AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a largely upbeat address to lawmakers Tuesday, proclaimed that Texas is "still the envy of our nation" on a multitude of fronts despite a withering budget crunch that is threatening deep cuts in state services.
Delivering his sixth State of the State address since taking office more than a decade ago, the state's longest-serving governor also proposed suspending four relatively small agencies and consolidating several others in a move that he said would help answer Texans' demands for greater government efficiency.
In a proposal likely to resonate in households with college-bound children, Perry also called on colleges and universities to offer a bachelor's degree program that costs no more than $10,000. He also resurrected a 2009 proposal to freeze students' tuition for four years at the rate they paid as freshmen.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, leading the Democrats' response to the Republican governor, issued a sharply worded rebuttal to what she said was an erroneous depiction of the state government's fiscal health.
"Gov. Perry has been waking up in a very different reality than most citizens of Texas," Davis said. "Their reality is becoming starker by the day. In the reality of Texas families, schools are closing, teachers are losing their jobs and state support for public education, already among the lowest in the entire nation, is facing dramatic cuts."
Perry's address nevertheless seemed well-received in a Legislature that is firmly in Republican control after extensive GOP victories in November. Perry touched on many of the conservative themes from his campaign, including calls to crack down on illegal immigration and curb abortions.
He also returned to one of his favorite themes by assailing "Washington overreaching" and calling on Texas lawmakers to help repeal President Barack Obama's health care law, which Texas Republicans derisively denounce as "Obamacare." He lashed out at the Environmental Protection Agency for what he has called excessive clean-air enforcement policies.
Declaring that there are "no sacred cows" in state government, Perry proposed suspending funding for four state agencies -- the Texas Historical Commission, the Commission on the Arts, the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists and the Texas Board of Professional Land Surveying. Funding would possibly be restored when the economy improves, Perry's office said.
He also proposed mergers and consolidations designed to join more than a dozen agencies with similar responsibilities. One consolidation would create a new entity -- the Health Professions Agency -- out of the Texas Medical Board, the Board of Nursing, the Board of Dental Examiners and the Optometry Board.