contend are necessary to fix a system that has been plagued for decades by high employee turnover, a lack of permanent placements for foster children and deaths of children under state supervision. The state's foster care system has been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

"This may be a tight budget session, but failure to heed his call to 'Do it right' will only result in worse budget woes -- and damaged lives -- down the line," said Madeline McClure of TexProtects, an Austin advocacy group.

On so-called "sanctuary cities," Abbott noted that some Texas law enforcement officials "are openly refusing the enforce existing law" regarding their cooperation with federal immigration detainers, a reference to his ongoing fight with Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

Hernandez has announced she will decline some federal detention requests of undocumented immigrants who are jailed.

Abbott has given Hernandez until Wednesday to rescind her policy or face sanctions, including a cutoff of grant funding. He also has said he wants the law changed to allow for her removal from office.

"To protect Texans from deadly danger, we must insist that laws be followed," said Abbott, citing a crime spree involving an immigrant in the country illegally who previously had been deported three times.

The governor got a lengthy ovation after reiterating his support for Texas to join in a national call for a Convention of States, allowed under the U.S. Constitution, to propose amendments to impose term limits on officeholders, reduce regulations and to mandate a balanced federal budget.

Without specifying details, Abbott endorsed passage of a so-called "school choice" law to create education savings account that allow parents to use public money for private schools. That proposal is a priority of Patrick, but less popular in the House.

Abbott stopped short of declaring education an emergency item, however.

Regarding border security, Abbott said he intends to maintain $800 million in state-funded security along the Texas-Mexico border for now, despite questions about effectiveness from critics and a promise by the federal government to step up its efforts. The governor said he plans Wednesday to meet in the Rio Grande Valley with new Homeland Security Chief John Kelly to discuss efforts that President Trump has said will include thousands of additional federal agents and the construction of a border wall.

Abbott also called for full funding of the state's Enterprise Fund, which would allow him to continue to use tax incentives to attract businesses.

He also said additional funding is needed for high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, faulting lawmakers for "turning a blind eye" to the issue.

"Let's do this right or don't do it at all," said Abbott, who said he was "absolutely perplexed" by the House and Senate budget proposals for pre-K.

The governor also called for cuts in property and business taxes.

He said lawmakers should eliminate the business franchise tax and pass legislation that "prevents cities from raising property taxes without voter approval," a controversial suggestion that is sure to be opposed by local governments.

"As far as I'm concerned, the only good tax is a dead tax," Abbott said.

The speech did not offer many specifics about how to pay for the proposals other than the hiring freeze, which Abbott said would last until August and save $200 million.

The freeze would exempt Child Protective Services caseworkers and other employees related to public safety, according to a memo sent to agencies.

Critics said the move could hurt vulnerable Texans.

"The intellectually and physically disabled, the mentally ill, the recently incarcerated, youth felony offenders, Food Stamp recipients, and Medicaid enrollees are just some of the millions of Texans who work with and depend on state employees everyday across the state," said Seth Hutchinson, a spokesman for the State Employees Union. "In agencies with already critical staffing shortages, a hiring freeze, no matter how long, would cripple their ability to function."

All together, the governor's budget proposal allocates about $300 million less in state funds than the Senate draft budget and about $5 billion less than the plan put forward by the House. Despite the difficult economic climate, the plan would not tap the state's Rainy Day Fund.

Lawmakers, including some Republicans, said they were not sure if all of the governor's priorities could be funded.

Several House and Senate members said it could be tough to come up with the additional funding for Child Protective Services and pre-kindergarten while maintaining fundamental services.

"The numbers are the numbers, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe said. "We'd have to study the math on much of what he laid out in his speech because, at the end of the day, there's a lot of expense tied to the pre-K request and also some of the other items that he mentioned."

Rep. Drew Darby, a leader on budgeting issues in the House, agreed.

"We are left to cope with the reality that we have revenue that is not available and we have increasing priority needs in the state." he said.

Still, the San Angelo Republican said he was glad Abbott gave a clear vision.

Democrats criticized Abbott's speech as overly partisan and too focused on "distractions," such as "sanctuary cities" and "fetal remains."

"Gov. Abbott spent his speech largely on partisan and divisive issues that will hurt, not help, the people of Texas," said House Minority Leader Chris Turner. "New barriers to women's health care, attacks on local elected officials, telling Texans how they can and cannot spend their paycheck and denying homeowners the right to hold their insurance company accountable do nothing to move our state forward."

"There wasn't much in the governor's speech that gave me hope," added state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, in a news conference called by Democrats.

Still, some found reason for optimism in Abbott's omission of the lieutenant governor's restroom proposal, which has been criticized by many in the business community as discriminatory and likely to cause some businesses to avoid Texas.

"You notice the governor didn't mention the bathroom bill," said Senate Leader Jose Rodriguez of El Paso. "Maybe that's a good thing."

(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle