By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — While savoring a major court victory from his old job, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave marching orders at his new one in a State of the State address that abandoned the fiery flair and defiant rhetoric on social issues that his predecessor had.
The speech came barely 12 hours after a federal judge in Brownsville halted President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration — siding with Abbott in the last of his 30 lawsuits against the Obama administration during his long stint as attorney general.
Texas led the challenge brought by 26 states that has now temporarily blocked orders that could spare from deportation as many as 5 million people who are in the U.S. illegally.
“In Texas, we will not sit idly by while the president ignores the law and fails to secure the border,” Abbott said.
Republicans applauded the ruling during a joint meeting of the House and Senate, and the agenda Abbott laid out gave conservatives plenty else to celebrate. Making openly carried handguns legal and putting tighter restrictions on state spending are among the laws Abbott told the Legislature to deliver over the next 100 days.
But he avoided hot-button topics that have roiled Democrats and energized Republican voters last November when tea party-backed candidates cruised to dominating Election Night victories.
Rather than use his biggest platform yet to reaffirm opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion, Abbott mostly stuck to the meat and potatoes of governance. He declared more highway funding and a limited expansion of pre-kindergarten among five priorities for the Legislature to immediately tackle.
Ethics reforms also made the cut, and Abbott took a fresh swipe at transparency issues within former Gov. Rick Perry’s flagship economic development program, the Texas Enterprise Fund, which has doled out nearly a half-billion in taxpayer dollars to private companies.
The tempered tone and content of the speech starkly contrasted to bombastic State of the State addresses under Perry, who in the run-up to his failed 2012 White House bid made divisive issues such as voter ID and sonograms for women getting abortions his legislative priorities.
Perry, who is now preparing for another possible presidential run in 2016, was not mentioned by Abbott.
One of Perry’s final major acts as governor was deploying National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border — and Abbott confirmed to a packed House chamber that the mission will not end in March as previously planned.
But Abbott did not set a firm deadline on when the National Guard is coming home. He said only that the National Guard will remain in the Rio Grande Valley until the state implements a new border security plan that includes hiring an additional 500 state troopers. Also unclear is how many Guard troops will stay on duty until then.
The issue is a priority for Republicans but has also revealed early tensions between the biggest offices in the Capitol. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was sworn in with Abbott a month ago, beat the new governor to the punch last week by announcing that an extended deployment was imminent — a move that drew conspicuous silence from Abbott until now.
Democrats said steering clear of divisive social issues didn’t make Abbott’s message any less partisan.
They lambasted his plan to double border security and said his calls for $4 billion in tax cuts will hurt revenues to the very public schools that Abbott said he wants to improve.
“I disagree with having the National Guard there a day longer,” said Democratic state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, who represents the border town of Eagle Pass. “They’re just spent, physically, and they don’t really have a clear idea of what they need to be doing.”