The Texas Legislature Returns in 2023 for a Brutal Year
Elections have consequences. This political bromide is overused for a reason—it’s reliably true. And this year, the fallout for vulnerable Texans could be particularly destructive.
After something approaching a blue wave swept across Texas in November 2018, a chastened Republican majority in the Legislature kept its focus in the 2019 session on serious policymaking—school finance and property tax reform—while largely forgoing their typical red-meat fare.
Republicans thwarted expectations of another Democratic surge in November 2020, and the next year the GOP ignored the problems laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, instead focusing on passing as much right-wing legislation as possible over the course of a regular session, plus three painful specials.
The final outcome was ugly: Abortions were effectively banned by threat of bounty, handgun permits were done away with, voting laws were made more restrictive, transgender kids were targeted with statutory bigotry, and school curricula on race and history was whitewashed. Profound policy problems, meanwhile, were left to fester.
Critically, the state’s electoral districts were redrawn for the next decade to ensure incumbent Republican majorities will be insulated from electoral backlash while the state’s growing numbers of people of color and Democratic-aligned voters are kept at bay.
Firmly in control, Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and GOP lawmakers are now free to do as they please—to pick up where their vengeful 87th legislative session mercifully left off just over a year ago.
Some top Republicans hinted during campaign season that they might want to soften the sharpest edges of their draconian and unpopular ban on abortion or pull back on the most extreme parts of their so-called “election integrity” laws. But there’s little reason to think this legislative session will yield moderation. The party’s activist base is eager to continue the march toward one-party authoritarianism, punishing political enemies and catering to political patrons as they go.
Many bills have already been filed to further expand prosecution under Texas’ abortion ban, along with measures to concentrate power over elections in the office of GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton and to continue persecution of transgender children and their families.
Lawmakers will also be charged with allocating a projected massive surplus of state revenue—over $25 billion—from inflation-fueled sales tax receipts and huge oil and gas production taxes. Republicans are salivating as they plan to shovel money into tax relief for homeowners, likely without alleviating the fundamental problem of soaring property taxes. Many other political pet projects, like Abbott’s bloated Operation Lone Star border scheme, are likely to get a taste too.
But that shiny surplus figure contains plenty of smoke and mirrors, budgetary gimmicks, and external uncertainties that can only be resolved by transparent fiscal governance—not hide-the-ball, kick-the-can budgeting. Meanwhile, there is plenty of serious work to be done. There are billions in once-in-a-generation federal funds for infrastructure and energy projects that could set Texas up for the future. The electric grid still needs fixing. The public school system still needs help recovering from the pandemic. Government agencies and public services are crying for significant reform and investment.
Ahead of every new legislative session in Texas, there’s always a glimmer of hope that lawmakers will rise to the occasion, that reason will at least get a public hearing. This is usually coupled with the well-earned suspicion that, instead, the next race to the bottom will take us to parts previously unknown and unimaginable.
Here, we do our best to survey what we believe will be some of the most high-profile policy topics facing Texas—what could and should be done, and, more likely, what will happen instead. — Justin Miller
Make Government Good Again
For years, lawmakers have failed to heed warnings from leaders of Texas’ biggest and most important state agencies about a growing inability to provide critical services to a booming population, often due to depleted workforces and antiquated technology.
Instead, legislators have repeatedly cried poverty, demanding departments do more with less. Now GOP policymakers are confronted with the consequences of their indifference and hostility toward the state’s moribund bureaucracy.
The roughly 150,000 state government workers who administer food stamp and Medicaid benefits, ensure vulnerable youth are living in safe homes, regulate the most powerful industries, and guard one of the world’s largest incarcerated populations are underpaid, overworked, and increasingly heading for the exits.
From the 1970s well into the 21st century, the state regularly funded pay increases for its government employees. But now workers haven’t seen a wage bump since 2014, when lawmakers approved a modest 3 percent raise over two years, accompanied by heavier workloads. Employees in the lowest-paid positions are predominantly people of color, who are hit the hardest by these stagnant wages.
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic upheaval prompted a nationwide surge in people leaving their jobs, whether in the public or private sector, a phenomenon dubbed “The Big Quit.” Texas government has been particularly hard-hit, facing catastrophic staffing shortages in major agencies that run the state prison system, the juvenile justice system, and foster care and child protective services. Agencies like the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Public Utility Commission, charged with protecting the public from unscrupulous actors and regulating essential industries, can’t maintain the sort of white-collar workforce—attorneys, analysts, investigators—needed to perform their duties.
