The regular session of the 88th Texas Legislature is by far the strangest session in recent history. The session was marked by arguments over property tax relief and private school vouchers between the Senate – who were for vouchers (except the Democrats) – and the House – who were against vouchers (except the leadership).
At least 13 voucher bills were filed in the House, including HB 1938 – a bill that would provide a fully funded voucher to any parent who determined that their child is being subjected to “sexual grooming.” The bill defined sexual grooming as “any effort to desensitize children to sexual experiences, or to normalize sexual relationships with adults or children of the same or opposite sex” Rife with other legal definition issues and addressing a problem that is already covered in the penal code, the bill failed to even get a hearing.
The first time the Texas House addressed vouchers in the 88th legislative session was on the night of April 5th when Rep. Abel Herrero offered an amendment to prohibit the use of budgeted dollars “to pay for or support a school voucher, including an education savings account, tax credit scholarship program, or a grant or other similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic primary or secondary education.” The famed “Herrero Amendment” passed by a vote of 86-52 (11 abstained), but not before House Public Education Chair Buckley shockingly called for a vote to table the amendment. When the vote to table failed, Buckly then encouraged members to vote against the amendment. Then, he was counted among the 11 pusillanimous souls who were present but did not vote.
To address vouchers in the House, Public Education Chairman Brad Buckley lumped them all together for hearing on one day. Testimony on five voucher bills and one resolution took over 16 hours and there were nearly 2500 submitted comments with large numbers of comments against the bills. While it was conjectured that HB 3781 would be the voucher vehicle pushed forward by Chairman Buckley, that would not prove to be true.
The Senate filed 7 voucher bills but the primary one considered was Senate Bill 8 – as signaled by Lt. Gov. Patrick in his list of legislative priorities. As filed, SB 8 proposed an Education Savings Account (ESA) type voucher for students who were either entering school for the first time or who had attended a public school for at least 90 percent of the time the previous year. The bill offered $8,000 per student for funding. The Committee Substitute (CSSB 8) went to the House proposing $8k per student and $10k per student held harmless for five years for the public school that was losing the student to the voucher. Predictably, the bill passed the Senate and was sent to the House.
In mid-May House Public Education Chairman Buckley attempted to schedule a vote on CSSB 8 (now with the more robust voucher plan reduced to a special education voucher only) without a hearing. When he approached House members with his proposal to suspend the rules to allow him to conduct the vote, Rep. Ernest Bailes rose to oppose. Bailes accused Buckley of “backroom shady dealings” to attempt to get a voucher through the House. When the vote was taken, Buckley was handed his second floor defeat of the session when his motion failed 65-76. Buckley’s response to all of this was to schedule a hearing for the bill on May 15 with invited testimony only.
Right around this time, Governor Abbott waded into the morass when he told lawmakers that he would veto the bill if it came to his desk anyway since the new watered down version of vouchers didn’t go far enough. He then threatened to call legislators back to a special session if they didn’t pass a full-blown voucher plan, effectively driving the final nail in the coffin on the legislation for the session and unbelievably killing his own legislative effort.
Vouchers came up one last time in the legislative session when the Senate attached it to HB 100 – the only school funding bill left alive during the last full week of the session. The bill was a relatively benign public school funding bill that the House passed and sent to the Senate on May 1. In response to the SB 8 debacle, the Senate loaded HB 100 with a universal voucher, passed it and sent it back to the House. The House refused to concur and both sides chose conference committee members to settle the dispute. Then, the author of the bill – a staunchly anti-voucher pro-public education representative named Ken King – stepped in. King issued a press release describing the failure of some of the legislative leadership in negotiating the process and lamenting the fact that there would be no funding bill passing the legislature as it was held hostage by the desire for vouchers.
The voucher fight manifested at least two things to Capitol insiders. First, Buckley was the first House Public Education Chairman in memory to actively try to get a voucher across the finish line. Were it not for his own inexperience in navigating the legislative process and the Governor’s own recalcitrance he may well have done it. Second, Phelan continued to exhibit poor leadership skills in his position. From his appointment of a junior member (Buckley) to be the head of one of the major committees to his allowance of losing votes to be taken by the same Chairman on the floor, Phelan exhibited an inability to gauge his members attitudes about the voucher question and garnered a reputation as someone who “rarely put his hands on the wheel.”
The fight between the House and Senate over vouchers hi-jacked and derailed several other bills that would have benefited public schools. Senate Bill 9 would have provided teachers a modest $2000 pay raise and an additional $4000 for those who teach in districts of less than 20,000 students. The bill died in the House. As mentioned, HB 100 which provided increases in the Basic Allotment – the base amount the state funds schools per student, died as a result of the war between the two chambers over vouchers.
Property tax relief was also a casualty of legislative infighting, essentially dying the night before “sine die” – the date the legislature legally has to adjourn. The failure of the legislature to come to agreement over these items immediately prompted the Governor to call a special session which began Tuesday. A new battle is currently ensuing with the House adopting the property tax relief plan favored by the Governor and the Senate holding firm for their plan. The House adjourned “sine die” on the first day of the special session with the Senate adjourning until Friday.
In what some are calling an overreach of authority, the Governor has promised to continue calling special sessions until he gets what he wants.