Texas House members abruptly ended their special session Tuesday night — one day early — after signing off on a $350 million school finance plan and briefly leaving in limbo a property tax plan sent to the upper chamber.
Texas senators soon rejected the plan and followed suit, adjourning the legislative session on the 29th day of the 30-day session.
As a result, a slew of other bills — ranging from the so-called bathroom bill restricting where transgender Texans may use the restroom to a bill creating a uniform texting-and-driving ordinance across the state — are dead, at least for now.
The lower chamber’s move, which followed a weekend of tough negotiations between the House and Senate, came after House members approved a school finance plan dramatically scaled down from their original proposal. But it still pumps millions of dollars into education, keeps some rural schoolhouses open and helps fund health insurance for retired teachers.
The House plan to provide property tax reform by requiring voter approval when urban local governments raise property taxes 6 percent or more soon died when the Senate wouldn’t accept it. Senate members, who preferred a 4 percent threshold, had asked House leaders to name a conference committee to keep working on the bill.
But state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said time had run out.
“I’m not refusing a conference committee,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the bill alive.”
Bonnen’s move didn’t work, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored the plan.
“We are not going to accept the take-it-or-leave-it proposal from the House,” Bettencourt said. “We are not going quietly into the night. The Texas taxpayers deserve better.”
Bettencourt said he hopes Gov. Greg Abbott, who indicated property tax reform was one of his top priorities this session, calls the Legislature back to work soon to address the issue.
When asked about the developments Tuesday night, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said: “Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before.”
The House adjourned Tuesday evening while the Senate was on a break, leaving the upper chamber to accept the controversial bill as it was or let it die.
House members at the time said they didn’t know what the Senate would do.
“There have been a lot of conversations that have gone back and forth,” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said of the surprise House move. “At the end of the day, we have done our work here.”
Shortly before 9 p.m., the Senate was back on the floor and members announced they would let the bill die — for now.
“I think what I’m most unhappy with is the House quit tonight,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said after the Senate adjourned. “They quit on the taxpayers of Texas.”
On one of “the most important issues ... with 27 hours to go, they walked off the job.”
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, wasn’t disappointed the session ended early.
“The last 29 days have been nothing more than a waste of time and taxpayer dollars,” said Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He added that Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick “showed that they lacked leadership on the issues that really matter to the people of Texas, instead choosing to focus on dangerous, political policies aimed at hurting our communities.”
“The good news is that some of the most dangerous ideas, including the ‘bathroom bill,’ attacks on teachers and other public employees, and attempts to further eliminate women’s healthcare services all failed.”
The House voted 94-46 to accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21, the school finance plan, even though the upper chamber stripped $1.5 billion from the proposal.
State Rep. Dan Huberty, who heads the House Public Education Committee, said that the proposal provides substantially less than the House wanted and that House members agreed to the lower amount as a “bridge” until next session when they hope to make more substantial changes.
“To say I’m disappointed is an understatement,” said Huberty, R-Houston. “We were unable to find a middle ground.”
But the funding that remains — including $150 million to keep schools open and $212 million in health insurance costs for retired teachers — is desperately needed, Huberty said.
“Members, the system is broken. You know it and I know it,” he said from the House floor. “But I learned a long time ago it takes two to dance. ... I’m standing here today asking you to please support this bill because it’s the right thing to do.”
Before the House approved the plan, several Democrats urged the House to stand firm and reject the version sent over by the Senate.
“I’ll tell the Senate, take back this crap and fix it,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.
Local Democrats — state Reps. Nicole Collier and Ramon Romero Jr., both of Fort Worth, and Turner — voted against HB21.
The House also voted 118-24 to agree with the way the Senate wanted to fund the bill — delaying money owed for Medicaid. Collier and Romero also voted against HB30, the funding mechanism.
“The governor has said to me he will sign this bill,” Huberty told the House.
One of the last bills sent to Abbott addressed tree restrictions.
The House signed off on HB7, which restricts cities’ ability to regulate the removal of trees on private property, on Tuesday.
The measure passed the House Tuesday on a 119-23 vote. Among the members who voted no: Capriglione, Collier, Romero and Turner.
Some House members on Tuesday already were looking ahead to 2019, the next time there will be a vote to determine who will lead the House of Representatives.
At the request of the House Freedom Caucus, Republican Caucus Chair Tan Parker called a special meeting Wednesday to discuss a new way of choosing the House speaker, a post filled for the past five sessions by Republican Joe Straus.
They, and a number of conservative and Tea Party Texans across the state, point to 2009, when about a dozen members known as the “Anybody But Craddick” Republicans met privately to determine the best way to oust then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who ruled the House with an iron fist.
Those 12 united behind Straus and teamed up with House Democrats to force Craddick out of the race.
“I think that the current speaker of the House, Joe Straus, I think his days are already numbered,” said state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington. “So this caucus meeting ... isn’t as much about removing Speaker Straus. It’s more about the Republican Party choosing who the next speaker is going to be.”
Local state Reps. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Bill Zedler of Arlington and Tinderholt are among the members of the 12-member Freedom Caucus.
They are among the minority who have vocally complained about their issues not being taken up for consideration.
Tinderholt, a two-term member and a vocal voice of the Freedom Caucus, said he’s tired of a “handful of Republicans” and the House Democrats choosing the House speaker and “then they are forced to cater to the Democrats throughout the whole session.”
“Our whole goal is to choose a Republican speaker prior to the vote on the first day of the session and pick exactly who the Republican Party wants.”
Krause said it’s really about the process.
“It is not about a personality. It’s not about a person. It’s just about the process and I think it’s a big step forward for our caucus.”
Straus’ office declined to comment.