Education savings accounts and illegal immigration will be part of third special legislative session’s focus

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks about the 2023 regular legislative session at the Texas Public Policy Foundation offices in Austin, on June 2, 2023. Abbott ended the event by promising to call a special session for education savings accounts. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday released his agenda for the third legislative special session of the year, asking lawmakers to pass “school choice” and further crack down on illegal immigration. The special session starts at 1 p.m. Monday.

Abbott also asked lawmakers to outlaw COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers.

"I am bringing the Texas Legislature back for Special Session #3 to continue building on the achievements we accomplished during the 88th Regular Legislative Session and two special sessions this summer," Abbott said in a statement.

[Vouchers return this special session — and school funding might be left out. Here’s what you need to know.]

The special session has long been expected, but it comes at a tense time in Texas politics. Last month, the state Senate acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton in his impeachment trial, ratcheting up tensions with the House that overwhelmingly voted to impeach him in May. And the special session starts about a month before candidate filing begins for the March primary, heightening implications for members’ reelection prospects.

Abbott has been pushing all year for legislation that would allow parents to use taxpayer funds to help pay for private school tuition, home schooling expenses or private tutoring. He prioritized it during the regular session, but it did not advance out of the House, where Democrats and rural Republicans have long resisted it.

Abbott’s agenda specifically calls for “education savings accounts for all Texas schoolchildren,” or taxpayer-funded accounts that parents could use to subsidize alternative education costs.

“Together, we will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child,” Abbott said.

Notably, Abbott’s agenda does not include any other education issues. That is despite the fact that lawmakers also failed during the regular session to deliver teacher pay raises and an increase in per-student funding earlier this year. Those proposals did not make it across the finish line after getting tied to Abbott’s push for education savings accounts.

Democrats quickly responded to Abbott’s call for education savings accounts.

“Today, there are schools in my district and all across Texas at risk of closure because the governor is holding public school funding hostage to pass his private school voucher scam,” state Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, said in a statement. “It’s clear Greg Abbott is more interested in doing the bidding of the billionaire mega donors pushing this scam than in serving the people of Texas.”

It had also become clear in recent weeks that Abbott would put border security on the call. His agenda revives some proposals that were unsuccessful during the regular session, like increasing human-smuggling penalties and creating a state criminal offense for illegal entry from a foreign country.

But Abbott also included a fresher topic on the call: Colony Ridge, the massive residential settlement north of Houston that conservative media has portrayed as a haven for illegal immigration. The developer, a major GOP donor named Trey Harris, has fiercely pushed back on the allegations and invited all lawmakers to tour the community Thursday.

It remains unclear what exactly Abbott wants lawmakers to do with regard to Colony Ridge, though. His agenda only calls for “legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership in areas like” Colony Ridge.

[Colony Ridge developer defends Houston-area community as state leaders vow action against it]

As for the item on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Abbott successfully sought a law earlier this year prohibiting such requirements by public entities, like school districts. But it did not extend to private employers, fueling some angst on the right.

“This is fantastic,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi posted on X after Abbott announced his agenda. “I did not expect vaccine mandates to be added to the call.”

The Senate quickly responded to Abbott's agenda by announcing two committee hearings early next week. The Senate Education Committee is set to meet Tuesday to consider legislation on education savings accounts, while the Finance Committee is scheduled to convene a day earlier to discuss "teacher compensation and funding for public schools." While those topics are not on Abbott's agenda, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has insisted the Legislature has broad authority for what it can consider during a special session — a flashpoint with the governor during the earlier special sessions.

The first two special sessions immediately followed the regular session that ended in late May. Lawmakers spent those two special sessions trying to reach a deal on property tax relief, which they finally struck in mid-July.

Along the way, though, Abbott aggressively used his veto pen to try to force a compromise between the House and Senate. He vetoed 76 bills from the regular session, the second highest tally in state history.

In explaining many of the vetoes, he said the bills could be “reconsidered at a future special session only after property tax relief is passed.” The agenda Abbott released Thursday includes none of those bills.

The absence of any items on teacher pay raises or school funding is also conspicuous. After the regular session, Abbott had suggested they would be linked again to education savings accounts in a future special session.

Asked about teacher pay raises in August, Abbott told a reporter he is “fully committed” to such legislation but declined to commit to including it in this special session.

Correction, : Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated how money from education savings accounts can be used. They can help pay for private school tuition, home schooling expenses or private tutoring