Third special session comes to an end: What's next?

The Texas House adjourned “sine die” Tuesday morning on the third called special session of 2023, cementing what was already known — the special’s legislative yield would be limited to a ban on private COVID-19 vaccine mandates and a penalty increase for human smuggling.

Both were passed by the two chambers with relatively little fanfare and now await Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

Senate Bill (SB) 7 filed by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) and sponsored in the House by state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) prohibits private employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment. Similar legislation banning the practice for local governments, along with mask mandates and business closures, was passed during the regular session.

An amendment in the House by state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) raised the penalty for violating the prohibition from $10,000 to $50,000. Under the soon-to-be-law, employees can file complaints alleging violations by their employer with the Texas Workforce Commission, which would then investigate the claim. A fine would only come if a business refused to comply with the prohibition, according to Middleton.

The Office of the Attorney General is tasked with enforcement of the law, with the ability to seek injunctive relief against the offending business. 

Senate Bill (SB) 4 sets mandatory minimum sentences for the offense of trafficking persons and operating a stash house; that bill was the least controversial of the third special session’s clip.

The rest of the business tasked by Abbott remains unaddressed, which those opposed to the various items count as a win.

“In a bipartisan effort — school voucher scams are dead in the Texas Legislature once again,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a release. “While we anticipate a fourth called special session, we could not be more proud of our Texas Democrats for holding the line for our public schools.”

School choice in the form of education savings accounts barely got off the ground in the Legislature, passing the Senate but not even receiving a committee hearing in the House. In the final stretch of the third special, Abbott added teacher pay raises and a school funding increase to the call — hoping to grease the wheels to pull school choice across the finish line. 

Going into the expected next special session, the House has an omnibus plan from Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), who said it was agreed to by the governor’s office.

Other items that failed to pass the third special are the creation of a penalty for illegal entry into the state from a foreign nation; an increased appropriation for the purpose of constructing more border wall; and addressing the Colony Ridge development near Houston.

The first two became the subjects of yet another spat between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), both arguing that the others’ plans were insufficient in relation to their own.

Both chambers held committee hearings on Colony Ridge, and it amounted little legislatively — only a $40 million appropriation in the Senate’s border barrier bill to pay for Texas Department of Public Safety overtime, whose officers are supplementing local law enforcement on patrol duty in the development.

When the House adjourned sine die on Tuesday, Phelan said he expected to reconvene that evening after Abbott’s fourth special session call is released. The Senate reconvened at 4 p.m. to do the same as the House.

The intra-party feuding between Patrick and Phelan seemed to hit a fever pitch during the third special session. Their relationship, which was put under stress during the property tax debates of the 88th regular session, became even more bitter after the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, resulting in them taking jabs at each other in statements and on social media.

On the penultimate day of the third special, Patrick wrote that the House’s inability to pass legislation was due to Phelan being “beholden only to the Democrats who put him in office and maintain his position.” Patrick also said he told Abbott in a meeting that he would “support” another special session “if the Texas House fails to pass acceptable school choice legislation this fall.”

Patrick praised the Senate’s movement on bills in the final days of the third special session while lambasting “Phelan’s tough talk after another failed special session,” calling it “lackluster leadership and an utter failure to deliver what Texans demand from their Legislature.”

As the curtain closes on the third special session and prepares to open on the fourth, the Senate dais will be markedly absent of Patrick’s presence as he is currently at home recovering from viral pneumonia. However, he said the Senate is “fully prepared to address any issues the Governor may include in a fourth special session.”

Shortly after the Senate’s adjournment, Abbott said he was “immediately calling all lawmakers back” for a fourth special session, saying “there is more work to be done.”

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