By Zach Despart/The Texas Tribune
The third special legislative session ended with a whimper Tuesday morning without a deal on school vouchers — Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority — as well as several border security bills he had asked for.
The House adjourned sine die just after 10 a.m., preventing the passage of any legislation that still remains in the Senate. The upper chamber plans to convene at 4 p.m.
Over 30 days of largely unproductive lawmaking, plagued by bitter Republican infighting between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, the Legislature passed just two of the five items on the governor’s initial agenda from Oct. 5, and none of the five items he later added. Phelan said Abbott would call a fourth special session beginning Tuesday afternoon, though whether that can break the stalemate is far from guaranteed.
Never in the Legislature’s 176-year history have lawmakers met for more than three special sessions in a year with a regular session. With the nominally part-time lawmakers away from their families and principal jobs for more than half of 2023, the mood inside the Capitol is dour.
The Legislature granted Abbott’s request for a ban on employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates. The bill, shepherded by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston and Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, passed through the Republican-dominated chambers with ease.
The biggest point of contention was Abbott’s request for a voucher bill that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private and religious schools. An effort to do so in the regular session in the spring was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans.
There’s been no public signaling that a majority of the two-dozen Republican holdouts have changed their minds, despite Abbott’s declaration on Oct. 31 that he had struck a deal with Phelan’s negotiating team.
While the Senate passed its voucher bill on the sixth day of the session, the House never held a hearing on any voucher bill, let alone advance legislation to the floor for a vote.
The House inaction further soured the relationship between Patrick and Phelan, who began in the spring over property taxes and later over the House impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton. Patrick accused Phelan of caving to the Democrats and anti-voucher Republicans to preserve his speakership.
“Speaker Dade Phelan and the Texas House have just wasted another special session with no action on the legislative priorities of the governor, the Senate, and the majority of Texas voters,” Patrick said on social media on Nov. 2.
The spat had collateral damage: several border security bills Abbott wanted that Republicans agreed on in principle. Senate Bill 6, which would have appropriated $1.5 billion for the state to continue building a wall along its border with Mexico, died in the House.
The chambers passed different versions of a bill that would allow police officers to arrest migrants who cross the border illegally, but never agreed on a compromise between them. Phelan called the Senate plan “pro-illegal immigration” while Patrick derided the House plan as a “Texas-sized catch-and-release bill.”
Abbott’s vague request for a bill related to Colony Ridge met a similar fate. The Liberty County subdivision over the summer became a fascination of right-wing media, with accusations that it was a colonia providing a base for organized crime and illegal immigrants, prompting Abbott’s ask. But two legislative hearings featured Abbott’s own appointees testifying that Colony Ridge was not overrun with criminals and squalor, prompting some Republican legislators to wonder aloud if the governor was wasting their time.
The Senate approved $40 million for additional law enforcement in Colody Ridge, though it was attached to the border barrier bill that died in the House.
Abbott made vouchers his top legislative priority last year, a choice that surprised some at the Capitol because his 2017 push for school choice legislation, during his first term, was rejected by the House.
After the 2023 regular session ended with a lot of unfinished business, the first two special sessions featured a singular focus: property tax cuts.
Abbott’s agenda for the third special session, by including border security and Colony Ridge, created an opportunity for the governor to walk away with some victories in case the voucher effort failed again.
But because most of the bills on those topics failed to pass as well, Abbott now faces the prospect of a fourth special session where lawmakers spend valuable time on issues other than his top priority. By law, special sessions can last no longer than 30 days.
There may be a glimmer of hope, however. Last week Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, the chairman of the House public education bill, unveiled a new voucher bill with more concessions than ever to the Republican holdouts. Most significantly, it increases the amount of money each public school district receives per student.
“This is a bill rural legislators can get behind,” Rep. Stan Kitzman, R-Pattison, said in a statement. Kitzman, however, didn’t necessarily need to be won over. He signaled support for vouchers earlier this year when he voted against a budget amendment that would have banned them.
Phelan said the House plans to get right to work, beginning around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Buckley declined to telegraph his plans for how he’ll shepherd his new proposal through to passage.
“We’ll file the bill at the appropriate time,” he said as reporters pursued him out of the chamber.