FOURTH SPECIAL SESSION CALLED AFTER SCHOOL CHOICE FAILS TO REACH GOVERNOR
(AUSTIN) — Lawmakers will get another 30 days in Austin to try and work out a deal on school choice legislation, Governor Greg Abbott’s top legislative priority. While the Senate passed such a bill in the regular and third special sessions, the House has yet to bring a bill to the floor. The agenda set by the governor on Tuesday evening includes school choice legislation and border security measures. It also includes separate provisions for school safety funding and funding to build a permanent border wall along parts of the Rio Grande.
The school choice bill passed by the Senate in the third called session would set aside $500 million to create about 60,000 education savings accounts worth $8,000. This money could be used to pay for private school tuition, transportation, tutoring, or other approved costs associated with education expenses. The Senate also passed a bill that would put $5.2 billion in new money towards public education, including teacher pay raises, school security funding, and expanding the public teacher merit pay program.
While the stalemate over school choice between the House and Senate is longstanding, a new issue arose in the most recent session on a border security bill that would give state peace officers authority to arrest and detain migrants who cross the border with Mexico. The major sticking point is what is to be done with migrants post arrest. The House favored a provision that permitted peace officers to arrest migrants crossing the border and take them to a legal port of entry and order them back across. This raised concerns among Senate leadership, with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick saying that without proper background checks, border law enforcement can’t know if they are releasing a dangerous criminal or terrorist who could then attempt to cross at another point along the border. That issue appears to be resolved, with both House author and Jacksboro Representative David Spiller and Senate author Senator Charles Perry of Lubbock announcing late Tuesday that they have filed identical bills. The compromise bill would require than any arrested migrant be processed and subjected to a background check and have their fingerprints taken. Then, the migrant will appear before a magistrate, who could order them to return to Mexico. “This bill establishes an effective deterrent to prevent illegal entries into our state, and we believe this bill clearly accomplishes the will of both the House of Representatives and the Senate,” read a joint statement released by the two authors.
Also failing to pass before the deadline was SB 6, which contained $1.5 billion in funds to continue state construction on the permanent wall on the border with Mexico. As with the other border bill, the House and Senate seem aligned on the issue heading into the new special session, with Houston Senator Joan Huffman and Fort Bend Representative Jacy Jetton filing identical legislation in each chamber. At an October hearing on the measure last session, state officials told legislators that the state has already built about 12 miles of wall along the Rio Grande, and are currently finalizing plans and access rights for another 110 miles. Each mile of wall, they said, costs as much as $30 million.
Two issues on the third special session call did make it to the governor’s desk. The first is SB 7, by Galveston Senator Mayes Middleton, which would ban private employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19. The second, SB 4, by Senator Pete Flores of Pleasanton, would increase penalties for people convicted of human smuggling on the border, and would introduce harsher sentences for people that run “stash houses”, where migrants kidnapped by cartel members or other criminals are held in often crowded and squalid conditions while they await ransom. Under the proposed law, those convicted of such crimes could face up to 10 years in prison.