Top political stories in Texas 2023

It’s cliché to say this year was one for the history books, but in the case of 2023 Texas politics, it’s actually true. Multiple once-in-a-century events occurred, and two top state leaders fought with all but physical punches. 

Here’s a review of the year’s top stories.

Paxton Impeachment

In a historic proceeding, the Texas House of Representatives impeached state Attorney General Ken Paxton in May by a vote of 121 to 23 after a committee recommended charges of misconduct just two days earlier. Paxton was suspended without pay for several months as House members built the case that Paxton had accepted bribes, abused his office to benefit a campaign donor, misappropriated funds, and committed myriad other violations of his oath of office.

After months of preparation, the board of lawmakers responsible for advocating Paxton’s removal failed to convince the Senate that Paxton was guilty of the accusations found in the 16 charges that went to trial. Paxton’s impeachment and acquittal divided Texas Republicans and further drove a wedge in the working relationship between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont). Patrick blasted the House’s expedited impeachment process in a speech from the dais.

Paxton’s acquittal emboldened the attorney general, who he is now on the campaign trail seeking to unseat House members who voted for the charges. In the days after his acquittal, Paxton sat down with commentator Tucker Carlson and railed against Phelan and others he believes are subverting the will of conservative voters.

School Choice 

Following a year of anticipation and four special sessions, the hopes of passing school choice legislation were dashed — but it was a roller coaster of a ride to get here.

All the way back in January 2022, Abbott was touting school choice as one of his major initiatives for the 88th legislative session. He then doubled and tripled down, leading into the regular session, rubbing shoulders with major school choice advocates like Corey DeAngelis.

Lt. Gov. Patrick was supportive of Abbott’s school choice mission as well, reiterating his support during The Texan’s 88th Session Kickoff event. House Speaker Dade Phelan appeared more skeptical of its prospects, saying the House might not have the votes to get it across the finish line. 

The school choice push was led by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) during this past year as he tried multiple times during both the regular and special sessions to introduce and pass a workable bill. His preferred method of education savings accounts passed multiple times on the Senate floor, but the appetite was not there in the House.

The first sign of trouble came with the “Herrero amendment” to prohibit school choice funding in the state budget, which was passed, foreshadowing the fate of school choice for the rest of the year. 

When school choice didn’t pass in the regular session, Abbott called the Legislature back to the pink dome two more times to address it, but intra-party feuding caused an even bigger rift between the chambers. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a longtime vocal proponent of school choice, making public statements calling on the Legislature to pass it. 

But House Democrats as well as moderate and rural Republicans seemed determined to block school choice, with House Democrats routinely holding press conferences calling school choice a “voucher scam” and saying lawmakers should focus on funding public schools rather than “wacko libertarian ideals.”

It seemed the last shot to pass school choice was during the fourth special session when the House proposed an education omnibus bill that bundled together everything from public school funding and teacher pay raises to education savings accounts. 

However, one amendment by Rep. John Raney (R-College Station) removed the education savings accounts by a vote of 84 to 63, killing any hope of passing it this year.

Abbott has since endorsed the 58 incumbents who voted against stripping ESAs from the House bill and has continued to throw his support behind candidates who are pro-school choice in the upcoming elections. 

Slaton Expulsion

At the time, it was thought to be the biggest story of the year — something that hadn’t occurred in a century. State Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) was expelled from the Texas House after a complaint was filed and subsequent investigation found that he served his 19-year-old intern alcohol and then had sexual relations with her.

Slaton, a political gadfly in the chamber who was personally liked by many but professionally disdained, tried to preempt the vote by resigning the day before. But the General Investigating Committee pushed on with the expulsion, declining to accept the resignation in order to send a message. Slaton did not address the scandal in his resignation letter.

The affair occurred the night of March 31 and details of what occurred slowly came to light over the next month.

His successor still hasn’t been chosen, but the special election for his House District 2 has sparked a full-fledged proxy war between factions of the GOP — either Brent Money or Jill Dutton will win the right to finish out his term in January.

In a chaotic year, the Slaton debacle was one of the most frenzied but did not end up as the biggest story of the year. That would come a few weeks after the expulsion: the impeachment of Paxton.

