Whispers of a fifth special session in Austin as lawmakers appear no closer to passing vouchers

Texas lawmakers have spent a lot of time in Austin this year for a part-time legislative body.

By Sarah AschDecember 4, 2023 12:27 pm,

It is almost the holidays, and Texas lawmakers are still in Austin.

Despite being a part-time legislature, elected officials have spent most of the year at the Capitol, called back repeatedly by Gov. Greg Abbott for special sessions – the fourth of which they are now in.

And while nothing has been announced yet, the word among folks who work at the Capitol is that the governor will be calling back the Legislature for a fifth special session. This would be due to the House’s refusal to approve the Abbott’s plan for education savings accounts – what critics call a voucher-like plan that would allow state funds to be used to cover private school tuition.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, who covers politics for the Texas Newsroom, said House Speaker Dade Phelan let members of his chamber know over the weekend that they’d be wrapping up business soon for this session.

“He sent a memo to members of his chamber where he told them that that chamber will convene at 11 a.m. on Tuesday for the purpose of concluding remaining business of the fourth called session,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “Meaning that they are likely to adjourn sine die or adjourn until they’re called back for a fifth special session or until 2025.”

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Though House lawmakers did not pass education savings accounts, several bills will make it to the governor this time around.

“One of the bills that the Senate passed increases the penalties for operators of stash houses and human smugglers. This is part of Governor Abbott’s initiative Operation Lone Star. He really wants law enforcement to have a bigger role in how it enforces immigration laws in the state. And so Senate Bill 4 would do that,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “It would also allow local and state law enforcement agencies to arrest an unauthorized immigrant, take them to a county judge or a magistrate, and that judge would then have the option to return that person to the port of entry.

“And then another measure that the Senate did pass was an appropriations bill that pretty much gets $1.5 billion to be spent for the construction of walls or other barriers on the southern border.”

The Senate also passed a bill – Senate Bill 6 – intended to skirt lawsuits that would impact the implementation of constitutional amendments passed by voters in November. This bill was filed last-minute in response to lawsuits filed by far-right activists, Martínez-Beltrán said.

“These lawsuits that were filed right after the election by some of these far-right activists could actually impede those amendments from taking effect. So Republicans in the Texas Senate, they decided to file this bill. And pretty much it would speed up the process to challenge a constitutional amendment election,” he said. “So what this law would do if it passes in the House and it’s sent to the governor, is that it would require the trial on these lawsuits to happen this month. That way, the property tax cuts could go into effect next month. But it seems that the House is going to leave town without taking up that bill.”

Martínez-Beltrán said this year has provided at least one lesson to lawmakers.

“It’s a good reminder that just because you have a majority in the Legislature doesn’t mean you are going to be effective,” he said. “The governor ran on this campaign of school vouchers and education savings accounts, or giving parents choice. And here we are in the fourth special session, and the Republican majority in the Legislature has not been able to deliver that promise that they made to their constituents.

“And there’s even been debates over the border-related bills … that’s one of the measures that Republicans in the Senate were not in agreement at the beginning. Now, that bill has a different author, because the original author of SB 4 said that the current provisions included there, like sending some of these migrants back to the port of entry, is unconstitutional and he could not support it anymore.”

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