From four special sessions to an impeachment trial, here’s what happened in Texas politics this year

Texas had a very big year. Let’s review.

By Sarah AschDecember 29, 2023 8:25 am,

It was quite the year in Texas politics.

One regular legislative session. Four special sessions. One impeachment trial of the attorney general. New legislation on everything from border policy to school safety.

The goings-on at the Capitol made headlines in Texas and beyond.

Julián Aguliar, who covers the border for The Texas Newsroom, said among the big border legislation this year was Senate Bill 4, which passed during the most recent special session. He clarified that there was another Senate Bill 4 from the regular session as well.

“This [law] allows local and state law enforcement officers to question, detain, possibly arrest somebody they think is in Texas illegally. And by that, meaning that they have ‘probable cause’ to assume that they crossed from Mexico into Texas without authorization,” he said. “There are several other bills that passed as sort of a package that [Governor] Greg Abbott charged lawmakers with assuming responsibility for in January. This is the most controversial one. It’s teed up to likely challenge a Supreme Court decision that came down in 2012 about what states can do on immigration.”

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Abbott and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have said it is important to do something about the border because President Joe Biden is not doing anything, Aguilar said.

“Critics say this [law] leads to racial profiling. It’s a statewide bill. So how are you going to determine if somebody looks like an immigrant or a minority in Dallas, for example? What’s the probable cause to question that person’s status?” he said. “So there’s not only the civil rights violations, but there’s also a tangle with the federal government and those responsibilities on immigration enforcement. The governor signed the bill … and it doesn’t go into effect until March. But there was swift action on the legal front with the ACLU of Texas and the Civil Rights Project and the national ACLU already filing a lawsuit.”

School vouchers

Republican leaders did not pass all of their priority legislation, however. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, who covers state politics for The Texas Newsroom, followed the back-and-forth on education savings accounts. This policy, which would allow parents to use public dollars for private school tuition, was the main cause of the four special sessions — and it didn’t even get to a vote in the House until the last session.

“The reason why the House has not voted on this before up until the fourth special session was because there was a lot of opposition from Democrats, but also from Republicans who represent rural communities. These are the Republicans who have remained steadfast in their opposition,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “But the House decided to move forward to bring that bill to the floor for a vote. And I don’t think a lot of us who have been following this debate were surprised to see again that the measure didn’t move forward.”

During that fourth session, the education savings account legislation was folded into an omnibus education bill in the House that also included teacher raises and more money for schools to spend per student. However, House members voted to take the voucher provision out of the bill and the legislation died at that point, Martínez-Beltrán said.

It is still unclear if there will be a fifth special session in the new year.

“The governor has said that he’s not afraid to call for more special sessions — but that he’s also getting involved in the primary elections. He’s going to support the opponents of the incumbents who have voted against school vouchers,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “Something that I find interesting is that if the governor were to call for a new special session in February – so a month before the primary election – that would actually hurt the incumbents, because they would have to be in Austin while their primary opponents can be in the district knocking on doors and having more time in that district campaigning.”

Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial

Perhaps the biggest political story of the year, though, was the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Texas Senate. Paxton was impeached by the House in May and then ultimately reinstated after being cleared of 16 charges by the Senate. After Paxton’s acquittal, Aguilar said, the AG came out swinging.

“He did a radio tour sort of just really, really laying into his opponents, including the several Republicans on the House side,” Aguilar said. “I think looking forward, we’re going to see a lot more fallout, because the attorney general sort of said … he has his own list of folks that he wants to target in the primaries because they did vote to impeach him.”

This list does not necessarily match up with the governor’s list, which means there are some politicians who Abbott is supporting that Paxton is going against, and vice versa, Aguilar said.

Abortion access

Another huge issue that came up time and again — especially in the courts this year — was abortion. Martínez-Beltrán said he expects Democrats to run on abortion access going into 2024.

“The issue of abortion is one that creates a lot of momentum for Democrats,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “My observation, though, is that Democrats have had a hard time falling in line….and we saw it in the regular session. There’s a moment that comes to mind, which was when there was this big debate on banning drag queens performances in front of children. And Republicans, they fell in line, they were all in support of this ban. And Democrats pushed back.

“And then by the time they had to vote on the measure after it was watered down, the majority of the Democrats voted present. They didn’t vote against the bill, didn’t vote for the bill. They voted present. And that itself sends a message that they were not even willing to vote against the bill that they had been pushing against the whole session.”

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