Nearly half of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department workers who resigned that year cited unsafe working conditions and a poor work environment. The department stopped accepting new juveniles, who had to remain in overcrowded local facilities because state centers were so understaffed. The agency is struggling to hire guards because they’re competing with service-sector employers like Buc-ee’s, where workers can make the same money in safer conditions.
At the Health and Human Services Commission, frontline workers charged with administering social services earn an entry-level salary of just below $28,000, low enough for a single parent of two to qualify for the same government benefits they deliver to other families.
Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, almost every state agency is calling for more funding to pay workers better. In their legislative budget request, Texas’ largest agencies are asking for $1.9 billion in new funding for salary increases and incentives, according to the state Legislative Budget Board, along with over $6 billion for IT improvements and capital projects.
While that may sound pricey, those demands represent the cost of years of neglect. And they are coming as the state trumpets surprisingly rosy revenue projections, with the Legislature likely to have at least $25 billion in surplus funds to spend.
After years of belt-tightening, agency heads finally have an opportunity to go big. “If you don’t ask for it now, then when?” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a longtime budget analyst in Texas. “If not now, then it’s basically never going to happen.”
But agency pleas will be competing with higher-octane political priorities. Governor Abbott, for example, has already pledged to use at least half the budget surplus on short-term “tax cuts” for property owners.
Texas Republicans have faced no electoral punishment for the myriad crises born of their crumbling government. So, even in a year of financial abundance, the bureaucrats who merely serve the most vulnerable among us will likely be sent to the back of the line. — Justin Miller
Stopping the Next Uvalde
There is a policy that would likely have prevented the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. It is an uncomplicated measure, one that would probably have saved some or all of the 21 kids and teachers who perished on May 24 at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Three of the nation’s four most populous states—California, New York, and Florida—already have it on their books. It is supported by some three-quarters of Texans as well as a majority of Texas Republicans. It is simply this: Raise the minimum age for buying an assault-style rifle—a weapon that literally pulverizes human bodies—to the same age generally required for handguns, alcohol, and cigarettes.
This policy has emerged as the principal demand of the Uvalde families who lost their fourth-grade children last spring. That’s because the killer, a high school dropout who’d been labeled by friends “the school shooter,” was legally able to purchase two AR-style rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammo shortly after turning 18. Killers under 21 also carried out the school shootings in Santa Fe; Parkland, Florida; Newtown, Connecticut; and Columbine, Colorado. Shootings with assault-style rifles are far deadlier than those carried out with other weapons.
“We have to have an age limit on having access to militarized weaponry. … I mean, I’ve had Republican colleagues contact me and say, ‘Look, we need to do this,’” Democratic state Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, told the Texas Observer. Gutierrez filed a bill in November to raise the minimum age, and Representative Tracy King, a moderate Dem representing Uvalde in the House, said in October the specifics of the shooting had convinced him to support the age limit.
Meanwhile, Abbott avoids addressing the popular proposal head-on, instead claiming—falsely—that recent court rulings “have made it clear” the measure would be unconstitutional. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan has similarly sidestepped the proposal’s substance, saying “the votes aren’t there” in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Democratic lawmakers have also filed “red flag” legislation that would allow judges to remove guns from dangerous individuals and other bills to establish universal background checks on gun buyers. But, as Texas gun control advocates know bitterly well, the same proposals have perished in recent sessions.
“We would hope that the pain and suffering that the families in Uvalde went through would push some widely agreed-upon gun safety legislation through the Texas Legislature,” Molly Bursey, volunteer state legislative lead for the gun control group Moms Demand Action, told the Observer. “In reality, I would say, if you think that [gun policy] can’t get worse … think again, it can definitely get worse.”
Depressingly, Texas GOP leaders have a record of loosening gun laws in response to mass shootings. In 2019, following the tragedies in Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs, Abbott signed laws making it easier to carry guns in public places; in 2021, after the massacres in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, Abbott approved legislation creating so-called constitutional carry, which allows Texans to carry handguns without a permit.
Bursey fears the 2023 Legislature will reduce remaining limitations on firearms in certain locations. These include courts, bars, and polling places. The state could also expand 18-year-olds’ ability to carry handguns. As for school shootings, the Legislature is likely to repeat its 2019 gambit of funding “school hardening,” an expensive solution of dubious effectiveness that can leave schools militarized yet still vulnerable to mass shooters. Bursey particularly worries about further efforts to arm ill-prepared school staff.
