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Texas Legislature adjourns fourth special session — leaving vouchers, school safety and elections bills unfinished

2 months 3 weeks 6 days ago Tuesday, December 05 2023 Dec 5, 2023 December 05, 2023 4:22 PM December 05, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
By: ZACH DESPART | THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
Morning sunlight falls on the Texas Capitol dome on Sept. 16, 2023. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

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The fourth special legislative session ended Tuesday when the House adjourned without taking action on some key bills the Senate had passed, leaving senators with little choice but to adjourn as well.

It concluded much like it began, with no deal on school vouchers, other Republican priorities sunk by intra-party fighting and a governor unable to broker peace between the feuding heads of the legislative chambers.

The latest casualties were Senate Bill 5, which would spend $800 million on school safety measures through 2025; and Senate Bill 6, which would change the timeline of a trial after an election contest is filed by a citizen or group. The failure to pass school vouchers, while a victory for Democrats and some rural Republicans, came at the cost of blocking funding that would have also increased school funding and provided bonuses for teachers.

The special session was scheduled to end Wednesday at midnight. But with the House skipping town at 11:30 a.m. without action on pending Senate bills, there was nothing the Senate can do to advance them to the governor’s desk. Senators had stood at ease Tuesday morning, pending the action from the lower chamber, and then adjourned for good just before 1 p.m.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has called for House Speaker Dade Phelan to resign for supporting the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton earlier this year, made his frustration with the slow pace of House businesses clear last week.

“Dade Phelan back at it again, blaming his inability to lead as speaker by blaming everyone else for his failings,” Patrick said Friday on the social media platform X. He accused the speaker of slow-walking bills the Senate had passed.

Phelan shot back, blasting Patrick, the Senate leader, for backing the chamber’s own school safety bill instead of simply passing the House’s version, which representatives passed in mid-November.

Phelan said the move, occurring too late in the special session, allowed Patrick to “take to social media, pretending to care about adequately funding school safety while blaming others for the ramifications of his own inactions. This is nothing more than a played-out political stunt that we’ve seen from him time and time again.”

Whether Gov. Greg Abbott will make good on his threat to call a fifth special session — and when that would occur — is unclear. The Legislature has been in session 246 days in 2023, more than any other year since Texas became a state in 1845. Lawmakers receive a daily per diem of $221 for what is supposed to be a part-time job; most have full-time occupations back home.

Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While honoring a House sergeant-at-arms who had recently competed in a Special Olympics golf tournament, Phelan quipped Tuesday morning that he hoped members would have a lot of time to golf in the months to come.

The highest-profile item of the session was school vouchers, Abbott’s top legislative priority, which would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private and religious schools. A voucher bill did not reach a floor vote in the spring regular session, as a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans made clear it lacked the support to pass.

This time, House leadership agreed to allow floor debate on a voucher bill that Killeen Republican Rep. Brad Buckley had shepherded through the education committee, which he chairs. The bill was an omnibus package that also included bonuses for teachers and increased per-student state spending for public school students.

Those sweeteners failed to entice the voucher holdouts, including 21 Republicans, who stripped vouchers from the bill. As Abbott had signaled that he would not sign a bill boosting education spending that did not include a voucher provision, the House did not bother proceeding with the other elements of Buckley’s proposal.

The session was not without some legislative victories for Republicans. The chambers approved Senate Bill 3, which would appropriate $1.5 billion to continue construction of a border barrier between Texas and Mexico as well as fund enhanced immigration efforts. They also approved Senate Bill 4, which would allow Texas police to arrest people who illegally cross the border from Mexico.

Senate Bill 6 was a late-session addition that would have altered the timeline of a trial prompted by a citizen or group filing an election challenge.

It came after six lawsuits were filed in Travis County last week contesting the results of the November election, in which Texas voters approved constitutional amendments that would reduce property taxes, increase pensions for retired teachers and invest billions of dollars in the power grid, water infrastructure, broadband internet and state parks.

Under current law, the challenges cannot go to trial sooner than one month after filing, which would likely push the implementation of the voter-approved measures past Jan. 1. SB 6 author Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, noted that the election challenges were based on false claims about voting equipment and should not be permitted to delay what voters had chosen.

Abbott had not added the item to the special session call, but said he would consider doing so if the two chambers passed a bill.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/05/texas-house-adjourns-special-legislative-session/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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