The regular Texas legislative session started with a record budget surplus and ended with an impeached attorney general
Texas lawmakers entered into 2023 predicting a historic legislative session, one in which they had a $32.7 billion budget surplus to spend and a host of conservative priorities to rally around.
On Monday, they indeed gaveled out of a historic session. But perhaps not for the reasons they expected.
Flailing legislative negotiations about property taxes and “school choice” were overshadowed by the Texas House overwhelmingly voting to impeach embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton.
And as both chambers gaveled out Monday, House Speaker Dade Phelan confirmed that at least one more round of lawmaking — in the form of a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott — was essentially guaranteed.
“I also expect to have a proclamation from the governor in the next 12 hours, so I would not pack your bags just yet," he said.
Sure enough, Abbott made it official Monday night, calling an immediate special session to focus on property taxes and border issues. Abbott also said that multiple special sessions would be required, with a few items to be considered in each special session.
Just three of the priority items Abbott urged action on early in the regular session are poised to make it to his desk, as a swath of conservative measures fell victim to Republican infighting between the two chambers.
Instead of the normal day of ceremony to mark the end of a grueling 140 days of lawmaking, Monday was unusually eventful. Both chambers and the governor’s office spent hours going back and forth to try and hash out a deal on property taxes. Then, the House appointed 12 representatives to a board of managers to prosecute the case against Paxton. The dozen representatives walked across the Capitol to the Senate where they delivered articles of impeachment to the Senate. Before the Senate gaveled out, the chamber's secretary announced that seven appointed senators would return June 20 to discuss rules for impeachment proceedings and that the trial would begin before the end of August.
When it comes to policy, lawmakers failed to strike a deal to reduce property taxes. An effort to increase the state’s law enforcement presence at the border collapsed. They couldn’t find a school voucher plan palatable to both Abbott and a House majority, nor did they increase teacher salaries during an unprecedented teacher shortage. Faculty tenure still exists at Texas’ public universities despite Patrick’s best efforts — though lawmakers will have more power over the long-standing practice.
The conservative majority did vote to ban puberty blockers and hormone treatments for transgender children. They provided state money for loans to upgrade or build new gas-fueled power plants. They struck a deal to make voting when ineligible punishable as a felony and eliminated offices that focused on diversity, equity and inclusion on public college campuses. They also toughened criminal penalties for people who sell fentanyl. Each of those measures has been sent to the governor’s office and is poised to become law.
There were also bipartisan victories, made possible in part by all that available state money. Lawmakers voted to create a $3 billion endowment fund for a group of public universities, earmark $1 billion for water infrastructure improvements and allocate $1.5 billion to expand broadband internet access in the state. Community colleges saw an infusion of more than $650 million as the state overhauled how to fund two-year schools.
But the regular session was marked by scandal and bickering throughout.
Over the last five months, the House expelled one of its own members, former Royse City Rep. Bryan Slaton, after an internal investigation determined he provided alcohol to a 19-year-old aide and had sex with her. Attorney General Ken Paxton called for the resignation of House Speaker Dade Phelan, suggesting that a video of him presiding over the House during a marathon late-night session showed him drunk. (Phelan has not commented on the video.)
That same day, the House revealed that it had been investigating Paxton for months on allegations of bribery and exhibiting a yearslong pattern of lawbreaking and ethical lapses.
And then, the regular session climaxed with the impeachment of Paxton, despite a last-minute objection from President Donald Trump.
It’s no wonder people seemed to forget Georgetown Sen. Charles Schwertner was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving a mere three months ago.
All the infighting and scandal leaves considerable unfinished business. In addition to the special sessions, a trial in the Senate over Paxton’s political future looms on the horizon.
“This session, if you would have told me it would be even more interesting and more challenging than last session, I would not have believed you,” Phelan told House members Monday.
“But it has been. It’s been a very interesting, challenging session, not just for the Texas House, but for the state of Texas. What happened this week was nothing I take pride in. It was not anything I was proud of. But it was necessary. It was just. The Texas House spoke and we sent a strong message for the future of Texas.”
Divisions and differences
At the center of this session’s tumult was the tenuous relationship between the leaders of the two chambers: Patrick and Phelan.
When Patrick laid out his 30 legislative priorities in the Senate before the start of the session, he called them the “strongest, most conservative agenda ever.” On it were bills that would prevent transgender college students from playing on sports teams that correspond to their gender identities, ban gender-affirming medical care for trans youth and prohibit minors from attending drag shows.
Phelan offered a different set of priorities, such as expanding Medicaid for new mothers and exempting sales tax for items like diapers and tampons. He threw support behind bills that required tech companies to give parents access to a minor’s privacy and account settings and would limit the collection of a minor’s data. He sought to bolster school safety and overhaul how the state funds its community colleges.
The upper chamber spent the first few months promptly moving Patrick’s priorities through, largely along party lines. Patrick groused, meanwhile, that the House wasn’t moving fast enough.
“Sending that many bills that late means most will die due to the clock,” he said on social media. “Not our fault. Help us help you.”
And it soon became clear there were even stark policy differences on the issue that both chambers wanted to address: how to control property taxes paid by Texas homeowners.
