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With GOP priorities unfinished, Texas House plans to wrap fourth special session Tuesday


With GOP priorities unfinished, Texas House plans to wrap fourth special session Tuesday

Dec 02, 2023 | 6:31 pm ET
By Maia Pandey
With GOP priorities unfinished, Texas House plans to wrap fourth special session Tuesday
House Speaker Dade Phelan stands at the dais in the House chamber on Nov. 17, 2023. (Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune)

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Speaker Dade Phelan has told House members that the lower chamber will wrap up its work for the fourth special legislative session on Tuesday — potentially spelling doom for a handful of unfinished bills that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is pushing to pass.

The decision means that, unless the House makes a last-minute maneuver to approve them, time will run out in this session for measures to increase school safety funding, create a new school voucher program and ensure that new property tax cuts and teacher pension raises aren’t delayed by an election challenge.

Tuesday is the second-to-last day lawmakers can meet before the constitutionally required 30-day deadline for a special session. In a memo to members Saturday, Phelan indicated that it was the only day next week that they would meet. And the chamber has given no indication that it would take up any of the major pending bills, instead notifying that it will consider congratulatory and memorial measures.

That means a handful of proposals are in peril. The most notable might be Senate Bill 6, which proposes to adjust the timeline of a trial after a citizen or group files a suit contesting an election result

The Senate on Friday rushed to write and then approve that bill after six lawsuits were filed in Travis County this week contesting the results of the November election. In that election, voters approved constitutional amendments that would dramatically reduce property taxes, give a modest pension increase to retired teachers and invest billions of dollars for water infrastructure, broadband internet, state parks and the power grid.

By law, challenges to constitutional amendment elections can’t go to trial earlier than a month after they’ve been filed — unless requested by the contestant — and not later than six months after they were filed. Many of the amendments passed last month are supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but could be delayed if the challenges are not resolved.

The Senate bill would adjust those deadlines so that the implementation of the measures wouldn’t be delayed.

The election disputes, which were based on false claims about voting equipment, are not currently on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the session. On Friday, an Abbott aide said he'd consider doing so if both chambers can agree to a bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 5, concerns school safety, which was on the governor’s call. The bill, unanimously passed the Senate, would allot $800 million to school safety measures through 2025. On Nov. 16, the House passed a similar bill with even more funding, but it has stagnated in a Senate committee since.

Phelan criticized the Senate for not taking any action on the House school safety legislation. The House bill is “far more robust” than the Senate version in addressing school safety, Phelan said. He accused Patrick of advancing the Senate bill as “a played-out political stunt.”

“The Senate has proposed an entirely new bill with only five days left of the session … so that Dan Patrick can take to social media, pretending to care about adequately funding school safety while blaming others for the ramifications of his own inactions,” Phelan added.

The Senate is scheduled to convene Tuesday morning and could still choose to approve the House bill.

Without further action on either the House or Senate school safety bills, the session would conclude without addressing public school officials’ complaints that their districts do not have enough money to comply with school safety mandates passed by the Legislature during this year’s regular session.

On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed outrage that the House wasn’t moving aggressively enough to pass the legislation, saying it was “nonsense” that the House did not have enough time.

“Dade Phelan can call the House back at any moment or, if needed, suspend House rules to pass these bills on Tuesday if he wants to,” Patrick said.

He added, “The House should have worked Friday, like we did in the Senate.”

The House stood at ease for most of Friday. At times, some members milled about the chamber while the Senate was in session. But the whole body never came together to consider legislation.

Patrick, who has feuded with Phelan for most of the year, urged voters to call the speaker’s office this weekend or Monday and “leave a message to pass these important bills.”

The House’s decision could also be the death knell for Abbott’s top legislative priority, school vouchers. That’s no surprise, however, since the chamber voted to strip vouchers from its massive education bill last month. Since then, the House has not taken any further action on the issue.

Though school voucher bills have routinely passed in the Senate, 21 House Republicans voted to block the measure in the lower chamber — signaling there is little path forward for a school voucher program in the current House. Since the vote, Abbott has been making good on this promise to launch primary challenges against anti-voucher Republicans.