Just over 48 hours into the fourth special session in Austin, the Texas Senate has once again made quick work of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda, passing legislation relating to every item on the call.
On Tuesday evening, Abbott called lawmakers back for another special session dealing with border security and school choice.
While the House has begun committee hearings on those items, the Senate has already passed them.
On Wednesday night, the Senate passed Senate Bills 1-4.
Senate Bill 1 by State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R–Montgomery), dealing with school choice, is the exact same Education Savings Account legislation the chamber passed during the third special session. Students enrolled in the program would receive an $8,000 education savings account, which they could use to pay for tuition at a private school in the state.
Families could also use the funds to pay for materials their school requires, academic assessments, a private tutor, transportation to school, or fees for educational therapies.
The bill was approved in a party-line vote of 18-10.
Senate Bill 2, also by Creighton, includes teacher pay raises as well as additional funding for school safety. The chamber approved the proposal 27-1.
Senate Bill 3 by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston) appropriates $1.54 billion to border barrier infrastructure and increase law enforcement overtime pay, including extra staffing at the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. It was approved in a party-line vote of 18-10.
Senate Bill 4 by State Sen. Charles Perry (R–Lubbock) brought perhaps the most controversy. The legislation creates a new state crime for entering Texas illegally and authorizes Texas law enforcement to arrest and prosecute all people who cross the border illegally anywhere in Texas.
Punishment starts with up to 6 months in jail for a first-time offender and two years in state jail for a second-time offenders.
Illegal border crossers can be returned to the port of entry and ordered to leave the country, or face stiffer penalties.
During the the third special session, similar legislation was carried by State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R–Granbury). His version, however, would have illegal aliens returned to federal authorities at ports entry after conviction by a judge.
On Thursday night, Birdwell was the only Republican to vote against the proposal, saying it would violate the constitution and infringe on federal immigration enforcement authority.
The legislation was approved 17-10.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick commended the Senate on passing each piece of Abbott’s special session agenda. Because he is still recovering from pneumonia, the Senate was overseen by State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R–Georgetown).
The Senate is recessed until Monday at 2 p.m.
School choice legislation in the House has hit a new milestone, after being voted out of committee.
This marks the first time school choice legislation has passed a committee in the Texas House.
House Bill 1 by State Rep. Brad Buckley (R–Salado) would create an education savings account of approximately $10,500 available to any child. Unused funds do not roll over from year to year. A child who is homeschooled will qualify for $1,000.
The program will be limited by funds allocated by the legislature every two years. ESAs will be awarded based on family income levels.
Students who accept an ESA will be required to take a state assessment test or a national norm-reference test. Those who do not perform satisfactorily on the assessment two years in a row will be disqualified from the program.
The plan also includes teacher pay raises. In year one, full-time teachers, nurses, counselors, and librarians will earn a $4,000 bonus, while part-time employees will earn $2,000. In year two, the continuation of pay increases will be set by local districts using the state’s basic allotment process.
The bill was heard on Thursday in the House Select Committee on educational opportunity and enrichment and was approved in a 10-4 vote on Friday.
Despite the billions of dollars in teacher pay raises and additional school funding, the legislation was still opposed by teacher unions.
Those voting against moving the proposal forward included Democrat State Reps. James Talarico (Pflugerville), Gina Hinojosa (Austin), Barbara Gervin Hawkins (San Antonio), and Harold Dutton (Houston).
State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (D–San Antonio)—who chairs the House Democrat Caucus—cautioned members that the vote was merely to move the bill forward in the process to receive an up-or-down vote by the full House.
That vote could come as soon as next week. The fourth special session is slated to end December 6.
A new free speech-focused college has been awarded full university status after its initial launch two years ago.
The University of Austin (UATX), founded by former New York Times writer Bari Weiss, is a new university with a mission guaranteeing “intellectual freedom” and protecting against “discrimination and indoctrination.” The new school also says it will “serve as a model for other institutions of higher education.”
In September, Texas Scorecard reported on free speech rankings among colleges nationwide. The rankings showed that Texas A&M University was among the top free speech-friendly universities in the country, while the University of Texas at Austin (UT) was ranked among the lowest. The University of North Texas scored higher than UT but still ranked below the national average.