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Vouchers, border security, abortion: The issues you heard about in 2023 will continue to be hotly debated in 2024

By María Méndez and Texas Tribune Staff, The Texas Tribune

Vouchers, border security, abortion: The issues you heard about in 2023 will continue to be hotly debated in 2024” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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2023 was a particularly long year in Texas politics. In addition to the regular legislative session that ran from January through May, state lawmakers reconvened during four special legislative sessions — and for Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial.

2024 also promises to be eventful with a presidential election and all of the state’s representatives in the Texas and U.S. houses on the ballot — along with other federal, state and local officials. It’ll be an opportunity for voters to weigh in on how sitting leaders addressed (or didn’t address) the issues that matter to them.

Some political issues in 2023, such as school vouchers and border security, drew attention throughout the year. And others, like turmoil seen at the Houston school district and Texas A&M University, turned the spotlight beyond the state Capitol. Here’s a recap of the major issues we’ve seen and how they could spill over into 2024.

Vouchers and school finance

What happened in 2023: Gov. Greg Abbott entered the year listing “school choice” as his top legislative priority. He urged lawmakers to pass a measure that would allow parents to use state funds to help pay for private school tuition or home-schooling costs. But he met stiff resistance in the Texas House, where Democrats and rural Republicans banded together to block the idea at every turn.

The measure failed in the regular legislative session and in multiple special sessions after that. And it took down billions of dollars earmarked for public schools in the process. The state entered the year with a more than $30 billion surplus, and lawmakers planned to use a big chunk of it to fund raises for teachers and support to help schools deal with rising inflation and other expenses. But Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made clear they wouldn’t let it pass without some sort of voucher measure accompanying it.

What could happen in 2024: Abbott could call the lawmakers back into session to try again in 2024, but it’s unclear what would change in the House to allow it to pass. In the meantime, he’s focusing his attention on the Republican primary in March, where he is supporting challengers of incumbents who voted against his voucher plan. If those challengers are successful, he might have a better chance of passing his priority in 2025.

Matthew Watkins

Immigration and border security

A migrant family from Peru walks towards the nearest port of entry after they crossed the Rio Grande back into Mexico after the family asked Texas National Guard Troops to be let inside a makeshift migrant camp to be processed about two hours after Title-42 ended at 9:59 p.m. local time, Friday, May 12, 2023, in Cd. Juarez, Mexico. The family was denied entry. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
A migrant family from Peru walks on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande on May 12, 2023 after crossing the river shortly after Title 42 ended and and the National Guard turned them away in El Paso. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Gov. Greg Abbott urged lawmakers to approve several immigration enforcement proposals. Over one regular legislative session and four special sessions, Republicans passed bills that would enhance the punishment for human smuggling, fund $1.54 billion to continue building a border barrier and make it a state crime to illegally cross the Rio Grande from Mexico.

Under a new law, police who suspect that a person crossed the border illegally can arrest them and charge them with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail. Repeat offenders could face a second-degree felony with a punishment of two to 20 years in prison. The law allows a judge to drop the charges if a migrant agrees to return to Mexico.

That law has already drawn a legal challenge.

The legislation also allows $40 million to pay for state troopers to patrol Colony Ridge, a housing development near Houston that far-right publications claim is a magnet for undocumented immigrants. Federal officials, however, are suing the developer, accusing it of targeting Latino home buyers with predatory loans and false promises.

The new laws also allow the governor to use part of new border money to give grants to municipal governments that may incur increased costs while enforcing a new state immigration law.

What could happen in 2024: Some state Republican leaders have said they would welcome a legal fight with President Joe Biden’s administration that could reverse a U.S. Supreme Court landmark case: Arizona v U.S.

In 2012, a majority of the justices ruled that local police didn’t have the authority to arrest someone solely based on their immigration status because that responsibility falls to the federal government. That case stemmed from a 2010 Arizona law known as Senate Bill 1070, which made it a state crime for legal immigrants not to carry their immigration papers and required police officers to investigate the immigration status of any person they come into contact with.

