**Gov. Abbott often deviates from prepared remarks.
Lieutenant Governor Patrick, Speaker Straus, I look forward to working with both of you as we unite to make Texas even better. To the members of the House and Senate, our co-authors in the next chapter of the greatest state in America, to the members of the judiciary, where I once served, to our statewide officeholders, distinguished guests and my fellow Texans.
Let me start by recognizing someone who represents the richness of our heritage, our culture, the strength of our values and the promise that is Texas – the first Hispanic First Lady in Texas – my wife, Cecilia.
As your governor, I’m proud to report that as the sun rises on 2015, the state of Texas is strong and together we’re about to make it stronger.
We are at the pinnacle of America’s economy. Texas has been number one in the nation for creating jobs for so many years, it’s hard to keep count. But in 2014 we literally outdid ourselves. We created more jobs than any year in the history of Texas.
And already this year reports show that our economic engine continues to gain steam. Last week, Comptroller Hegar reported that sales tax revenue in January increased by 11 percent, surging to an all-time record. It’s the 58th consecutive month of year-over-year sales tax growth.
The reason Texas leads the nation is because of our greatest natural resource – the people of Texas – who’ve built a strong and diversified economy. Texas leads the nation as a beacon of individual liberty and economic opportunity. Our job is to make sure we keep it that way.
Today I submitted a budget that charts a course that will keep Texas number one. Our journey begins with striving to create the best education system in America.
We’ve seen that we can do it. In Dallas, African-American and Hispanic students pass AP exams at a higher rate than anywhere in America. In the Rio Grande Valley, I visited the IDEA Weslaco charter school, where about 99 percent of the high school seniors go on to college. And I’m very proud to say that Irving ISD has been recognized as the 2015 Advanced Placement District of the Year. Irving is the best in the entire nation.
The leader of Irving ISD is Superintendent Jose Para. He is with us today. Dr. Para, congratulations.
We must not rest – we must not relent – until we replicate success like this across the state. We can be number one in education if we apply the same tenacity and commitment to education as we do to job creation.
I’d like to recognize Representative Will Metcalf from Montgomery County. Congratulations on your election – you are unique among your peers. Rep. Metcalf, you were born in 1984. For your entire life, the State of Texas has been mired in litigation about school funding.
Members, whether this is your first session or you’re Tom Craddick, I think we can all agree it’s time to put school finance litigation behind us. It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.
To improve our schools we must begin by building a strong foundation at the very beginning. Our goal should be to ensure all Texas students are performing at grade level in reading and math by the time they finish the 3rd grade.
To begin that process, my budget provides additional funding for schools that adopt high-quality Pre-K programs. My plan also provides Pre-K through 3rd grade teachers with world-class literacy and math teacher training.
I want to thank Senators Judith Zaffirini and Donna Campbell and Representatives Dan Huberty, Helen Giddings and Joe Deshotel for carrying my Pre-K legislation to improve early education.
To begin the process of building a better education system in Texas, we must improve early education. This is why I’m declaring early education as my first emergency item as governor. Our children and their future have no time for delay.
Another essential ingredient to better schools is ensuring we have the best teachers in our classrooms. In part, that means saying no to common core. We can bring out the best in all of our teachers by getting rid of the one-size-fits-all mandates and trusting our teachers to truly educate our students. My budget invests in more STEM teachers and in teachers who serve our most disadvantaged students.
We must also return genuine local control to our schools. Last session, you took a big step in that direction. Now, let’s take another step.
This book contains all the education-related laws in Texas. It’s absurd to micromanage educators with all of these laws. Let’s cut it down to size by allowing school districts to opt out of parts of the education code so they can design an education plan that best fits their community needs.
Local control, however, doesn’t end at the school district level. Real local control rests with parents. Parental involvement is critical to student advancement. The ultimate parental involvement is giving parents more choices in their child’s education.
No one said it better than Keisha Riley from Houston. She tearfully pleaded for the opportunity to send her young daughter to a better school. Keisha said: “Having a school in my area that doesn’t fit my needs is frustrating. It makes me feel helpless because I want her to be in a good school and I want her to get a good education so she doesn’t have to struggle like I have.”
As she spoke, her little girl reached up and wiped tears away from her mother’s cheek.
This story forces us to look Keisha in the eye and ask ourselves: Are we working for her and her daughter? Or are we working for the status quo?
The truth is when parents have more options, students win.
For example, Grand Prairie ISD is an open enrollment school district that allows parents to choose the school that’s best for their children, and the results show substantial improvement in student achievement. Grand Prairie ISD’s graduation rates improved dramatically over seven years with 20 percent point gains among Hispanic, African-American and economically disadvantaged students.
Our parents deserve these choices. Our children deserve these results.
We also want to see more of our high school graduates go on to college. To assist that goal, we must make college more affordable and accessible.
We must restrain the spiraling cost of higher education so more Texans can reap the rewards that come from college. Just like with primary and secondary education, higher education doesn’t work in a one-size-fits all approach.
Different students have different needs, and our employers are demanding that we better prepare our students for workforce needs. For many, a two-year degree is far more than a piece of paper. It’s a key that opens the door to economic freedom.
