For Gov. Greg Abbott, Many Texas Priorities Depend on the New President

AUSTIN -- Ask Gov. Greg Abbott what Texas should accomplish during the legislative session that kicks off next month and you'll hear a lot of "it depends."Should Texas ban transgender people from using bathrooms, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has proposed? It depends on what President-elect Donald Trump does with a federal order to allow transgender students to use school bathrooms that align with their gender identity.Will Texas spend the $1 billion the Texas Department of Public Safety has asked for on border security? It depends on whether Trump fulfills his promise to secure the border and build a big, beautiful wall.Just how tight will the state budget be? It depends on when and how Trump and the Republican Congress unravel the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.Abbott met with reporters Tuesday for a briefing about the 2017 legislative session. The wide-ranging discussion touched on topics from border security to education and foreign policy. But the common thread was the many unknowns Abbott and lawmakers will deal with as they enter the 140-day legislative session with a new president at the helm. But Abbott said he was optimistic that the new federal administration would save Texas money and align with the Republican values that dominate the statehouse.During Abbott's first legislative session as governor in 2015, he led the charge to spend $800 million on border security, because he said the federal government was not doing its job on the southern border. This year, he and other GOP lawmakers are hopeful those funds can be reallocated because Trump has promised to enhance border security with a wall between Mexico and the United States."If that is accomplished, it will allow Texas to re calibrate the necessity and role the state plays in securing the border," he said.But Abbott said realities of the border geography may not allow for the giant, continuous wall along the Rio Grande that Trump has described. In the mountainous terrain of Big Bend National Park, for instance, a wall would likely be unworkable."We don't want to see a wall in the beautiful Big Bend National Park," Abbott said.Abbott wouldn't say whether he would support a measure to ban transgender people from using restrooms that align with their identity. The controversial issue has been a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But it has drawn strong opposition from the state's business community amid worries that it could stifle economic development, as a similar measure in North Carolina has done.Abbott said he doesn't want men using women's restrooms, but he said the issue may be made moot when Trump takes office in January. Banning transgender people from restrooms became an issue only after the Obama administration issued a letter requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity. In response, Patrick and others began fomenting for a ban, arguing the order would allow predators in women's restrooms.The Trump administration may rescind that order, Abbott said, rendering a Texas bill needless."I want to pull out the law books and look into the laws we have on the books and see what modifications need to be made," said Abbott, a lawyer, former state Supreme Court judge and former Texas Attorney General.When it comes to spending money, Abbott was hopeful that the Trump presidency would mean Texas could save not only on border security but also on health care and suing the federal government.Abbott said state officials are already working on plans to implement a state health care plan if Obamacare is repealed, as Trump has promised. Texas will likely also spend fewer resources on challenging federal business regulations and environmental restrictions under a Trump regime, he said.On another topic that has been popular with Trump supporters, the governor doubled down on his promise to punish cities and college campuses that are deemed to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, though he said he is still working to find a definition for what exactly constitutes a sanctuary city or campus. Abbott promised last year to cut funding to sheriffs departments that instituted sanctuary policies, but his office has yet to enforce any monetary sanctions.He said he would ask lawmakers to pass a bill that would cut funding for sanctuary cities and campuses and sanction college officials who implement such policies. Similar measures have failed in the legislature since at least 2011."We are nation of laws and laws must be followed," Abbott said.Dallas got a brief bit of special attention from Abbott, but not in a positive way. The governor said the city should bring lawmakers a locally crafted solution to the $3.3 billion hole in the police and fire pension."These are local pensions, and it is right for them to come up with local solutions," he said.Though state budget writers are expected to face a funding shortfall, Abbott said he still would like to see trims to state business and property taxes. Despite the tight budget times, Abbott said he'd also like to see lawmakers tackle both school funding - addressing a court ruling that called the system legal but problematic - and a voucher program that would allow parents more choice about where to send their kids to school.Patrick has said lawmakers won't have time to do both in the 140-day legislative session. Abbott disagreed."I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.While the new Republican administration brings some uncertainty for state lawmakers, it is also bringing some Texans into high-profile federal roles. Abbott said news of the appointment of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and the potential appointment of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the energy department bodes well for the Lone Star state.Both, Abbott said, would be in positions to enhance the state's economy.  Continue reading...

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