Court battles over Texas’ new law are likely to play out throughout the year.

Uriel J. García

Abortion

President of Center for Reproductive Rights Nancy Northup speaks at a press conference announcing the filing of Zurawski v. State of Texas, at the Capitol on March 7, 2023. The lawsuit demands clarity from the state on what constitutes a “medical emergency” exception to abortion bans.
Nancy Northup, president of Center for Reproductive Rights, speaks at a press conference March 7, 2023 announcing the filing of a lawsuit demanding clarity from the state on its “medical emergency” exception to the abortion ban. Credit: Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Abortion is still banned in Texas, except to save the life of the pregnant patient. Some Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, called for clarification of the laws, but for the first time in decades, the Legislature basically left the abortion issue alone.

But in the courts, the battles rage on. Attorney General Ken Paxton has challenged every effort from the Biden administration to improve abortion access, and a federal Texas judge ruled that mifepristone, a common abortion-inducing drug, had to be off the market. (The U.S. Supreme Court put that ruling on hold until it hears arguments this term.)

On the other side, 20 women who say they were denied medically necessary abortions have sued Texas, and in early December, a state judge ruled that Kate Cox, a Dallas mom carrying a nonviable pregnancy, should be allowed to have an abortion. The Texas Supreme Court overturned that ruling, and Cox ended up having to travel out of state to get an abortion.

What could happen in 2024: More municipalities could pass travel bans, which would likely draw legal challenges. More pregnant patients could sue for the right to have an abortion. And there could be more efforts to restrict access to contraception. One big fight to watch: Texas is trying to put Planned Parenthood out of business with a $1.8 billion lawsuit that’s sitting before an anti-abortion judge in Amarillo.

Eleanor Klibanoff

Ken Paxton’s impeachment acquittal

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, talks with his defense attorney Tony Buzbee, left, before starting the ninth day of his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Austin, Texas.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, talks with his defense attorney Tony Buzbee, left, before starting the ninth day of his impeachment trial in the Texas Senate on Sept. 15, 2023. Credit: Sam Owens/Pool via San Antonio Express-News

What happened in 2023: The Texas House, including a majority of Republican members, impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton in May. The vote came after the House investigated Paxton’s request to the Legislature to fund a $3.3 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by four of his former deputies, who alleged the attorney general fired them in 2020 after they accused him of bribery and corruption. The House’s investigative committee concluded that the whistleblowers were telling the truth and that Paxton should be removed.

At a dramatic trial in September, House managers presented evidence that Paxton had abused his office to help a friend, struggling real estate investor Nate Paul, while benefiting from Paul’s assistance in renovating his Austin house and employing a woman with whom the attorney general was allegedly having an affair.

Paxton’s defense team, led by high-profile lawyer Tony Buzbee, argued that the House had jumped to far-fetched conclusions and said the attorney general was being persecuted by liberal Republicans for political reasons.

The Senate acquitted Paxton of 16 charges and dismissed the remaining four. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had been the trial’s judge, blasted the House managers for even bringing the case, further inflaming the tensions between himself and House Speaker Dade Phelan.

What could happen in 2024: A federal criminal investigation into Paxton is unresolved, as is the whistleblower lawsuit, which is now headed to a trial in Houston. Paxton has also vowed revenge by supporting primary challengers to the Republican House members who supported impeachment.

Zach Despart

Higher education

Reem Abbas, a junior, and Aaeisha Baharun, a senior, study together at Rice University’s MultiCultural Center in Houston, Texas, US, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that prohibits diversity, equity and inclusion offices in Texas public colleges and universities starting in 2024.
Reem Abbas, a junior, and Aaeisha Baharun, a senior, study together at Rice University’s MultiCultural Center in Houston on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Callaghan O’Hare for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: State lawmakers filed multiple bills that would interfere with day-to-day operations on college campuses.

