Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his priorities for the current legislative session during his biennial State of the State address. On the evening of Feb. 16, he spoke in front of state lawmakers and other invited guests in San Marcos.

“This session, we will ensure Texas remains the leader of this nation as an unflinching force in this world,” Abbott said. “Together, we will build a Texas for the next generation—the Texas of tomorrow.”

Abbott unveiled seven emergency items, which lawmakers can vote on immediately. Lawmakers typically cannot vote on or pass legislation until the 60th day of the session—March 10. But when the governor designates an emergency legislative item, lawmakers can vote on related bills earlier, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas.

The governor’s emergency items, or top priorities, for the 88th Texas Legislature are: cutting property taxes, ending COVID-19 restrictions “forever,” expanding school choice, making schools safer, tightening bail requirements, increasing border security and tackling the fentanyl crisis.

For the second time in a row, Abbott delivered the State of the State outside of Austin. The speech is typically held before a joint legislative session in the Texas House chamber.

This year, he spoke at Noveon Magnetics in San Marcos, highlighting the manufacturing company as a "cutting-edge business in the critical field of rare earth elements.” The speech was broadcast by Nexstar television stations across Texas, but journalists were not allowed to cover the event in person. In 2021, Abbott gave his speech from Visionary Fiber Technologies in Lockhart.

“The state of our state has never been more exceptional,” Abbott said as he highlighted Texas’ economic achievements, including the creation of 1.9 million jobs during his time as governor. Angela Woellner, press officer for the Texas Workforce Commission, told Community Impact that 1,903,900 jobs had been added since January 2015, when Abbott first took office.

He then announced his first emergency item: property tax relief.

Cutting property taxes

As Texas lawmakers create the state’s budget for 2024-25, they have access to an unprecedented $188.2 billion—including a $32.7 billion surplus. According to Comptroller Glenn Hegar, this is largely due to high sales tax revenue, spikes in energy prices and recent economic growth.

A large surplus means a large property tax cut, Abbott said, telling the audience “that money belongs to the taxpayers.”

Abbott said he would ensure lasting property tax relief by spending $15 billion in state funds. Various lawmakers have also filed bills to eliminate or reduce schools’ maintenance and operations taxes, which fund day-to-day operations and employee salaries.

Texas currently has one of the highest property tax rates in the nation, partly because the state does not charge an income tax. Additionally, local property taxes are used to fund schools, city infrastructure, emergency services and more.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has also highlighted property tax relief as one of his key goals this session. On Feb. 13, Patrick released his 30 priorities, which will later be filed as bills in the Senate.

Abbott and Patrick both discussed property tax relief as they were inaugurated for their third terms in January.

Ending COVID-19 restrictions “forever”

The governor’s second emergency item would prevent local governments from creating COVID-19 mask mandates or requiring people to be vaccinated against the virus. Governments would also not be allowed to close schools or businesses due to the coronavirus.

In November, Abbott sent letters to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath and school district superintendents across the state. He stated that vaccination against COVID-19 is voluntary and schools may not allow their students to receive the vaccine.

In August 2021, he issued an executive order that prevents government agencies from requiring Texans to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Additionally, state agencies and organizations that receive public funding cannot require people to provide documentation proving that they are vaccinated, according to the order.

“[Texas] must change how [the] government responds to future pandemics, including requiring the legislature to convene if another pandemic is ever declared,” Abbott said in his speech.

Expanding school choice

Abbott said he wants to give Texas parents more power to choose where their children go to school. This can be achieved through the implementation of state-funded Education Savings Accounts, he explained.

According to nonprofit organization EdChoice, an ESA allows parents to receive public funds to cover a variety of educational expenses, including private school tuition, online learning programs, higher education expenses and more. Abbott has previously expressed his support for school vouchers, which use funds typically spent by a school district to help parents pay for private school tuition. Abbott did not explicitly discuss vouchers in his State of the State address.

“To be clear, under this school choice program, all public schools will be fully funded for every student,” Abbott said.

He said that public schools play “an essential role” in Texans’ success, and that lawmakers would also prioritize public school funding during the legislative session.

Lawmakers have filed many bills to increase public school funding, including pushes to switch from attendance-based to enrollment-based funding and to increase the basic allotment, which is the amount of money schools receive per student.

Some public schools have been pushing “woke agendas” on students and indoctrinating them, Abbott said. As a result, he told his audience he hopes to pass a “parental bill of rights” this session, which would allow parents to have a role in what their students are taught in the classroom and what they read in school libraries.

Before the session began, Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, filed House Bill 338, which would require publishers to issue content ratings for all books and “written material” used in public and charter schools. The ratings would be based on a student’s age and the topics discussed, limiting who could access certain materials. There would also be an option for the state to recall books with incorrect ratings.

These types of school choice legislation have not succeeded in previous Texas legislative sessions, but Abbott and other state leaders are optimistic that the topics will gain more traction this year.

Making schools safer

Lawmakers must also work to increase school safety, Abbott said during his speech. He said the state would work with the new chief of school safety and security, John Scott, to ensure all schools follow “the safest standards.” Abbott appointed Scott to the role in October.

He highlighted a need for more mental health workers in schools. In June, state leaders announced $100.58 million for school safety, including funding to evaluate mental health services in Uvalde and expand statewide youth mental health programs.

Abbott did not mention the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, during which 19 students and 2 teachers died, in his speech.

Tightening bail requirements

Abbott’s fifth emergency item is ending “revolving door” bail policies. He said Texas must create stronger bail restrictions in order to keep people safe.

In Harris County, Abbott claimed, criminals released on multiple felony bonds killed over 100 people in the past two years.

“This session, we must shut and lock that revolving door by passing laws that keep dangerous criminals behind bars and holding accountable the judges who let them out,” Abbott said.

He also pushed for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in jail for any criminal who illegally owns a gun.

Increasing border security

On the topic of the Texas-Mexico border, Abbott blamed President Joe Biden for recent increases in border crossings and other issues.

“During the prior administration, we had the lowest illegal crossings in decades, but this past year, the United States set a record for the most illegal crossings ever,” Abbott said.

On Jan. 30, Abbott appointed Mike Banks as Texas’ first border czar and the governor’s special adviser on border matters, according to a news release. Banks will work with state agencies, local officials and landowners near the border to “carry out Operation Lone Star's mission of deterring and repelling migrants from illegally crossing into Texas from Mexico,” the release said.

In his address, Abbott said lawmakers had proposed $4.6 billion in state budget drafts to help increase border security. He also called for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone caught smuggling immigrants into Texas.

Tackling the fentanyl crisis

The governor’s final emergency item relates to his push for border security. Abbott spoke about addressing the spread of fentanyl in Texas and the United States, which he said is caused by Mexican drug cartels who illegally smuggle the opioid into Texas and create counterfeit pills.

Fentanyl poisoning is currently the leading cause of deaths for Americans ages 18-45, Abbott claimed.

Abbott said lawmakers must target drug cartels by categorizing fentanyl overdoses and poisonings and requiring these deaths to be prosecuted as murders in court.

He also pushed for state funding for Narcan, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. He first announced this priority in October, when announcing the new statewide “One Pill Kills” campaign.

Weeks prior, Abbott officially designated Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations in September and urged federal officials to do the same.