Following one regular session and a subsequent series of four special sessions, Gov. Greg Abbott’s political standing experienced a notable shift. During this period, he encountered a reduction in support from allies, alienated himself from lawmakers, and encountered challenges in addressing crucial issues such as gun policies, the state’s power grid and school funding.
The Governor spent much of his time and energy on his top priority: Vouchers. However, in pursuing this priority, he inadvertently “shot bystanders” and effectively “kept everyone in hell,” as Christopher Hooks of the Texas Monthly aptly expressed.
In contrast to certain states where the ruling party typically follows the governor’s directives, Texas showcases a unique political environment.
Within the Texas Republican Party, numerous power centers and factions operate, each propelled by its own set of agendas. Within this landscape, the governor often faces a situation where it is more convenient for others to respectfully ignore his directives rather than engage actively with them. This year, Abbott’s legislative strategies demonstrated vulnerability to opposition and setbacks, demonstrating he can be challenged and defeated.
Scott Braddock from the Quorum Report pointed out that the Governor doesn’t know how to play “legislative chess better than either of his negotiating partners.” This, in turn, resulted in infighting and ultimately the demise of numerous bills.
During the seven-month property tax standoff between the House and the Senate -the biggest priority of the session- Abbott was completely absent, touting vouchers on a statewide tour of Christian academics, where he rallied people who already supported private schools into supporting them more.
In mid-June, discontentment spread across both chambers towards Abbott: the Senate expressed dissatisfaction over property taxes, while the House harbored grievances regarding vouchers.
Faced with frustration from all sides, Abbott proceeded to veto 74 unrelated bills, ranging from minor local measures, such as the establishment of “Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 229,” to more significant ones, like a bill designed to aid Texas college dropouts in re-enrolling and completing their degrees. As a conditional gesture, Abbott suggested that if lawmakers complied with his wishes, these bills might be reconsidered in a subsequent special session.
Later, when the House and the Senate couldn’t agree on a comprehensive school funding bill that included vouchers, Abbott continued to threaten lawmakers who wouldn’t side with him on this priority and promised to take this all the way to primaries.
Abbott is already following through on his promise to target fellow Republicans who oppose school vouchers, as evidenced by his recent endorsement of Hillary Hickland, an activist mother running against Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple. Shine was one of the 21 Republicans who voted to remove a voucher provision from an education bill, dealing the final lethal blow to the Governor’s main priority.
Is it possible that Abbott didn’t actually intend to get a voucher bill passed because he knew all along it wouldn’t get through the House?
One theory holds that his real endgame is creating a pretext to primary some of the voucher holdouts, especially House Speaker Dade Phelan who has occasionally frustrated Abbott’s legislative agenda.
Another theory is that Abbott is just going through the motions in order to please his billionaire donors so they will back him for a 2028 presidential run.
Rice University professor of political science at Rice University believes both theories are very plausible. “Both explanations are operative for Abbott,” Stein told RA News.
“Failing to get two dozen rural Republicans to vote for vouchers provides him a pretext to primary these members,” he continued. “It also underscores his commitment to donors and, more importantly, primary voters who he will need to defeat the recalcitrant Republican legislators.”
Failure to Make Strides
Despite Texas starting the year with a historic $33 billion surplus and receiving an additional windfall of $6.4 billion in October, Abbott faces criticism for not adequately allocating these substantial funds.
Superintendent Dr. David Maass from Grapeland ISD thinks the Texas Legislature missed an opportunity to help public schools due to the unprecedented balance of money available this session.
“If vouchers were apparently so popular they should have been able to stand on their own without being tied to public school funding or teacher pay,” Dr. Maass told RA News.
“We now know that vouchers were never popular and therefore had to be tied to something that was popular in the form of funding public education and teacher pay. Abbott and Patrick have shown themselves to be inflexible, vindictive, and petty during this session.”
Maass’ opinions are echoed especially by public school advocates in rural settings who fear that diverting tax dollars to private schools would hurt an already severely underfunded public education system. In Texas a lot of rural districts don’t even have private schools.
However, Abbott persisted in advocating for the issue, despite increasing discontent among lawmakers. Ultimately, the push for vouchers met its demise, consequently affecting school funding as well.
No comprehensive education funding bill was passed, resulting in the absence of approved teacher pay raises or enhancements to the basic allotment. While the victory against vouchers was significant, apprehensions persist regarding the financial struggles confronting public schools. This situation has prompted some districts to adopt deficit budgets.
In addition, lawmakers missed crucial opportunities to enhance the power grid resilience. The focus on incentivizing new natural gas plants overlooked weatherization and demand reduction measures that could have helped during Texas’ deadly winter storm Uri.