Let the fun begin: Third special session underway

The Texas Legislature convened Monday for the start of this year’s third special session, getting the ball rolling on the latest attempt to pass some form of school choice as well as additional border security measures.

In his proclamation last week, Gov. Greg Abbott called for a school choice program that encompasses “all school children” — though such legislation faces a rocky path in the Texas House, whose GOP membership is divided on the issue.

State Rep. Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), one of the 24 House Republicans who voted for the voucher program prohibition budget amendment back in April, said recently that he would only support a school choice program if it has some restrictions in to whom it applies.

“I’ve not seen a bill that I could support,” he told Big Country Homepage. “Because, again, up to now, it’s been mostly a universal discussion. There’s been no limitations, no strings attached, no accountability. And so, under those types of scenarios and conditions, I would not be voting for that.”

Meanwhile, the more conservative wing of the caucus is wary about a school choice program that isn’t universal. State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) has planted his flag there, saying on Saturday, “School Choice for all! Everyone. Not just some.”

Throw in the House Democratic Caucus, which is nearly uniformly against education savings accounts or vouchers, and the issue is very much up in the air in the lower chamber.

The Texas House is going to try and pass school choice with an increase to the school district basic allotment and a teacher pay raise — one vote for all three with members voting for the aspect they like, and holding their nose on the aspects they don’t.

A poll of 21 GOP-held Texas House districts — commissioned by Abbott back in April but released over the weekend — showed 58 percent support and 27 percent opposition to school choice among all voters. Among Republicans, that support figure jumps to 69 percent with 17 percent opposed.

However, the Senate and governor have previously objected to a significantly limited school choice program during the regular session, adding complications to the dynamic.

Abbott has said he intends to call multiple special sessions if necessary to pass his favored education savings accounts proposal, but the Legislature currently has no money left for another special.

That money could be appropriated, however — special sessions tend to cost between $2 million and $3 million — especially after the Texas Comptroller’s most recent financial update that shows an extra $2.5 billion to work with in Fiscal Year 2024’s unencumbered balance.

It could also be used to supplement those education issues on top of the $5 billion already itemized in the budget.

On border security, the governor named three items:

Create a state criminal offense for illegal foreign entry into Texas

Increase human smuggling penalties

Appropriate more funding for border barriers including the state’s wall

The first bill filed for the special session was state Sen. Brian Birdwell’s (R-Granbury) Senate Bill 11 establishing the improper entry crime.

Additionally, state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) re-filed his House Bill 20 from the regular session, a House priority item that would have created the Border Protection Unit and invoked the U.S. and Texas Constitutions’ invasion clauses — though without the invasion clause language.

That language is what state Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) successfully point of ordered, killing the bill during the regular session.

Below those categories on the proclamation are directives to investigate, and somehow address, the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County and to pass a ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates from private businesses.

But the first thing that is likely to happen when the Texas House convenes Monday is an attempt to oust Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), a vote that would require 76 votes or a majority of those present in the chamber. Such a motion is privileged, meaning it only requires one member to make it. But if the speaker chooses not to recognize that motion, it requires 75 members to second it to challenge the ruling of the chair, effectively its own referendum on the speakership.

If there is a vote, it is likely to fail in an overwhelming fashion. But after the acquittal of Attorney General Ken Paxton, a few House members in the more conservative wing of the caucus have called for a replacement in the speaker’s office — far from enough to oust Phelan, but it only takes one member is needed to trigger the vote if the speaker wants to gauge his support in the lower chamber.

After spending most of the year convened in Austin in some form or another, legislators are itching to make the special quick and get out of Dodge. But Texas must wait and see whether that’s possible, given the political difficulties of the issues and the tattered relationship between the House speaker and lieutenant governor.

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