As just one recent example: Justin Friend attended Texas State Technical College in Waco and received a two-year degree in welding. In 2013 – his first full year as a welder – his income was about $130,000. Last year, this 24-year-old’s income rose to about $140,000.
I’m thinking if this Governor thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to TSTC to get a welder’s certificate.
The fact is not everybody needs a four-year college degree.
We need to expand and support our community colleges that serve as the gateway to better jobs and as a step toward further education opportunities.
We also need to elevate the national research standing of our universities.
My budget jumpstarts the process of elevating Texas higher education into the highest echelons by committing a half billion dollars to enhance research programs and attract nationally-recognized researchers and Nobel Laureates to Texas universities.
The trail for this game-changing success is already being blazed. The Chancellor’s Research Initiative at the Texas A&M System has been recruiting the world’s foremost research scholars to College Station and Prairie View A&M, including three Nobel Laureates and 11 members of National Academies.
One of these great minds is with us here today. Dr. Chris Floudas, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, was recruited from Princeton and serves as the new Director of A&M’s Energy Institute. Please welcome Dr. Floudas.
Because of the vital role higher education plays in transforming our state, I’m declaring higher education research initiatives my second emergency item.
In addition to educating our students, another fundamental responsibility of government is to build the roads Texans need.
With the passage of Proposition 1 this past November, Texans sent a loud and clear message that they are tired of being stuck in traffic.
It’s a sad day in Texas when a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on our congested roads.
My budget adds more than $4 billion a year to build more roads in Texas without raising taxes, fees, tolls or debt.
This funding comes from 3 places: One is the funding received from Proposition 1. Two, it ends diversions of state highway funds – tax dollars paid for roads should be spent on roads. Third, my plan constitutionally dedicates one-half of the existing motor vehicle sales tax to fund roads.
The plan – including the constitutional amendment – is needed to ensure TxDOT has the sustainable, recurring and predictable revenue needed to plan large-scale, multi-year construction projects.
Regardless of the priorities that may exist in this Capitol, the voters made unequivocally clear their priority – they want roads funded, and I thank Senator Robert Nichols and Representatives Joe Pickett and Larry Phillips for their work to make this happen.
Because this funding is so essential to the people of Texas, I am declaring transportation as my third emergency item.
When it comes to our state’s responsibilities, our first and foremost obligation is to protect our citizens’ safety.
We cannot be naïve to the threat posed by drug cartels, transnational gangs and human smuggling and traffic operations. In the face of such evil, we cannot respond with apathy, but resolve.
On one of my many visits to the Rio Grande Valley, I met a young Latina who pleaded with me to keep my promise to secure the border. She told me about her younger brother being in a pick-up soccer game where kids were choosing up teams. But one of the boys was a child of a known cartel member.
Should her brother pick the boy for his team? What would be the consequences be if he did? If he didn’t?
Our children should not be faced with such tough choices.
We will not fail that young Latina. We will not fail my fellow Texans. We will do what the federal government has failed to do. We will secure our border.
The first step in securing our border is enforcing the rule of law. The last lawsuit that I filed as Attorney General was a lawsuit to stop President Obama’s lawless executive action.
I’m happy to report that late last night a federal judge halted the President’s executive action plan.
In Texas, we will not sit idly by while the President ignores the law and fails to secure the border.
That’s why I have a comprehensive border security plan. My plan more than doubles current spending on border security. It adds 500 new state troopers, more Texas Rangers who can focus on corruption, more funding for local law enforcement and more technology to stop transnational criminal activity that threatens every community in Texas.
By hiring more DPS troopers for border security, it allows officers displaced from places like Longview, Lubbock and from around the state to return to their communities to keep them safe. It also expands the anti-gang efforts across the state, helping us to disrupt dangerous gangs in places like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.
This legislation is essential, which is why I am declaring border security funding the fourth of my emergency items.
But the reality is that DPS cannot recruit, train and deploy 500 new troopers overnight. It takes time to ramp up. That’s why this morning, I met with the Commanding General of the Texas National Guard and the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. I ordered them to remain deployed on the border until my security plan is implemented.
As governor, I have identified funds to keep the National Guard in place until the Legislature acts. As soon as DPS has the permanent resources needed to secure our border, we can bring home our dedicated National Guard troops.
We must remember the hardship such long deployment puts on our National Guard troops, on their families and on their careers. We should all be deeply grateful for their dedicated service.
With us today is the Commander of our National Guard, General John Nichols and the Director of Texas DPS, Colonel Steve McCraw. Through them, let us show our thanks to the men and women who serve.
The National Guard is part of the larger forces that secure our safety and protect our freedom. America is the brightest beacon of freedom the world has ever known because of men and women who’ve worn the uniform.
Some are in this room today. If there is any member of the Legislature or a statewide official who has ever worn the uniform of the United States Military, will you please stand and let us thank you for your service.
And let us recognize all the veterans and active duty members in this room. Because of those who have fought on battlefields around the globe, we have the freedom to fight on the battleground of ideas in Capitols like this.
