By Patrick Svitek / The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he will be “heavily involved” in the push for an education savings account program this legislative session as the idea continues to face an uphill battle in the Texas House.
Abbott, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, said he would be traveling the state to make the case directly to voters, particularly in rural areas. Such a program could redirect taxpayer money away from public schools as parents use that money to pay for their children’s private school, online schooling or private tutors. Similar proposals have typically met resistance from a coalition of Democrats and rural GOP lawmakers.
“Among Republican rural voters, about 80% support this,” Abbott said, “and I think that Republican officeholders will see that more and more, and I think there may be a change in the perception of what their voters expect of them in Austin, Texas.”
Abbott addressed that topic and a few others in an interview on the heels of his State of the State address Thursday.
Education savings accounts
One of the emergency items that Abbott announced was “education freedom,” including education savings accounts for every parent. Those would allow the state to deposit taxpayer funds that parents could then use to help pay for sending their kids to schools outside the traditional public education system.
State House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has said he is fine with an up-or-down vote on those kinds of proposals, but he has noted that the House has previously rejected them by wide margins. In rural parts of Texas, public school systems are major employers and a source of community pride. Many rural regions have few private schools.
In the interview, Abbott sought to distinguish between rural Republican lawmakers and their voters, saying “rural Republican voters strongly support this.” Last year, 88% of GOP primary voters approved of a nonbinding proposition saying “parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” Large majorities also supported it within rural counties.
To build legislative support, Abbott said he would be “taking this show on the road across the state of Texas to appeal to voters themselves.” He spoke at a “parental empowerment night” last month in Corpus Christi that was hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based conservative think tank. And he headlined a similar event Monday night in Temple, appearing in the backyard of the new chair of the House Public Education Committee, state Rep. Brad Buckley of Killeen.
Buckley has been opposed to vouchers in the past, but advocates have expressed optimism that he is now open to the idea.
“I think that there at least is the opportunity to have this have a better chance than ever before, in part because of the makeup of the committee, but also in part because of the makeup of the constituents of the members,” Abbott said.
Florida and DeSantis
Abbott shrugged off the idea that he is locked in a conservative policy rivalry with Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is likely to run for president in 2024. Abbott is also a possible White House contender, though he is seen as less likely — and formidable — as DeSantis for now.
“The reality is we really just focus on Texas and working for our constituents here in our state,” Abbott said.
While Abbott did not mention Florida or DeSantis by name, he did boast that Texas “has been a national leader” on restricting abortion and expanding gun rights. He alluded to the laws he signed in 2021 that banned most abortions in Texas and allowed the permitless carry of handguns — two conservative policy priorities in which Florida still trails Texas.
Abbott also argued that Texas has led the nation with its 2021 law that bans large social media companies from blocking users’ posts based on their political viewpoints. He said he believes it is the only such law in the country “that’s been upheld by courts so far.”
Abbott said Texas was even ahead of the curve with a 2021 law preventing local bans on natural gas as a fuel source. That issue became a national controversy recently after the Biden administration raised GOP concerns that it was interested in outlawing gas stoves, a notion it quickly denied.
Abbott’s remarks come as DeSantis is preparing to make his most anticipated visit to Texas yet. He is set to visit Houston and Dallas over the first weekend in March to headline annual fundraising dinners for the county parties in each city.
Attorney General Ken Paxton has stirred unease in the Legislature with a tentative $3.3 million settlement to end a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former deputies. Phelan said last week that he personally opposed using taxpayer dollars on the settlement, which would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Abbott also has a role in the process as the person ultimately responsible for signing the state budget into law or vetoing it. While he did not voice outright opposition to taxpayer dollars being used for the settlement, he did echo Phelan in saying Paxton will have to convince lawmakers to sign off on the deal.
“It may or may not even reach my desk, but as Speaker Phelan made clear, this is an issue that the attorney general is going to have to fully explain to both the House and the Senate,” Abbott said. “I’m also in the boat of having to learn more about this.”
At the same time, Abbott seemed to downplay any particular controversy over the settlement, saying it is “just like every other budget-type issue I encounter.”
“I need full information on the budget issue to determine if I’m gonna sign it or not,” Abbott said.
Health care for transgender kids
As conservative activists continue to lobby for legislation banning certain health care therapies for transgender kids, Abbott said it is a proposal he would sign if it reaches his desk.
Abbott and other Republicans’ rhetoric has focused on surgeries for transgender kids, though medical experts say those procedures are very rare. LGBTQ advocates have warned that such rhetoric is dangerous for kids’ mental health.
Still, “ending child gender modification” is one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s top 30 legislative priorities this session. It is also a legislative priority for the Texas GOP.
Abbott already took on health care for transgender kids last year when he ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate transition-related care for children as child abuse. Yet that did not satisfy Abbott’s intraparty critics, who continue to push for a legislative solution. A similar measure failed in 2021.
Abbott declined to put the proposal on any of the calls for the special sessions in 2021, saying its chances of passing in the House were “nil.” However, he did express support for a law at some point in the future that defines transition-related care — like puberty blockers and hormone therapy — as child abuse.
“We do need it as a law,” Abbott said in October 2021, “and it would be stronger obviously if the Legislature would pass it, and I want to see the Legislature pass it.”