Texans resoundingly reelected Republican leaders in 2022, Bursey notes, so she’s prepared for radical pro-gun lawmakers to simply forge ahead. “We’re going to keep raising the voices of my neighbors, of myself, of the vast majority of Texans,” she said. “But, no, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that they will find the courage and do the right thing.” — Gus Bova
Fixing the Grid
Two years after hundreds died and millions lost power during Winter Storm Uri, the state’s electric grid remains a problem. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has warned that, faced with another deep freeze, Texas won’t be able to cope. State leaders have made improvements, like requiring essential energy infrastructure to be weatherized, but they are willfully ignoring the fundamental threats posed by climate change and endlessly consuming fossil fuels.
Rather than updating the grid and electricity market so that Texas reaps the benefits of clean energy, state Republicans are primarily interested in propping up the oil and gas industry. Given massive federal investment in renewables and efficiency through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the transition to clean energy is inevitable. The question is how long and how painful Texas will make it.
The most glaring issue is that the Texas grid is largely cut off from the rest of the country, unable to import electricity in times of need. But if Texas insists on going it alone, there’s another immediate fix: curbing our hunger for electricity.
Energy wonks say the cheapest kilowatt is the one we don’t use. Despite Texas having cheaper electricity than most states, a Census Bureau survey recently found a shocking 45 percent of Texans are sacrificing food and medicine to pay energy bills. Helping people weatherize their homes and get efficient appliances would save households money and free up electricity when it’s needed most—during scorching summer days and winter cold snaps.
Efficiency measures could shave Texas’ peak electricity demand by as much as 15 percent, according to one estimate by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Lawmakers need only tighten the state’s energy efficiency standard, and utilities would expand existing initiatives like weatherization assistance programs and rebates for appliances. Lawmakers could also help ensure Texas claims its full share of the billions of federal dollars available from the Inflation Reduction Act for energy efficiency.
But Republican legislators treat saving energy as the elephant in the room.
“Energy is an equation. You’ve got to balance demand on one side, and supply on the other side. The fact that we’ve been talking about this for almost two years with absolutely no discussion of the demand side is insane,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “It just cannot be stressed enough that it is entirely because Texas is still obsessed with this idea of selling fossil fuel energy. And everything else, including the public’s right to affordable, reliable electricity, comes second.”
Instead of embracing efficiency, the Legislature is likely to spend the year dancing with the Public Utility Commission over a complicated overhaul of the state’s electricity market. The commission recently hired consultants to evaluate several redesign proposals.
One favored proposal would pay generators a premium for keeping extra fuel around and providing power during peak demand. But the plan doesn’t guarantee greater reliability, and it could cost more than $460 million per year. Commissioners want the redesign to exclude wind and solar facilities, potentially even those with battery storage, from getting the same credits. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle disagree on the details, but the Republican majority shares the commission’s overall goal: incentivizing energy companies to build more fossil-fueled power plants. Many conservative legislators still claim—misleadingly—that renewables make the grid unreliable, despite ample evidence that it was natural gas that failed us most during Uri.
If the Abbott-appointed public utility commissioners have their way, this market redesign would not fix the grid. Instead, it would stymie renewable energy development in Texas in favor of putting the fossil fuel industry on life support. While the state Legislature is unlikely to hand the utility commissioners everything they want, plenty of lawmakers will support their overarching, retrograde mission. — Delger Erdenesanaa
Public Schools in Crisis
For “school choice” proponents, the upcoming session could be a stampede, with public schools getting trampled in the process. For decades, the push for school vouchers—which allow parents to use public education dollars to enroll students in private charter and religious schools—has been a fringe issue across the country. In Texas, Democrats and many Republicans, especially from rural districts, have stood with public education advocates to block such legislation.
But the emboldened right-wing policy movement has gained ground in the past year, with Abbott expressing support for school choice in his reelection campaign. GOP lawmakers have already filed several pieces of legislation to that end. If pro-voucher legislation passes, education advocates warn that taxpayer funding would bleed out of public schools across the state.
“The one thing that [voucher proponents] may be right about is this may be the one and only chance that they actually have to pass it,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “I do think that they’re going to put an all-out effort into it. And people who actually care about real public education … are going to have to stand up and make their presence known.”
This all comes amid a growing teacher shortage exacerbated by low pay, the pandemic, unsafe working conditions, and political attacks from Republicans. If public school funding shrinks, educators would be forced to work with even smaller budgets. For every seven students opting out of a public school district, that district would lose the equivalent of a teacher’s salary and benefits, according to the public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas. The group is in favor of school choice—including in-district magnet schools or transferring within or between districts—but it is opposed to vouchers and other programs that leech funding out of public schools. “We want to make sure that wherever we’re spending our public tax dollars, that there’s a way that we can account for where the money is going and what it’s being used for,” said Will Holleman, Raise Your Hand Texas’ senior director of government relations.
