Senate fast-tracks passage of vouchers and border security legislation

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, speaks with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the Senate floor during the first day of the second special session at the state Capitol in Austin, on June 28, 2023. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate on Thursday approved all its priority bills for the fourth special session, though the spotlight remains on the House and whether it can break a stalemate over school vouchers.

“We will not give up until we get our largest priorities accomplished,” Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said on the Senate floor before the chamber passed its voucher legislation.

Gov. Greg Abbott convened the latest special session Tuesday, asking lawmakers to pass unfinished business on border security and continue working on his yearlong push for school vouchers. Lawmakers quickly announced deals on the border bills, but the fate of his education crusade remains uncertain.

On Thursday morning, a special House committee began a two-day hearing on a wide-ranging education package that includes education savings accounts. The voucher-like initiative would give families taxpayer dollars to help pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses.

Meanwhile, the Senate revved to life Thursday afternoon, holding committee hearings with little advance notice — or opportunity for public input — and advancing four bills that satisfy Abbott’s agenda. Senators then held a marathon floor session stretching over five hours where they gave initial and final approval to the bills.

Three out of the four bills were unchanged since the Senate approved them in the previous special session. They included Senate Bill 1, the proposed voucher bill; Senate Bill 2, a school finance bill that modestly boosts the basic allotment for students and provides for a one-time teacher bonus; and Senate Bill 3, a border security funding bill that provides $1.5 billion for law enforcement and border wall construction.

The fourth bill the chamber took up was Senate Bill 4, which creates a state crime for illegal entry from a foreign nation. It would allow state and local law enforcement officers to arrest people who illegally enter — or re-enter — at the border, and it generated the longest debate as Democrats raised concerns that it could lead to racial profiling and that it was unconstitutional.

It also exposed a striking defection from Republicans as Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury — who carried the proposal in the previous special session — gave a speech criticizing the latest version as unconstitutional. The proposal went through changes after the last special session ended in a war of words between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan over whose version was tougher.

“For the short-term messaging game between our two chambers during this election season, we are setting a terrible precedent for the future by invalidating our obedience and faithfulness to our Constitution,” Birdwell said. “President Biden’s failure to obey his oath does not compel us to violate ours.”

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who is carrying the proposal in the current special session, responded with a speech that acknowledged the bill’s boldness.

“While I agree we are testing and pushing envelopes, the state has every right to protect its citizens and this nation has every right to expect Texas to do that when called to do it,” Perry said.

The Senate otherwise appeared to pass the bills mostly along party lines, though the school funding bill got near-unanimous support with a vote of 27-1.

Despite the Senate’s progress, the voucher gridlock in the House looms large.

During debate on Senate Bill 1, Creighton acknowledged the House was “still negotiating” on its education priorities.

“If they get closer and closer to taking a vote in committee,” Creighton said, “we’ll see if the bill advances.”

In the Senate, Democrats appeared to remain united in their opposition to school vouchers.

“We need to lift up our public schools and not undercut them,” Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said on the Senate floor, adding that the passage of SB 1 would be the “first step in the death of” public education in Texas.

The House’s committee hearing wrapped up shortly before 10 p.m. Thursday and was set to resume at 9 a.m. Friday.