On a brisk, cloudy morning, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were sworn in Tuesday to second terms leading the nation’s second-largest state. Amid the pomp and circumstance — the crowd flanked by bands from the state’s two flagship universities; an enormous Texas flag strewn over the north side of the Capitol building; a sea of onlookers, some in Stetson hats, turbans or baseball caps — leaders promised a stern, unified focus on bread-and-butter policy questions.
How can the state better fund an education system for its millions of public school students — while upping pay for hundreds of thousands of teachers? And will this be the year that Texas taxpayers get meaningful relief from a crushing property tax burden?
The state’s top leaders, who have been careful to project a united front on those must-do policy issues, promised that this session will bring satisfying resolution to the concerns they said they’ve heard from taxpayers across the state.
“Today is the dawn of a transformative session that will usher in a new era — a new era for children, teachers and taxpayers,” Abbott said, taking the stage after being sworn in by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and the subsequent cannon battery salute. “This will happen because of my partners here today: [House] Speaker [Dennis] Bonnen, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and all the members of the House and Senate. We are going to get this done.”
That goal, in Abbott’s presentation of it, involves overhauling a school finance system that he said “is not adequate to put our students on the path to excellence that they deserve.” A fix will necessitate rewarding “teachers and districts that achieve results,” he said, as well as reforming “a school finance system that robs one district to pay another.”
“And yes,” Abbott said, “the state must invest more in public education.”
Abbott, whose office spent much of the interim quietly crafting and pitching a detailed plan to address both school finance and property taxes, also pledged to “finally rein in skyrocketing property taxes.”
“Some people say we can’t afford property tax reform. I say we can’t afford not to reform a system that punishes homeowners, crushes business and cripples our schools,” Abbott said.
Speaking a few minutes earlier, the outspoken conservative leader of the Texas Senate made much the same promises, praising the two long-serving senators who introduced him — Democrat John Whitmire and Republican Jane Nelson — and pledging to govern this year with a spirit of teamwork across parties and chambers.
In a gesture of unity, Patrick brought Bonnen up to join him briefly during his address — “and this is unprecedented!” he emphasized as the newly-elected speaker joined him behind the podium — to recognize members of the Texas House. Cooperation between the two chambers, which was notably absent last session under a different House speaker, will ensure progress on Patrick’s three top issues, he said: “property tax reform, school finance reform and teacher pay.”
“With the teamwork we have between the Senate and the House, this is going to be the greatest session ever in the history of Texas,” Patrick said.
Turning the day’s spotlight largely to the upper chamber he heads, Patrick also boasted about a teacher pay raise bill filed earlier Tuesday morning by Nelson, the Senate Finance Committee chairwoman. And he said that the Senate’s first stab at a budget proposal would come shortly, less than 24 hours after the House released its version Monday evening.
Amid the policy proposals were the usual ceremonial cheers: a military flyover, dressed-up grandchildren and an appearance from Longview’s Boy Scout Troop 201, the squad that included Abbott himself when he was a boy. A small crowd on the east side of the Capitol organized for an intermittent call to “Build the Wall!” But as the speakers took the stage, the audience was mostly rapt, breaking out in cheers for applause lines on the top two issues of the day.
And finally, the session adjourned to the sound of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band playing, “Texas, our Texas.”
- BY EMMA PLATOFF