Photo: Eric Gay, STF
Gov. Greg Abbott is making no apologies for loading up this week’s special session agenda with items challenging the authority of local governments, which he declared Monday are threatening the Texas brand.
He said regulations like local tree ordinances are promoting “socialism” and “collectivism.”
In a speech blocks from the state Capitol, Abbott warned that local governments are infringing on property rights, increasing regulations and growing taxes, when the state is trying to do the opposite. Those are “California-like” policies, he said.
“If we don’t stop this real quick, we are in real danger of losing the standard as being the state for freedom, for free enterprise,” Abbott told a sold-out auditorium at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s offices.
That battle starts in earnest Tuesday, the day Abbott has ordered the Legislature back in for a 30-day special session taking up 20 items. First on that agenda is passing a bill to reauthorize the Texas Medical Board, which is among five state boards that would be in jeopardy without the Legislature voting to continue them. Legislation preserving those boards died in the chaotic conclusion of the 140-day regular session.
Beyond that, Abbott outlined 19 other highly controversial items on a wish list he wants passed, including property tax reform, new abortion restriction, city annexation rules, texting and driving pre-emption laws and tree ordinances.
Abbott also cautioned that he’ll be keeping a list of which lawmakers buck his priorities.
“We all need to establish lists that we publish on a daily basis and call people out – ‘Who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position?’ No one gets to hide,” the governor declared.
Tree ordinances have particularly frustrated Abbott, who called them an example of the government “taking” property from the people. On Friday, Texas Attorney General Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion saying local tree ordinances could be considered a “taking that requires just compensation” if they impede with a landowner’s right to use and enjoy their property.
“Municipalities are saying that they have the right to impose a fee for removing a tree because if you remove a tree you diminish the greater good of the city and the greater good of the environment,” Abbott said Monday. “What they are doing, they have articulated the per se definition of collectivism, socialism.”
Teachers rally at Capitol
Abbott said people should have the right to do with their trees as they please.
“This is your dirt, these are your trees, you should be able to do with them what you want,” said Abbott, who himself has said he had to fight Austin to cut down a pecan tree when he was attorney general.
Texas Municipal League officials said preventing clear cutting of trees enhances property values.
“Tree ordinances are far from socialist; in fact, you could say they’re capitalistic,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
The ambitious special session agenda had the typically dormant Texas Capitol this time of year buzzing with activity as lawmakers began returning to work.
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Nearly 2,000 teachers, many waving signs, spent the afternoon rallying outside the Texas Capitol in the mid-90-degree heat calling for the Legislature to kill Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s plan for school vouchers and Abbott’s proposal to stop union due collections – both on the special session agenda. Instead, they said, lawmakers should focus on improving public schools and shoring up pay and retirement benefits for teachers.
“Thank God for (House Speaker) Joe Straus,” read one sign. “Use your teacher voice,” read another. One woman held a cutout of a large red apple with two worms with Abbott’s and Patrick’s faces.
As the teachers chanted “vote them out” and cheered in agreement that some lawmakers are waging a war on teachers, a plane circled above with a banner that read, “kids before unions #setedfree,” a clear counterpoint to the union-sponsored rally below.
“Stop using kids as pawns for their political agenda,” said Linda Holleman, a retired teacher disgusted with the plane’s message and with lawmakers pushing school voucher programs. She taught culinary arts at Tarkington Independent School District, about 50 miles north of Houston, and said she came to the rally because speaking up for public education is too important, she said.
She voted for the Republican governor in the last election, but said she won’t again. “I’m disappointed in Greg Abbott. I thought he’d be better than that,” she said.
Also on Monday, IBM, one of the state’s largest technology companies, declared it will continue to fight proposed legislation to restrict which bathrooms transgender people could use – another issue on the special session agenda.
The tech giant sent a letter to employees Monday vowing to fight the legislation. The letter followed a day after IBM ran full-page ads in major Texas newspapers opposing the proposals, and it comes as the company is sending 20 employees, including top executives, to Austin to fight the legislation.
Dallas-area CEOs concerned
IBM wasn’t alone in its opposition to the bathroom bill. Fourteen CEOs and chairmen from large Dallas-area businesses like American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, AT&T and Texas Instruments sent a letter of concern to Abbott, saying they worry a bill would “seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”
“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas. To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion,” read the letter. “This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”
That did nothing to quell Patrick’s determination to pass a bathroom bill, which he framed as a public safety issue.
“I don’t want sexual predators masquerading as being transgender to enter into a bathroom to follow a little girl or somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter,” Patrick told the Texas Public Policy Foundation after Abbott had finished speaking to the group.
The session puts Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus’ relationship back front-and-center in Texas politics. The two Republicans, with vastly different approaches to public policy, are not waiting until Tuesday session to resume their back-and-forth.
Straus, in an email to supporters, accused the Senate of gutting school finance reform proposals that would improve funding for schools. He also said the House will weigh each item on the special session agenda to see whether it promotes private sector growth and how it affects vulnerable Texans.
Patrick has labeled Straus’ school finance plan a “Ponzi scheme” that is a precursor to creating a state income tax. Patrick lobbed that criticism last week in a press conference and repeated it again on Monday. He also blasted Straus for calling the special session agenda “manure” during a speech in San Antonio last month.
“I don’t think it is helpful or professional for the speaker – especially because he’s in the same party – to call the governor’s special session manure,” Patrick said.
Straus’ spokesman released a statement, making it clear Straus does not support a state income tax as Patrick has suggested twice in two weeks.
“Speaker Straus doesn’t support a state income tax because it would be bad for Texas and harm our economy, just like the bathroom bill,” spokesman Jason Embry said.