By Patrick Svitek and Renzo Downey, The Texas Tribune
“Abbott mum on another special session as he charges into voucher opponents’ primary battles” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Gov. Greg Abbott is keeping lawmakers in suspense about whether he will call yet another special session to try to pass school vouchers as he gets more deeply involved in their primaries, making endorsements that are increasingly bold.
Both chambers ended the fourth special session Tuesday still at an impasse over vouchers, or Abbott’s priority proposal to let parents use taxpayer dollars to help pay for private school costs. And in a critical vote last month, 21 Republicans in the House joined Democrats to remove the voucher provision from a broad education bill, delivering Abbott’s yearlong crusade its biggest blow yet.
Now, with the holidays looming — and primary season about to kick into high gear — Abbott is promising to continue the fight for “school choice” but staying mum on whether that means he will call another special session as he has previously threatened. That has raised speculation he could call lawmakers back to Austin next year in the lead-up to the March primary, something Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already suggested.
“I don’t think it would be productive to come back now three weeks before Christmas,” Patrick said in a Dallas TV interview published Friday. “I think the best day to come back would be Feb. 5, 30 days before the election.”
Abbott has already moved on to the primary season, starting to endorse challengers to the House Republicans who thwarted him on vouchers. And in a demonstration of how serious he is about removing those who got in his way, he has gone so far as to back Republicans who have been publicly critical of him in the past.
Responding to the end of the fourth special session Tuesday, an Abbott spokesperson was noncommittal on any special session timing, saying in a statement he “will continue to work with Texas legislators and at the ballot box to get school choice for all Texas families.”
But as both chambers adjourned earlier Tuesday, neither leader sounded like they expected an immediate fifth special session. Phelan released a statement recapping his chamber’s accomplishments for the year, and Patrick wished his members a Merry Christmas “after a full year” of sessions.
But, it is not just Abbott’s school voucher effort that remains unresolved. The gridlock in Austin also meant lawmakers left town without sending to Abbott’s desk legislation that would increase public school funding, provide teacher bonuses and better fund school safety measures.
And in an issue that only flared up in recent days, the chambers could not agree on legislation to fix the timeline for judges to hear election contests, with the House refusing to consider the Senate’s bill. The proposal was prompted by a slew of lawsuits that could endanger the constitutional amendments voters approved in November, including property tax cuts that GOP lawmakers fought over earlier this year.
In recent days, Abbott has appeared to shift his attention from the Capitol to the primaries — with the aim of replacing Republicans in the House who voted against vouchers this year. He issued a blanket endorsement of all the House Republicans running for reelection who voted to keep the voucher program in the education bill, and he has started backing primary challengers to those who voted to remove the program.
Most strikingly, Abbott’s endorsements have aligned him with some of his own intraparty critics from the last election cycle, suggesting he is willing to set aside grudges to build a more pro-voucher House majority. For example, Abbott has endorsed Mike Olcott, a primary challenger to Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, who donated nearly $30,000 to multiple Abbott primary opponents in 2022. And on Tuesday, Abbott backed Brent Money in a Jan. 30 special election runoff, despite Money also opposing Abbott in his 2022 primary and calling him “weak and spineless” in a since-deleted tweet.
Both Money and his fellow GOP opponent, Jill Dutton, have expressed support for Abbott’s voucher push, but Money has positioned himself as a more reliable vote.
“Today [Abbott] proved that he’s more interested in having a House that will further the conservative agenda than retribution for past primary battles,” Money told a Facebook commenter on his campaign page Tuesday who reminded Money of his past criticism of the governor.
Last week, Abbott traveled to Belton to make his first appearance for a pro-voucher primary challenger, Hillary Hickland, an activist mother who is running against Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple. Over 100 people filled a downtown event space to see Abbott, and five minutes before the scheduled start time, they were told they were over capacity and some had to leave.
Speaking alongside Hickland, Abbott did not spare Shine as he noted 89% of primary voters in the district supported a pro-voucher ballot proposition last year.
“Your current state representative went not only against those 89% of the Republicans that wanted school choice, but he did so by joining with all of the Democrats, voting against a Republican priority,” Abbott said. “I know that Hillary Hickland will represent the Republicans who will elect her to go to Austin, Texas, and have a seat at the table.”
Tensions were somewhat high throughout the event. Anti-Abbott protesters, including those opposed to vouchers, could occasionally be heard from outside as Abbott spoke, and two people got into a shouting match afterward.
“School vouchers now!” an attendee chanted at an anti-voucher protester. “End the communist indoctrination!”
Shine held his own event Tuesday evening to make his reelection campaign official. Appearing in front of the Bell County Courthouse in downtown Belton, the representative spoke to a rival crowd of over 100 elected leaders, business leaders, school leaders, and supporters from the community.
“We are a team … a team that has poured out our hearts to support all of our schools in our community, and now we need you to give us the next 90 days so I can be reelected as your state representative,” Shine said.
In an interview with the Tribune, Shine dismissed intimidation from the governor as something that, as a military veteran, he’s learned to put aside.
“This is our community, and we will elect a representative,” Shine said. “The governor will not elect the representative of this district.”
Temple Independent School District Superintendent Bobby Ott attended the event and called Shine a conservative-valued lawmaker who supports public schools. He told the Tribune that vouchers are not a partisan issue, but there are potential consequences if Republican leaders continue to feud and drag out the voucher fight.
“If you continue to go to bat for issues that aren’t partisan, you run the risk of dividing the party,” Ott said. “It may not divide them overall, but you will on certain issues, and that will play into the polls and elections and voting.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/06/greg-abbott-vouchers-primary-special-session/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.