The legislative session has completed its 18th week. 1 week to go. Here’s what’s happening:
Abbott Threatens Special Session
The legislature could be forced into overtime if they don’t approve private school vouchers before the session ends on May 29th. The voucher program calls for public tax dollars to be used for private school tuition, and is a top priority of both Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. The Senate – over which Patrick presides – has already approved legislation setting up a voucher program for almost all of the state’s 5.5 million public school students. The House version under consideration is much narrower, making the subsidy available to only students who receive special education resources or are in F-rated school districts. The House plan would make an estimated 800,000 students eligible. Abbott warned earlier this week that the House plan under consideration was not acceptable to him, and he would veto that plan if that is what was finally passed by the Legislature.
Public education advocates, as well as rural school districts have adamantly opposed any type of voucher program, arguing that the diversion of state resources would result in severe budgetary issues for their districts. While the Senate did pass their version of vouchers largely along party lines, the House has had two indirect votes signaling that support is not there among the body for a voucher program. The current version of voucher legislation is pending in the House Public Education Committee, and this week the committee chairman said he has no intention of bringing the bill up for a vote. If the bill is not voted and reported out by tomorrow, it is dead.
If Gov. Abbott does follow through on his special session threat, it will not be a new phenomenon. Special sessions are common in Texas. Gov. Abbott called three in 2021 on various issues and Governor Rick Perry called 12 special sessions during his tenure. Governor George W. Bush was the only Governor in the past 30 years not to call a special session.
Other Issues Not Resolved
As the session enters its final week next week, there are still many major issues that have not yet been resolved. More end of session deadlines kick in, which will kill scores of bills that have not made it through the process in a timely manner. For instance, the one must pass bill of the session – the state budget – is still in a joint House/Senate conference committee. However, both sides have said that the two chambers are moving closer to a compromise on the $300 billion biennial state budget. Key areas where negotiations are still ongoing include property tax reform, security and reliability of the electric grid, water infrastructure projects, and the above mentioned voucher program.
Speaking of property taxes, the two chambers are still at odds on how to reduce the property tax burden for Texas home and business owners. Both agree that has to happen, but how is where the differences lie. The House wants to lower the appraisal cap while the Senate wants to increase the homestead exemption. The House passed their version yesterday, and the bill will now head to a conference committee.
Other major issues that are either stuck in conference committee or destined to be in conference committee soon are school safety, border security and immigration, teacher pay raises, restricting tenure and banning diversity programs at public universities, and expansion of postpartum Medicaid. If meaningful conversations between legislative leaders occur, agreements can be made very quickly. Bills have until next Saturday to be put in final conference committee form to be considered by each House.
Sports Betting Success Short Lived
Last Friday the House passed both a constitutional amendment and enabling legislation that would allow the people of Texas to decide on whether or not to legalize online sports betting in the state. The proposal was approved by 2/3rds of the House. However, the euphoria was short lived. Lt Governor Dan Patrick tweeted on Sunday that the Senate would not consider the measures. He went on to say that the proposal does not have the support of the majority of the 19 Republican Senators in the body, and he would therefore not even refer it to a committee for consideration. Thus, the proposal is dead for at least the next two years until the legislature meets again in regular session.
Following the expiration of Title 42 this week, Gov. Abbott sent letters to all fellow Governors asking for their assistance with the border crisis facing Texas. Abbott placed full blame on the Biden administration and asked for other states to send funding and law enforcement personnel to assist the state with border enforcement. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis immediately answered the call by committing to immediately send a total of 1,100 troops to Texas. DeSantis will send 100 highway troopers, 200 local police officers and 800 national guard troops to our state, as well as boats and planes to help patrol the southern border.
Also yesterday, Abbott announced that the state will continue to send migrants out of state. Abbott announced the arrival of the first group of migrants sent to Denver yesterday, joining the destinations of Washington, DC, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. To date, Texas has bused over 19,000 migrants to declared sanctuary cities to help reduce the burden on our border communities.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry said in an interview with CNN last weekend that he has not ruled out another run for President. Perry is 73, and served as Texas Governor from 2000-2014. He first ran for the Republican nomination for President in 2012. In that campaign, he finished 5th in Iowa and 6th in New Hampshire before dropping out of the race. He tried again in 2016, but poor fundraising and polling forced him to drop out after only three months of campaigning, long before any of the primaries. Perry – who still remains the state’s longest serving Governor – did clarify that the chances of him running in 2024 are “slim”, but something he “hasn’t taken off the table just yet”.
In his weekly call with Texas reporters yesterday, US Senator John Cornyn had a harsh commentary on former President Trump, saying he cannot win a general election contest next year and that the Republican party needs to find an alternative to candidate “who can actually win”. A Trump spokesman fired back saying that Cornyn is out of touch and part of the “deep state” problem in Washington, desiring to only cling to power and not solve problems. An average of recent national polls show Trump is still the choice of 56% of Republican primary voters. He has also been endorsed by 11 of the 49 Republican members of the US Senate.
Democrat Michelle Vallejo announced yesterday that she is seeking a rematch against Republican incumbent Monica De La Cruz in a Valley based Congressional seat. Vallejo lost to De La Cruz in 2022 by 9 points in the district that stretches from the McAllen area up to Guadalupe County, just east of San Antonio. The district was drawn to favor a Republican, and was not considered to be a priority target for the Democrats in 2022. However, the national party has declared the district to be a priority for the 2024 cycle, meaning Vallejo should see a significant increase in funding for the rematch.
State budget writers have added a provision during their negotiations on the state budget to ban any state dollars for payments towards a whistleblower lawsuit involving Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton was sued last year by former employees of his agency when he fired them for accusing him of bribery and abuse of office. The employees have won a $3.3 million settlement for back pay and damages. Paxton has asked the state to pay for the settlement, but this ban on state funds will likely send the settlement back to court.
And we are sad to report that former Congressman Charlie Stenholm has passed away. Stenholm, 84, was one of the last prominent rural Democrats to represent the state of Texas in Congress. Stenholm was from Stamford, a small town near Abilene, and served the west Texas community from 1979 until his retirement in 2004. He rose to the level of ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee which was fitting since he made his living as a cotton farmer. Stenholm was considered one of the leading policy leaders on agriculture issues during his time in Congress. After retirement, Stenholm worked as a lobbyist for agriculture related issues and then as an adjunct professor for Tarleton State University. He is survived by his wife Cynthia and three children.
Activity this Week
This week the Senate passed city preemption bill which prohibits local governments from passing or enforcing local laws and regulations that exceed state laws. The Senate also passed a bill to establish pilot program to video tape vote counting, to let prosecutors pursue murder charges in deaths related to fentanyl overdoses, and concurred on house amendments to SB 14, the prohibition against transgender medical treatment for minors. That action now allows SB 14 to be sent to Gov. Abbott for his signature.
The Senate will adjourn after their session today for the weekend and will reconvene on Sunday evening.
The House this week met and passed SB 14, and SB 15, both relating to the transgender community. SB 14 prohibits any type of transgender medical treatments for minors, and SB 15 restricts the participation by transgender athletes at the college level. The House also passed a bill to fund billions of dollars in new water infrastructure projects and flood prevention, and another to improve background checks on foster parents and child welfare workers.
The House is meeting today to consider a local and uncontested calendar and then will meet Saturday for a regular calendar before adjourning until Monday.
Wednesday is the last day that either House can pass a bill. After Wednesday, they can only consider amendments placed on bills by the opposite chamber and/or consider conference committee reports.
When lawmakers return Monday, there will be 7 days remaining in the session.