State

Public Safety, Disaster Preparedness Among Gov. Abbott’s Key Budget Recommendations

The state’s fiscal parameters are methodically coming together, as the latest domino to fall came Friday when Governor Greg Abbott released his 2022-2023 budget recommendations.

The proposal includes a rundown of federal coronavirus aid the state has received, public safety items, and economic initiatives.

“As we begin the 87th Legislative Session, we must ensure that we do not lose ground on the critical progress made in public school finance, property tax reform, disaster preparedness, school safety, and numerous other achievements of previous legislatures,” Abbott stated in the overview.

Texas received over $11 billion of the federal relief funds approved by Congress last year, 30 percent of which was distributed directly to city and county governments with more than 500,000 in population.

Abbott recommends that the legislature deploys the remainder of the federal funding “for the purpose of administering therapeutics and vaccine doses.”

After distributing 871.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment, Abbott further asked the legislature to ensure the replenishing of those stockpiles.

One of Abbott’s emergency items established in his State of the State address is to expand broadband access. “From medicine to education to business, broadband access is not a luxury. It is an essential tool that must be available to all Texans,” he stated.

Such an undertaking presents an astronomical logistical and financial hurdle, but state officials remain determined to make strides on that issue.

Abbott’s budget recommendation on this item states, “To further expand access to high-speed internet and cultivate prosperity for the state, Texas should support the creation of a state broadband plan, authorize a broadband office within the Economic Development and Tourism Office, and eliminate barriers to provide greater access to broadband services.”

How the legislature plans to address this call to action is unclear, but it will be something considered at great length.

Another emergency item highlighted in the budget recommendations concerns strengthening election integrity. Abbott requests the legislature “continue and expand the use of county election security trainers” and “provide additional funding to the SOS to expand the election day inspector program to the early voting period.”

Further, Abbott requests a $150 million appropriation to the state’s Disaster Fund used to respond to natural disasters of all kinds.

Public safety is a primary theme within the governor’s budget and includes recommendations on law enforcement training, establishing a grant program to fund body cameras for Texas officers, bolstering capitol security, and creating a framework by which to oversee his proposed “Capitol Complex Safety Zone” in Austin.

Related to the lattermost item, the outline requests renewed funding for the Homeless Housing and Services Program and Homeless Management Information System to help localities reduce their respective homeless populations.

Another highlight of Abbott’s legislative priorities is bail reform. Specifically, preventing the release of dangerous or potential flight risk offenders. Abbott called on the legislature to “a statewide pretrial risk assessment tool for use in making bail determinations, as well as for appropriate training.”

On more economic matters, the governor urges the legislature to simplify burdensome licensing requirements, ban a transaction tax via constitutional amendment, and formation of “business courts” to settle commercial disputes.

One vulnerability exposed by the pandemic was Senate Bill 2’s loophole by which a city or county could increase its property tax rate up to 8 percent after a disaster declaration without voter approval. State leaders, including Abbott, objected, arguing that it only applied to instances of physical damage — such as from Hurricane Harvey. But code does not specify.

Abbott’s budget explicitly calls on the legislature to close this loophole, ensuring it only applies to physical and not economic damage.

Education-wise, the governor urges the legislature to fulfill its commitment to additional public education funding from the House Bill 3 school finance legislation passed the last session.

Not an emergency item, but emphasized in his address this week nonetheless, was the institution of a robust civics education emphasizing the “values of freedom, good governance, and patriotism.” The budget further prods the legislature to act on that.

To ensure the solvency of the state’s Teacher Retirement System, Governor Abbott hopes the legislature maintains its 2019 commitment to pad pension benefits. This, the governor states, will help attract higher quality teachers and thus bring in more pensioners to pay into the system.

Unfunded liabilities — pension promises made but not financially accounted for — across all public pensions in the state totals $86 billion.

The state legislature has its work cut out for it as the pandemic has caused a fiscal quake reverberating through every pocketbook, including the government’s.

With a projected $950 million budget shortfall for the 2020-2021 biennium, the state faces tough choices not only concerning what to budget for in the years ahead, but reconciling previous appropriations for which they can no longer account.

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