Ken Paxton impeachment verdict impacts Greg Abbott's push for school voucherlike plan

Gov. Greg Abbott's push to provide public money for students to attend private schools is a tough sell in Texas.

Now there are more complications.

As Abbott plans to bring lawmakers back to Austin for a special session, the issue is ensnared in a Republican family feud that's been exacerbated by Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment saga.

Earlier this month the Senate acquitted Paxton on charges brought by the Republican-controlled House, which further strained the relationship between the chambers' top leaders.

Before he signed the final judgment clearing Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized the House for impeaching the attorney general and promised to audit and overhaul the impeachment process.

House Speaker Dade Phelan responded by calling Patrick, who presided over the trial, biased in favor of Paxton. He added that senators who voted to acquit Paxton would have "much to answer for," if new facts emerge about Paxton's dealings.

Patrick and Phelan have long been at odds, and in a normal cycle they wouldn't have to deal with each other until the 2025 legislative session.

With Abbott expected to call a special session on school choice next month, the relationship between the House and Senate will play a role in whether a voucherlike proposal is approved or fails.

"It's going to be a huge hangover into the special session," said Republican consultant Matthew Langston. "You have the shots taken at each other by the speaker and lieutenant governor, so there appears to be very little to no desire to work together on a solution."

That means Abbott will have to find a compromise, Langston said.

"We'll see how good the governor is as an arbiter, since the House and Senate are at odds," Langston said.

During this year's regular legislative session, House members opposed a proposal to give families at least $7,500 in education savings accounts to spend on private school tuition.

The Senate repeatedly passed out similar bills only to see them die in the House. Republicans control both chambers, but rural GOP lawmakers who are against vouchers have more power in the House than the Senate.

Paxton verdict hangover

There are several scenarios of how the Paxton verdict could impact school choice negotiations.

One theory is that House Republicans are looking to mollify hard-right activists who backed Paxton and have vowed retaliation against GOP elected leaders who supported the attorney general's impeachment.

Allowing a robust school choice plan would provide an olive branch to conservative activists and, perhaps, convince them to stand down on opposing anti-Paxton Republicans in the March 5 Texas primaries.

That approach has several problems.

Supporters of Paxton have already begun recruiting primary opponents against House Republicans who supported Paxton's impeachment. For legislative elections, the GOP primaries will be more about Paxton than education. House Republicans will have to thrive or fail on their impeachment votes.

In his fiery remarks against the House impeachment process, Patrick has not excluded House members from his criticism. He could have isolated Phelan for his ire, which would have given House Republicans an escape route by blaming the speaker for their impeachment votes.

Phelan and House Republicans are in the same boat, so they have little choice but to fight together against Patrick and make the case to voters that they were justified in trying to oust Paxton.

That means they will also stand together against a Senate-backed school choice plan, just as they did during the regular session. Texas voucherlike programs have been derailed by a coalition of rural and urban lawmakers who fear the impact of such proposals on public schools. With Democrats in the House united against vouchers, overwhelming opposition from the GOP is not needed to block a school choice bill.

Abbott applies pressure

If Abbott does not get a vouchlike plan this year, it will be a political setback. The governor made school choice part of his 2023 legislative agenda.

He's not giving up. On Friday, Abbott attended a Parents Matter Tailgate at the First Baptist Academy vs. Mercy Culture Prep football game in Dallas, where he pushed school choice. He will likely call two legislative sessions, if necessary, to get a bill to his desk.

If that doesn't work, Abbott will take his case to March primary voters and try to unseat Republicans who didn't vote for a voucherlike plan.

"We will take it either way -- in a special session or after an election," Abbott said last week in a tele-town hall with Christian clergy.

There are no easy choices for House Republicans who voted for impeachment. If they nix school choice, Abbott comes after them in the primary. And Paxton and his supporters are already planning their vengeance.

The presidential race will get most of the 2024 GOP primary headlines, but legislative races will feature the most intense fights.


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