No generation represents that more than the greatest generation – those who brought us through World War II. Few of those heroes remain, but one is with us today. I’d like to recognize a special guest, who at 108 years young is our nation’s oldest World War II veteran. Ladies and gentlemen, a great Texan, Mr. Richard Overton.
Saying “thank you” is not enough for those who risked their lives. We must do more to help veterans return to civilian life. Texas leads the nation in job creation and yet the unemployment rate for our veterans remains high. That is unacceptable.
That’s why my budget exempts new businesses – formed by veterans – from having to pay state registration fees to open their businesses.
My budget also exempts new businesses formed by veterans from paying state franchise taxes for the first 5 years, and I’m calling for legislation to waive licensing exams and fees for veterans with the required education, training and practical experience gained in the military. If the training you received as an electrician, a technician or some other job meets the standard of the United States military, it should be good enough for the State of Texas.
We must also do more for our veterans who return broken from battle. Not all wounds are seen. My budget includes funding to provide mental health screenings to veterans and service members to help them deal with some if their deepest wounds.
It’s not just our veterans who need better access to health care. We also need to provide more funding for women’s health programs for more access to care like cancers screenings and checkups. My budget does that. My budget also increases funding for screening and treatment for post-partum depression.
To get and keep more doctors in Texas, my budget increases the number of residency positions funded in Texas. And to help people with disabilities and seniors, my budget adds more funding for in-home care attendants.
We will do all of this while still fostering the economic model that creates more jobs than any other state. While our job creation is legendary, many states are overhauling their economic development programs to compete with Texas. We will rise to the challenge by making the Texas Enterprise Fund more efficient, more effective and more transparent to help grow even more jobs in Texas.
If a business receives a grant from the Enterprise Fund, taxpayers must know that the decision was based only on merit.
But the best way to create more jobs is to permanently reduce the business franchise tax.
I will reject any budget that does not include genuine tax relief to Texas employers and job creators.
I will also insist on property tax reduction. It’s time for property owners – not government – to truly own their property.
My plan calls for a $2 billion reduction in the business franchise tax and a $2.2 billion reduction in the property tax burden. My budget includes an appropriation that makes school districts whole for any tax revenue they might lose.
But the property tax reduction must be lasting – it can’t be allowed to evaporate by rising property valuations.
To keep Texas fiscally strong, the time has come to begin reducing the state’s debt. Debt today becomes taxes tomorrow. Debt service unnecessarily burdens the state’s budget and limits the economic freedom of future generations.
We must begin the process now to create a structure to pay down our state’s debt.
To keep Texas the premiere model for opportunity, we must constrain the size of government and maximize the liberty of individuals. To protect taxpayers from government growing too big, we need a constitutional amendment that limits the growth of the state budget to population growth plus inflation.
Many of us have ridiculed states like California and Illinois as bastions of failed big government. You’ll be surprised to learn that Texas has more full-time state employees per capita than California and Illinois.
That’s shocking – it must be changed.
That’s why my budget requires most state agencies to reduce their general revenue spending by three percent. Some of those cuts can come from hiring freezes and reductions in fuel and travel costs.
Excepted from these budget cuts are public and higher education formula spending, pension obligations and amounts required by the federal entitlement programs.
To lead by example, I’m cutting the Governor’s office budget by more than ten percent. I can do it. I know every other agency can do it, too.
The more we restrain the growth of government, the more we will empower hardworking Texans. These budget cuts will make our budget even leaner while helping us prioritize spending that will make our state even stronger.
Let me briefly follow up on a word I mentioned a moment ago – liberty. In a single word, it encapsulates what this country stands for, what Texas symbolizes. I will expand liberty in Texas by signing a law that makes Texas the 45th state to allow Open Carry.
I want to mention one more topic.
Let’s dedicate this session to ethics. I want to work with you to strengthen the faith and the trust Texans deserve from us. It’s a reminder of who we work for – the citizens of Texas.
In my Blueprint for the future of Texas, I outlined multiple ethics reforms. Things like requiring elected officials to disclose contracts they have with public entities, prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and more disclosure of campaign finance information.
I want to thank Senator Van Taylor and Representative Charlie Geren for spearheading the effort to pass my Blueprint ethics reforms.
The most important commodity we have as elected officials is the bond we share with our constituents.
Transparency – and rising above even the appearance of impropriety – will strengthen that bond. Rejection of ethics reform will weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve – ourselves, or the people of Texas.
Because these ethics reforms are so important, I’m adding this to my list of emergency items.
Many of you have heard me say that our lives are not defined by how we are challenged; instead they are determined by how we respond to the challenges we face. That principle applies to us this session.
Our fellow Texans face so many challenges: the need for better schools, more roads, border security, better healthcare, more jobs. They want more liberty and less government, and they deserve ethics reform.
We can’t let their future be defined by these challenges. Instead it is our responsibility to work together and response to these challenges.
Texas needs us to succeed. America needs us to succeed.
Working together, we will keep Texas the leading state in this nation.
May God bless you and your families, and may God forever bless the great State of Texas.