AUSTIN, Texas — They were back, briefly. Just as the regular session ended, the governor called Texas lawmakers back to the Capitol to tackle two issues they didn’t get done.
Gov. Greg Abbott says it will be the first of “several special sessions.” This one focuses on border security and one of the most debated issues in the Legislature: property tax relief.
Both the House and Senate got to work quickly, with the House already passing both issues Tuesday and lawmakers leaving town. The governor then backed the House property tax plan. He said what the Senate passed Tuesday isn’t allowed on his special session call.
The issue has triggered a bitter clash between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan. Patrick used a speech before a conservative think tank earlier Tuesday to continue his criticisms of Phelan, while Phelan pushed back, telling the Senate take it or leave it.
Meanwhile, private school vouchers are not on this special session agenda. But Gov. Abbott’s expected to call lawmakers back again to debate the issue, along with teacher pay raises that also failed after the two were tied together.
But on Tuesday, Patrick admitted he doesn’t know how a school choice program will pass the Legislature.
“I don’t know how it’ll come out,” he said.
The program, which is a priority for Patrick and Abbott, would allow parents to use public school dollars to send their child to private school.
“The House killed the teacher raise bill and funding because they wouldn’t pass a school choice bill,” Patrick said.
The House has repeatedly rejected vouchers, with rural Republicans joining Democrats to fight against any program that would take money away from public schools. And when the Senate turned a school funding bill into a last-ditch effort to enact a voucher program, the negotiations went south, effectively killing the bill that would have provided teachers with pay raises.
Patrick said Phelan was the one who tied vouchers to teacher pay raises: “He came over and he said, ‘I have an idea.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Put school choice on HB 100.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’ll get it all done.’”
Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, wrote that bill. His office would not confirm or deny whether adding in a voucher program was Phelan’s idea. And Phelan’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment.
“The improper linkage between funding for our public schools and private school vouchers cost our schools billions of dollars that could have gone toward teacher salaries and other classroom needs,” said Christy Rome, the executive director of the Texas School Coalition.
The governor supports raising teacher salaries and passing a school choice program. But how Republicans will navigate selling vouchers to some of their skeptical colleagues remains to be seen.
“Ideally, they’d like to separate it from the pay raise issue. But if it’s necessary to tie it to teacher pay, in order to get perhaps a few Democratic votes or a few centrist Republican votes to get it over the finish line, then I think they’ll do that,” said Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.