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How Ken Paxton’s impeachment will affect the lawmaking process in the Texas Legislature

Ken Paxton speaks with his attorney, Tony Buzbee in the Texas Senate chambers on the first day of his impeachment trial.
Michael Minasi
Ken Paxton speaks with his attorney, Tony Buzbee in the Texas Senate chambers on the first day of his impeachment trial.

Texas lawmakers will be back in Austin next month for a special session focused on school vouchers, and state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent acquittal in the Texas Senate is expected to make their work around this already-divisive issue all the more complicated.

At the center of conflict is the relationship between House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate.

“This doesn’t set up a good situation for governing, particularly going into a special session on something as contentious as vouchers or school choice,” said Sherri Greenberg, assistant dean for State and Local Government Engagement at University of Texas at Austin’s School of Public Affairs.

She said the relationship between Patrick and Phelan has turned toxic, especially in the wake of Paxton’s trial.

Since the beginning, the attorney general’s impeachment divided Republicans in the Texas Legislature.

In the House of Representatives, a majority of Republicans joined Democrats voting to impeach in May. Right away, Phelan received backlash for allowing the proceedings to move forward.

When the articles of impeachment were sent to the Senate, Patrick stayed uncharacteristically quiet, even putting a gag order in place to prevent state lawmakers from discussing the impeachment publicly.

But Patrick broke that silence immediately after the Senate voted to acquit Paxton of all impeachment charges — and he didn’t hold anything back.

“The speaker and his team rammed through the first impeachment of a statewide official in Texas in over 100 years,” Patrick said.

He also questioned the fairness of the Texas House during their impeachment inquiry and has called for an audit into how much it cost the House to move the impeachment forward.

Patrick also wants changes to the Texas Constitution.

“We owe it to future legislatures to make these changes so that no future official impeached by the House — whether Republican, Democrat or independent — is subject to the way this impeachment process occurred in the House this year,” Patrick said.

Phelan swiftly responded to Patrick’s accusations, saying Patrick attacked “the House for standing up against corruption.”

“I find it deeply concerning that after weeks of claiming he would preside over this trial in an impartial and honest manner, Lt. Governor Patrick would conclude by confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s House on full display,” Phelan wrote in a statement. “His tirade disrespects the Constitutional impeachment process afforded to us by the founders of this great state.”

Months in the making

This is not the first time the two men have fought publicly. They did it during the regular session over the budget and property taxes.

Now, Patrick and Phelan’s disdain toward each other could mess with their plans for passing a school voucher-like plan in the upcoming special session. The stakes are especially high given Gov. Greg Abbott has made it clear passing vouchers is his top priority this year.

“Institutional conflicts have turned personal between the speaker and lieutenant governor, and political divides have become policy differences,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political sciences at the University of Houston.

These differences will likely impact how both chambers work with each other in October — especially considering disagreements over vouchers aren’t limited to the men at the top.

Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston

Like during Paxton’s impeachment, Texas Republicans are divided when it comes to any legislation that could move public school funding into the hands of private schools.

Rural Republicans have historically opposed voucher-related efforts in the Texas House. They opposed them this year, too, despite Abbott prioritizing the issue at the beginning of the 2023 legislative session.

Still, some lawmakers say they’re cautiously optimistic. After the Senate trial, Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, told reporters he’s hoping something positive for education will pass during the special session.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to get things done because the Republican Party itself doesn’t know where it wants to go on some of these things,” Johnson said.

So, what happens if Patrick and Phelan hit a standstill on school vouchers?

Rottinghaus said they might need some help.

“In effect what they need is a good referee, and the governor will have to serve in that role,” he said.

Rottinghaus said Abbott has been effective at forcing both chambers to get to an agreement.
If that fails, Abbott has said he’ll call for more special sessions until a voucher bill passes. He’s also hinted that he’ll get involved in the races of Republican incumbents who vote against school vouchers.
Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán