REGULAR SESSION CLOSES WITHOUT DEALS ON PROPERTY TAX RELIEF, TEACHER PAY RAISES
(AUSTIN) — Though several major bills were brought back from the brink of death through a series of last-minute deals Sunday, the 88th Regular Session closed on Monday without legislation relating to Governor Greg Abbott's top priorities for the session: school choice and property tax relief. Though the budget approved by both chambers includes billions for property tax cuts and teacher pay raises, legislation spending that money died over the weekend. Lawmakers expect to be back soon to fix that. "You have the next 18 months," Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said to Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, who was due to be elected as president pro tem ad interim. "Usually that would be an interim, but it might not be an interim this time, it would appear."
The Senate looks to be back not just to pass leadership priorities that died in the waning hours of session, but as a jury deciding whether or not state Attorney General Ken Paxton will be removed from office. The Texas House voted overwhelmingly on Saturday, 121-23, to impeach Paxton for abuse of office to benefit himself and a campaign contributor. Per the state constitution, the Senate will now act as a quasi-judicial body, with the Lt. Governor acting as presiding judge and the members, the jury. They will hear evidence, consider witness testimony, and then decide whether Paxton will be removed from office and barred from future elected office in Texas. This is an extraordinarily rare event in the Legislature - only once has a statewide elected official been impeached, when Governor James "Pa" Ferguson was impeached and removed from office in 1917. The only other removal in state history involved district court Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975. So much has changed in the last 50 years that it's still unclear exactly how the process will work, but the Senate has broad latitude under the constitution to set the rules and procedures of an impeachment trial. The Senate approved a resolution setting the date to convene as a court of impeachment no later than August 28th.
The four hours set aside for impeachment proceedings in the House Saturday consumed not only legislators' time that would have gone to several of the major bills, but also attention for the extraordinary proceedings. Despite that, several bills were rescued with last minute deals. The chambers came to agreements on a new economic incentive program that replaces the current "Chapter 313" system, setting forth parameters and requirements for businesses to be eligible for school property tax abatement. A plan for a low-interest state-backed loan program to incentivize the construction of natural gas power plants, one of the Lt. Governor's top goals for the session, was also passed. In a statement released late Sunday, Patrick said he believes they will draw continued economic growth to the state as well as the electricity to power it. "Texas is the economic envy of America and the world and the landmark legislation passed this evening will ensure our economic miracle continues into the mid-21st century and beyond," he wrote.
Deals were not forthcoming on three of the central issues of the session, property tax cuts, teacher pay, and school choice. The House and Senate could not come to an agreement on how to deliver $17.4 billion in property tax relief earmarked in the state budget, with the Senate pushing for an increase in the homestead exemption and the House preferring appraisal caps on all real property. Patrick has repeatedly said that appraisal caps are a non-starter in the Senate. That's also how most representatives view school choice programs, which they say hurt public education by sending money away to pay for private school tuition. That body took several votes this session indicating strong opposition to the concept. Since the final bill containing school choice also was the final bill containing teacher pay raises, for now, there is no deal on this critical issue. It is expected that the governor will call the Legislature back into session this summer to deliver on promised tax cuts and teacher pay raises and continue the debate on school choice, as well as any other issues he sees fit to add to the agenda.
Until then, the Senate stands adjourned sine die.