AUSTIN, Texas — Despite a near $33 billion budget surplus, the Texas Legislature failed to reach agreement on what was described as the biggest property tax cut in history. Lawmakers didn’t come together to give pay raises to public school teachers or significantly improve access to health care.
Instead, legislators used the 140-day session that ended Monday to pass a broad array of legislation that some lawmakers argue are related to culture wars sweeping the nation — a set of wedge issues rooted in conflicting cultural values.
They approved bills aimed at regulating transgender people, including dictating the sports in which they participate. Bills banning gender affirming medical treatment and regulating drag shows passed the Legislature.
Texas became the largest state to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses. Lawmakers stepped up their efforts to override policies developed by local jurisdictions and made voting illegally a felony.
Though the session will be defined by Saturday’s dramatic impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton, the most impactful legacy could be the prolific passing of legislation that builds on what Republican lawmakers accomplished in 2021.
“I see this as a very conservative session,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. “We passed some very conservative legislation that every single Republican can be proud to take home to their districts.”
Goldman shrugged off criticism by Democrats and others that the session was too focused on red meat issues craved by hard-right Republican activists. “We passed the super-majority of things we came here to pass,” he said.
Democrats are more sullen about the results of the session. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the Legislature missed an opportunity to pass laws that would help all Texans, including teachers. He said the GOP-controlled Legislature spent too much time “attacking LGBTQ Texans and preempting local government’s ability to ensure health and public safety [of Texans].”
“It’s unfortunate and a real loss for Texas,” he said. “The people of Texas want to focus on good public schools, health care and reasonable property tax relief.”
In contrast to Turner, Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said culture issues are just as important as nuts-and-bolts proposals. “We’re talking about problems that didn’t even exist when I first came to the legislature that have a significant impact on who we are as a people,” Hall said. “We’re obliged to address the issues of the day.”
Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, defended the work of the House, despite criticism of the ultra-conservative approach.
“In the Texas House, we’ve been focused on the issues that matter most to the people of Texas — property tax relief, education, border security, protecting parents and children,” he said. “I don’t think those are culture issues. Those are issues that the people of Texas by and large care about.”
“We have to address public education and make sure that our schools are adequately funded and our teachers are taken care of,” said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch. “That needs to be a top priority, but there’s a lot of discussion over culture war issues that are deeply dividing the state.”
On Monday, as the legislative session was adjourning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick lamented that more of his priorities did not pass, including allowing the Ten Commandments in Texas classrooms, the banning the teaching of critical race theory in higher education and outlawing countywide polling places. Patrick asked Gov. Greg Abbott to consider these issues and others during a special session.
Texas GOP’s priorities
Last year, delegates at the Texas Republican Party convention approved eight priorities for the 2023 legislative session.
The Legislature addressed most of the priorities, which include what grassroots Republicans framed as “protecting elections, securing the border, banning gender modification of children, stopping the sexualization of Texas kids, banning Democratic Party chairs in the GOP-controlled Legislature, abolishing abortion, defending gun rights and [promoting] parental rights and education freedom.”
Banning Democratic Party chairs in the House is not something that would be made into law. In 2021, the Texas Legislature passed some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the nation. Hard-right Republicans didn’t get all they wanted with border security, including the defeat of a bill that would have enlisted citizens to help with state border operations. The Legislature did allocate $5.4 billion to beef up the state’s presence on the border.
The biggest setback on the list is “education freedom:” Legislation to create a voucher-like program that uses public money to help students pay the cost of private school did not pass the Texas House. It was one of Abbott’s biggest priorities and is expected to be reconsidered during a special legislative session.
While some GOP activists and elected officials lament not getting everything they wanted from the above list, or their own priorities, most of the conservative wish list passed the Legislature.
Patrick touted passing more than culture war legislation, including bills that bolstered the state’s power grid, allocated money to make public school safer and providing mental health funding for rural areas.
‘Social issues have great political power’
“Culture war” is a term used to describe the political struggle between conservatives and progressives on a number of issues, including gun rights, LGBTQ rights, education reform, censorship, immigration, abortion and much more.
Texas is not unlike other conservative states that have had a renewed focus on culture wars. Such laws are being passed all over the country, including Florida, where Abbott has a friendly rivalry with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president on his strength as a culture warrior.
“Social issues have great political power,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “These are winning issues for them [Republicans], because there are voters out there who they resonate with. If there were no voters, they wouldn’t be winning issues.”
Sabato said the GOP’s focus on transgender Americans is dangerous. “They’re really being pushed up against the wall,” Sabato said of transgender Americans who make up 1% of the population. “It’s being made worse for them with these laws, but they [lawmakers] don’t care about that.”
Jonathan Gooch, a spokesperson for the LGTBQ advocacy group Equality Texas, said the bills passed by the Legislature would deprive transgender residents of necessary health care.
“When lawmakers are deciding who has the right to access life-saving care, what they’re really deciding is who gets to live and who dies,” he said. “That’s where I see the biggest harm out of this session, banning health care, which I think sets a dangerous precedent for all Texans.”
But Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief political strategist, said Republican lawmakers were right to focus on issues important to conservative Texans.
”Eighty-percent of Texans support protection of minors from gender modification, so it’s really not culture wars,” he said weeks before the session ended. “It’s not like some fringe argument, like the other side that’s actually arguing for the fringe.”
Some Democrats broke with others in their party to back various bills aimed at transgender Texans. Four House Democrats voted with Republicans to ban hormone therapy and puberty blockers for transgender Texans under the age of 18.
Ten House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass Senate Bill 15, which would require college athletes to compete on sports teams that align with their gender assigned at birth.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, voted for a bill regulating drag shows. And more than a dozen Democrats supported a bill that would ban books deemed too sexually explicit.
“It remains my legislative duty and moral obligation to vote the conscience and core values of my constituency,” said Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, during her floor speech in support of the bill banning hormone therapy and puberty blockers for transgender youth.
Carney also defended anti-DEI legislation and the need to rein in local prosecutors who are not committed to prosecuting crimes. “There’s a lot of name calling, but there’s not a lot of facts,” he said. “It’s just common sense.”
Still, critics say the Legislature should have used the state’s abundant resources to tackle more meaningful problems, like improving access to health care, pouring more money into public education and bolstering the state’s infrastructure.
“At the beginning of the session, when I saw we had a $33 billion surplus, I was really hopeful that we could make investments that would set the state up for economic dominance for decades to come,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “Unfortunately, we missed our moment to rise to the occasion.”
Abbott’s priority list
Whether it’s hot-button issues or bread-and-butter bills, Texas lawmakers are expected to finish their work in a special session.
Abbott didn’t get the Legislature to approve a voucher-like plan that gives public money for students to attend private schools. It was blocked by a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers who fear the impact of such a plan on public schools.
While Abbott didn’t get many items on his priority list, the most glaring omission of the session is the lack of the promised and much ballyhooed property tax cut. House and Senate leaders couldn’t compromise on a deal before the regular session adjourned.
“Texans expect and deserve and demand real property tax relief,” said Leach, the Plano lawmaker. “Anything less than us delivering the largest property tax relief in the history of the state of Texas is not acceptable.”