Property Tax Debacle

The feud between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) is now a Texas political constant. This year, one thing more than any other turned that feud up to 11, likely putting the relationship beyond the pale: property taxes.

When the Legislature finally reached a deal on $13 billion in new property tax relief that included a $60,000 increase to the school district standard homestead exemption, a trial run 20 percent appraisal cap for small businesses, and appraisal review board reform, it had been half a year in the making. 

The path to that deal was as rocky as the Strait of Gibraltar — it included opposing trenches dug against a homestead exemption and an appraisal cap, the firing of infantile memes and nicknames across the rotunda, Patrick declaring his “good faith” with the speaker was broken, and accusations of nefarious personal interests.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the related constitutional amendment, and the average homeowner in Texas will see around $1,200 less on their tax bill than they would have without the relief.

However, the Legislature must now appropriate that money in perpetuity, on top of any future relief it doles out, lest tax bills rise back up. Other casualties of the standoff were 76 bills vetoed by the governor in retaliation for failing to pass his compression-only proposal.

Local government debt and spending continue to rise every year, ensuring that the problem posed by property taxes never really goes away. It’s a near-guarantee that the Legislature will be back at some point — maybe as early as next session — to address the issue again as appraisals, and by extension tax bills, rise down the road in the population-booming state.

Untying the state from its reliance on property taxes — a prospect Patrick called a “fantasy” — would be a tall order, potentially impossible with the current environment filled with landmines of policy and rhetoric in every direction. But its staying power as an issue is unmatched.

Child Gender Modification Ban 

The ban on child gender modification treatments and procedures was one of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation during the regular 88th Legislative session. Senate Bill(SB) 14 saw a wide range of debate, increased attention due to nationally covered protests, and legal scrutiny as it continues to be challenged in court. 

The two leaders on the issue, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cyprus), had to endure grueling debate between the public in committee hearings and other lawmakers while on the floor of their respective chambers.

The House floor was the scene of multiple outbursts by individuals in the gallery, with one even getting arrested for disrupting the proceedings. 

House Democrats were the most outspoken on the issue, attempting to use parliamentary procedure like calling points of order to defeat the bill, but they were unsuccessful.

A notable moment from the House floor debate was when Democratic Rep. Shawn Theirry (D-Houston) took to the front microphone and spoke emotionally in support of the legislation. 

The controversy surrounding the bill and banning child gender modification treatments focuses on the differences of opinion regarding how to properly treat children experiencing “gender dysphoria” and whether treatments labeled as “gender-affirming care” are justified. Both supporters and opponents bolster their opinions by pointing to the wide breadth of research.

Polling has shown a majority of Texas voters do not support child gender modification interventions. 

SB 14 was quickly tied up in litigation after a Travis County district court judge issued a ruling blocking its implementation. The Office of the Attorney General then filed a counter-appeal to the Texas Supreme Court who filed an opinion on a separate emergency motion for temporary relief and denied the plaintiff’s appeal, thus allowing the bill to proceed in its enactment. 

Phelan and Patrick at War

There is no love lost between Patrick and Phelan. The property tax standoff did much to deteriorate that relationship, but the feud raged on well before it and has continued well after it. The earliest sign of a public break between the two occurred during the electricity repricing debate following the February 2021 blackouts.

But now, Patrick has called on Phelan to resign and suggested House members who back his speakership should be defeated at the ballot box. Phelan hit back, accusing his counterpart of spreading “mistruths and obfuscations.”

Before that, from the pulpit of the Senate Court of Impeachment, Patrick admonished Phelan and the House for its process in the original investigation of and vote against Paxton. Phelan returned fire, saying that by Patrick’s actions it became clear “the fix was in” the attorney general’s favor; the speaker doubled down on the conclusion his chamber reached and how it got there.

During the regular session, there was a lot of political hardball — including on property taxes — as is customary in the Texas Legislature, but it often went further between the legislative two of Texas’ big three officials.

Most if not all in the building view that relationship as beyond repair. It’s a far cry from the 2019 “Kumbaya Session” when all three officials agreed to focus on “bread and butter issues” following the Beto wave scare of 2018. Now, there is no bread being broken between the lieutenant governor and the speaker — and all signs point to the bakery being closed permanently.

