Texas’ part-time Legislature has been at it all year. Now they’re heading into a rare fourth special session

House Speaker Dade Phelan ended the first special session on Aug. 6, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park for The Texas Tribune

When Texas lawmakers started their fourth special session Tuesday evening, they also made a bit of history.

Never before has the governor called a fourth special session the same year as the regular session, underscoring the gridlock Gov. Greg Abbott has faced this year as he has pushed lawmakers to pass his priorities.

“The Texas Legislature made progress” in the third special session, but “there is more work to be done,” Abbott said, in what has become a familiar refrain.

Four special sessions are unusual but not unheard of. There were previously 10 times in Texas history where a governor called at least four special sessions after a regular session, the most recent being 2004.

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But in all those instances, the special sessions were more spaced out and the fourth one started in the following year. This series is also unique for including an historic impeachment trial in the Senate, which acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton in September — an event that added 10 more grueling days of work in the Capitol for the upper chamber.

Special sessions can take a toll on lawmakers, who otherwise meet for a 140-day regular session in odd-numbered years. As part-time legislators, they have family and professional commitments back home that have to be balanced against their service at the Capitol. Add in political disagreements, and it can be a formula for short tempers and frayed nerves.

Special sessions also are not without a cost to taxpayers. A full 30-day session amounts to about $1.2 million in per diem payments to lawmakers, which are meant to cover their expenses in Austin.

Per diems are currently set at $221 a day — a payment that is in addition to their base salary of $7,200 a year. With 182 recipients — 150 House members and 31 senators, plus the lieutenant governor — that equals $40,222 per day. As of Wednesday, lawmakers had met for 78 days in special session this year, amounting to $3.1 million in per diem payments.

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That amounts to an additional $17,238 in per diem that each lawmaker was paid beyond the $30,940 they get in for the regular session.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, called it the “endless session” in a post Wednesday on X, saying that Abbott “continues to waste taxpayer dollars pushing an unpopular voucher scam.”

The current special session focuses on border security issues and Abbott’s year-long crusade for “school choice,” or a voucher-like program to let parents use taxpayer dollars to subsidize private education costs. Abbott has struggled to muscle the proposal through the Texas House, where a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans has long fought it.

The timing of this fourth special session is especially notable. It comes two months after Paxton’s acquittal in the Senate, which inflamed tensions with the House that voted overwhelmingly to impeach him. And it overlaps with the candidate filing period for the March primary, which starts Saturday and goes through Dec. 11.

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Abbott has openly said that if lawmakers do not pass vouchers during the fourth special session, he will use it as an issue against recalcitrant members of his party in the primary.

Then there is the looming holiday season, which kicks off with Thanksgiving on Nov. 23. That could provide more incentive than usual for lawmakers to get their work done.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t want to be eating turkey in this zip code in Austin, Texas,” Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, said in a radio interview last week. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us and hopefully we can get that done before Thanksgiving.”

Patterson was speaking with Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, who himself has branded the timing of the fourth special session “the wrath of the turkey.”

For Democrats, the knock on the special session streak is simple: With his push for school vouchers, Abbott is trying to get lawmakers to do something they just do not want to do. A test vote on the issue earlier this year turned up 24 House Republicans still opposed to it.

“This is the highest level of gubernatorial obstinance,” the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, told reporters Tuesday. “No means no. We don’t know how else to say that.”

Martinez Fischer noted that the Texas Constitution allows the governor to call special sessions for “extraordinary” circumstances.

“What’s extraordinary about losing vote after vote on this topic?” Martinez Fischer asked.

Some Republicans are nonetheless cautiously optimistic that the fourth special session will bring a long-sought resolution on the voucher stalemate. The chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Rep. Brad Buckley of Killeen, has introduced a reworked education package that will get a two-day committee hearing starting Thursday.

Republicans have also worked out their differences on the border security issues, which sparked a war of words between House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the end of the third special session. On Tuesday, the GOP authors of the two proposals in question — one creating a state crime for illegal entry and the other funding border security operations — filed identical versions in each chamber and announced they had reached agreements.

The education bill, however, remains a thorny challenge — and one that has especially bedeviled Abbott.

He began the third special session by saying school choice advocates were “on the one-yard line.” But a few weeks later, nothing had even reached a committee in the House.

Along the way, he announced a deal on the issue with Phelan, who declined to call it that.

But Abbott’s allies believe this time the progress is real. The Texas Public Policy Foundation sent an email to supporters Wednesday calling Buckley’s latest bill “the winning play.” The email came from the think tank’s top school choice advocate, Mandy Drogin, who has spent the year rallying support for the proposal alongside Abbott throughout the state.

“The 180 page bill that Chairman Buckley will be taking testimony on has been carefully crafted, meticulously researched,” Drogin wrote, “and is the best shot we have at scoring a touchdown for the parents of Texas’ 6.2 million school children.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.