House Republicans wanted to lower by half the state’s cap on how much a home’s taxable value can grow each year and extend that benefit to businesses — an idea Senate Republicans rejected. The banner idea Senate GOP tax-cut writers proposed was to boost the state’s homestead exemption on school district taxes — or the chunk of a home’s value that can’t be taxed to pay for public schools.
Disagreements started to play out on television and social media.
Patrick took a page from Trump and called out Phelan by name on television, dubbing the lifelong Beaumont resident “California Dade.”
In response, Phelan posted on social media a shirtless photo of himself flanked by two surfboards, flashing his abs and a smile.
“Stoked for some tasty waves on the Texas Coast this summer after #txlege hits its gnarly Sine Die!” he tweeted.
With common ground between two Republicans hard to find on a topic like tax cuts, finding it on a contentious issue like school choice seemed nearly impossible.
The House has long resisted programs to give parents state money to pay for private school tuition or home-schooling expenses, as Democrats and rural Republicans fear they would siphon funds away from public schools.
This year, Abbott put his full weight behind the issue, crisscrossing the state to drum up support for the idea. The Senate quickly complied, voting in early April to send to the House a bill that would allow all parents to spend up to $8,000 on their kids’ private schooling each year. But that same night, the House voted by 86-52 in favor of an amendment on the budget bill to ban education savings accounts.
That measure never seriously stood a chance of being written into law, but it signaled the House’s deep skepticism on the issue. House Public Education Committee Chair Brad Buckley tried rewriting the bill twice to tone it down, restrict eligibility and make it more palatable to a skeptical House.
Before Buckley could get his committee to vote on the second version, Abbott expressed his disapproval — and the bill was doomed. Abbott promised to call lawmakers back later this year to try again. In a last-ditch effort, the Senate tried attaching a school voucher program onto a House bill that would have sent $4.5 billion in additional funding to schools, paying for teacher raises among other things. That failed, too, taking the raises and school funds down with it.
A sudden impeachment
With a special session on vouchers seemingly inevitable, lawmakers, lobbyists and political watchers seemed ready for an anticlimactic end to the session.
But then, things started to get interesting.
On May 23, with six days left in the session, Paxton called on Phelan to resign. Citing a video of Phelan slurring his words after a long night on the dais, Paxton said Phelan was presiding over the House “in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.”
“His conduct has negatively impacted the legislative process and constitutes a failure to live up to his duty to the public,” Paxton wrote.
Hours later, the House General Investigating Committee revealed that it had been investigating Paxton’s alleged misconduct since mid-March.
Committee members said they opened the investigation when Paxton requested $3.3 million in taxpayer dollars to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought against him by former aides he’d fired after they’d accused him of bribery.
Phelan’s supporters said the investigation was clearly the motivation for Paxton’s attack. A day later, the majority-Republican committee spent three hours laying out the findings. Paxton may have committed at least three felonies in an effort to help a donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, with various legal troubles, the committee’s investigators said. These included spending $72,000 in staff labor on tasks that benefited the developer, providing Paul with an internal FBI file related to an investigation into Paul and hiring an outside lawyer for $25,000 to conduct work that primarily benefited Paul.
The panel voted to recommend impeachment, and three days later the impeachment proceedings reached the House floor. Hardline conservative supporters of Paxton lashed out, accusing Phelan of being a liberal and of letting Democrats push the proceedings. Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spoke out against the effort. Abbott has remained silent on the issue.
After more than four hours of debate and discussion, the House voted 121-23 in favor of impeachment. The margin among Republicans was 60-23 in favor. It was the first time a Texas attorney general had been impeached.
The impeachment vote happened with two days left in the regular session and just a few hours before a key deadline for House and Senate members to negotiate the differences between bills that passed both chambers.
With attention elsewhere, the deadline passed before several major priority bills could be ironed out. School vouchers had been doomed for days, but agreements proved elusive on a new economic incentive program favored by Abbott, a measure to shore up the energy grid pushed by Patrick, a border security measure desired by them all or those pesky tax cuts.
On Sunday, the two chambers made one more attempt to play nice. They set aside the rules and came to agreement on the grid bill and economic incentives, sending them to Abbott even though the deals were inked more than 18 hours past the supposed deadline.
As night fell, talk spread around the Capitol about a similar deal on property taxes. Phelan’s spokesperson even tweeted out a photo of House negotiators signing an agreement.
But the signatures never came in the Senate, and the frustrated leaders of the two chambers adjourned after 10:30 p.m.
That left only Monday. But little changed.
Around 5:30 that evening – nearly six hours after the Legislature typically declares that the regular session is over – Patrick signaled that the Senate was no longer interested in negotiating when he sent a public letter to Abbott, alerting him that “many important issues affecting Texans died in the Texas House." He urged the governor to add a long list of bills to a special session. When the House gaveled out less than an hour later, it was with the assumption that Abbott will be calling them back soon to finish their business.
California Dade’s surfing trip will likely have to wait.
Joshua Fechter, Brian Lopez and Zach Despart contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/29/sine-die-texas-legislature-2023/.
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