Special Sessions

The Texas Legislature was in session longer this year than any other year in the state’s history. Across the 140-day regular session and four special sessions, legislators spent 246 days in session, over two-thirds of the year. It’s the largest number of special sessions held in one calendar year in Texas history. There are multiple other biennia that had more special sessions, but those were split between two calendar years.

And that doesn’t even include the two-week impeachment trial.

First, it was property taxes that sparked two special sessions, then school choice with a side of various other issues. The 88th Legislature eclipsed the 78th for most amount of days spent in session, which was in Austin for 227 days in 2003.

After the marathon, legislators have left the capital with little expectation of being called back — though it’s always possible Abbott convenes another — and the cloud rising behind their retreat is a fog of disdain for and annoyance with one another.

Daniel Perry

Earlier this year, U.S. Army Sergeant Daniel Perry stood trial on charges of murder and aggravated assault after he shot and killed Air Force veteran Garrett Foster during a downtown Austin protest in July 2020. Despite Perry’s contention that he acted in self-defense when Foster approached him with an AK-style rifle, a jury in Travis County convicted Perry of first-degree murder. However, Perry was acquitted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

However, immediately after the verdict, the case became further enmeshed in politics after Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to pardon Perry upon a recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Abbott contended that the jury’s decision amounted to an attempted nullification of Texas’ self-defense law. In Texas, the governor cannot unilaterally pardon someone convicted of a crime. Perry’s legal team filed paperwork with the pardon board, and Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza called on the board to examine the evidence that led to Perry’s conviction.

Following the recommendation of the district attorney’s office, state District Judge Clifford Brown sentenced Perry to 25 years in prison. According to online records, Perry is currently serving his sentence at a prison in the Houston area.

Border Protection Unit Failure

Expectations were high at the beginning of the 88th Legislature for a game-changing border security plan that would quell an “invasion” by illegal immigrants and confront the Biden administration for its “failure” to secure the border. Speaker Dade Phelan partnered with House Republicans, including Reps. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) and Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City), to create a state border protection unit and invoke the “invasion” clauses of the U.S. Constitutions.

After Schaefer spent months advocating for House Bill (HB) 20, the centerpiece of the House’s border security plan, the legislation was lost on a point of order by Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). Points of order became a sore point during this past legislative session as Democrats successfully invoked them many times to defeat Republican bills. On HB 20, Anchia charged that the bill constituted a declaration of war and did not give proper notice about the subject matter of the bill. Phelan sustained the point of order.

While Republicans tried to salvage parts of the plan in another bill Guillen carried, the border protection unit would have been significantly less powerful. It became a moot point when a conference committee could not agree on a final version. The Legislature later passed mandatory minimum sentences for human smuggling during a special session. Schaefer’s relationship with Phelan has since been strained, and the six-term lawmaker announced in August he would not seek re-election.

The “Death Star” Bill

One of two proposals intended to reassert the primacy of the Legislature filed by state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) sparked a national fight over the relationship between the state and local governments.

Chided as the “Death Star Bill” — a moniker cheekily adopted by the bill’s author and his supporters — House Bill 2127 employed the rarely before used strategy of “field preemption.” In that, nine sections of code were laid out and local governments were forbidden from exceeding state regulations that fell within those boundaries, with some exceptions. 

With it, Burrows aimed to stop the state from having to “play Whac-A-Mole” in responding to and slapping down every individual local regulation the Legislature deemed out of step with the Texas Constitution or the red state’s values.

Burrows’ bill ultimately passed with some Democratic support in the House, and was signed into law enthusiastically by Abbott. But then, blue cities sued and secured a nominal win when a Travis County judge declared the law unconstitutional, saying it infringes on the idea of local control — a ruling that didn’t come with an injunction, so the law went into effect anyway. The state has appealed the ruling to the 3rd Court of Appeals.

The legal debate around the bill is a complicated web of arguments over separation of powers and origin of authority.

The fight isn’t over, though to date no challenges to local regulations under the law have yet been filed. But progressive localities are hot over it, throwing everything they can at the wall legally and hoping something sticks.

If and until they hit the mark, the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act is law, claiming a spot among the most impactful pieces of legislation passed in recent memory — regardless of whether one loves it or hates it.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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