Support for traditional public schools remains resilient within both parties. In November, the majority-Republican State Board of Education advised lawmakers not to pursue school choice efforts. The board voted to oppose all forms of school choice measures, including vouchers and all tax credits that effectively divert funding from public schools. But Republicans including Dan Patrick are trying to drown out skepticism with promises to rural Republicans that their districts won’t be affected by voucher programs.
It’s still unclear what form of school choice will emerge as the favorite this session, and whether there will be more support in the Texas House of Representatives, which has roundly blocked school choice bills for decades.
But savvy activists and legislators are capitalizing on the growing controversy around public school curricula, which has reached a fever pitch as anti-critical race theory and anti-LGBTQ+ candidates have found success in many local school board races. Just on the first day of bill filing, lawmakers submitted more than a dozen bills that sought to either hamstring or expand what teachers are permitted to teach—from a Republican bill requesting that students be taught that life begins at conception to a Democratic bill creating a compulsory ethnic studies curriculum. At least one bill, filed by San Antonio Representative Diego Bernal, will attempt to undo recent attempts to ban educators from teaching students about the extent of racism in U.S. history and current events.
The anti-voucher coalition has held firm in the Legislature for years, keeping Texas from joining the ranks of other red states like Florida that have implemented sweeping school choice policies. But that opposition force is likely to come under more pressure than ever as vouchers become fully integrated into the broader conservative culture war against public schools. Will 2023 be the tipping point? — Michelle Pitcher
The State of LGBTQ+ Rights
Queer people have come to expect the worst from the state’s Republican leadership, but ahead of the upcoming legislative session they’re bracing for what could be a record-breaking wave of attacks on their rights.
Some of the most dangerous bills filed as of November target parents and medical professionals who support trans kids and teenagers with gender-affirming medical care. It’s a continuation of a shockingly vicious policy instituted early in 2022 by Paxton and Abbott that forced child welfare agents at the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate families with trans kids as if they were potential child abusers. Even though the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays went to court and halted these abuse investigations, the directive sent DFPS into disarray and caused some families to flee the state.
Representative Bryan Slaton, the most staunchly anti-transgender legislator of the 2021 session, is back with a bill to redefine gender-affirming care provided by medical professionals as child abuse, and other GOP legislators have joined the effort to enshrine into law what Paxton and Abbott failed to achieve through executive decree and legal maneuvers. For example, a bill from Representative Cole Hefner would set prison sentences for parents who support their child’s gender-affirming health care, while Representative Steve Toth filed two bills penalizing insurance companies for paying for that care.
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic who specializes in the intersection of gender and the law, called the situation “beyond dystopian.”
“Teachers, doctors, first responders, therapists, social workers—anyone who has a mandated reporter role around child abuse—would be required to turn in friends and family and their patients, their students, to the state,” she told the Observer.
Other bills attempt to capitalize on the moral panic around drag queens, simultaneously using it as a way to attack both LGBTQ+ culture as a whole and the ability of transgender people to participate in public life. HB 643 from Representative Jared Patterson broadly seeks to ban anyone from “performing” in public when children are present if the performer’s clothing doesn’t match conservative norms for their assigned gender at birth. It’s so broadly written, in fact, that experts are concerned it could even ban trans people from performing at major league sporting events or all-ages concerts. Venues found to be in violation would face misdemeanor charges.
“That could literally mean a trans person doing standup at a comedy show would then turn it into a sexually oriented business,” Caraballo said.
These measures just scratch the surface of the attacks on bodily autonomy coming down the pike. Senator Charles Perry introduced a bill to prohibit trans young people from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates, and Patrick has promised to attack the rights of teachers to educate students about LGBTQ+ people.
Just as in past sessions, bills aimed at actually protecting LGTBQ+ Texans almost certainly will go nowhere. Once again, the 88th legislative session will force activists to focus on playing defense. Activists have had success killing, or at least weakening, the worst elements of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in recent years by coming together with some of Texas’ major corporate employers.
“The optimist in me is hoping that [Republicans] come out swinging with this,” said Ash Hall, a legislative consultant who’s tracked anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the Texas Capitol for years. “And then it’ll die down, and they’ll focus on things that are more specific to their districts.” — Kit O’Connell
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