The Legislature eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion offices on public college and university campuses. DEI offices were created to help students from all backgrounds succeed on campus, but critics argue they’ve become a mechanism for universities to force certain political ideologies onto students. Lawmakers also approved a bill that codified tenure policies, spelling out when a school can grant or revoke tenure.

Faculty pushed back against both initiatives — arguing they infringed on the long-standing principle of academic freedom, which protects professors from being targeted for their teaching or research — and raised concerns about how they could create a chilling effect within Texas’ universities.

Those concerns became a reality for many faculty over the summer after The Texas Tribune reported that Texas A&M University leaders had watered down their job offer to Kathleen McElroy, a Black journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, after some university system regents raised concerns about her perceived liberal leanings. A&M also placed a professor on paid administrative leave after a politically connected student accused her of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a lecture. The scandals led to the resignation of the flagship’s president and a wide-reaching internal investigation.

What could happen in 2024: The state’s DEI ban goes into effect on Jan. 1. Texas could see additional pushback from students and faculty as schools continue to change their policies and procedures to comply with the new law.

More broadly, university presidents have faced sharp criticism from across the aisle this fall about their response to the war between Israel and Hamas and related campus protests and conversations, exacerbating the national erosion of trust in higher education. More debates about campus free speech and the role of higher education are expected, especially as the 2024 presidential campaign kicks into high gear.

Kate McGee

School safety

Nimitz Middle School students line up to enter their next class Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023 in Odessa.
Nimitz Middle School students in Odessa line up to enter their next class on Sept. 13, 2023. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Almost a year after Texas’ deadliest school shooting in Uvalde, state lawmakers passed sweeping legislation on school safety during the 2023 regular legislative session. Among its most significant changes, House Bill 3 ordered school districts to secure schools with armed police officers and to train more staff to identify students who may need mental health support. It also granted the Texas Education Agency more authority to ensure school districts have robust safety plans to respond to an active shooter and slightly raised the amount of funding districts receive for school safety expenses.

Even before HB 3 went into effect in September, school safety experts warned that placing an armed officer at every campus would be costly and hard to implement amid a law enforcement shortage. And despite subsequent proposals for more school safety funding, school leaders’ hopes were dashed after the fourth special session ended amid a stalemate on school voucher legislation.

What could happen in 2024: HB 3 allows school districts facing financial or staffing constraints to secure schools with alternative plans, including by hiring security guards or training school staff to be armed, and does not punish districts for failing to meet the armed officer requirement. But even with these alternatives, school leaders working to follow the new school safety requirements have said they may be forced to make budget cuts without additional funding.

María Méndez

Houston ISD takeover

Laurel Hays holds a poster against the Texas Education Agency (TEA) takeover of Houston Independent School District (HISD) during a press conference regarding HISD's imminent state takeover in Houston, on Friday, March 3, 2023.
Laurel Hays holds a poster protesting the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the Houston Independent School District on March 3, 2023. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: The Texas Education Agency in June officially took over the Houston school district after years of poor academic outcomes at a single campus, Phillis Wheatley High School, and allegations of misconduct against school board members.

The TEA ousted Houston ISD’s democratically elected school board and replaced the district’s previous leader with Superintendent Mike Miles and a nine-member “board of managers” that acts as the school board.

Thus far, Miles has overhauled several campuses under his “New Education System,” which he describes as an “innovative staffing model that puts the focus on classroom instruction and improved student outcomes.”

Many parents and teachers have criticized the system as a one-size-fits-all approach that won’t work for all students. Teacher resignations have surged.

What could happen in 2024: It is unlikely the TEA will leave Houston ISD. Miles will most likely finish the first year in charge and has already said he would need four to five years to put the district on the right path.

Brian Lopez

Property taxes

Star Creek, a neighborhood down the street of the Allen Premium Outlets, in Allen, TX on May 8, 2023.
The Star Creek neighborhood in Allen on May 8, 2023. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Lawmakers reached an agreement to spend $18 billion on a sweeping tax-cut package, and voters signed off on the deal at the November ballot box. Of that, $12.7 billion will pay for new cuts to school property taxes over the next two years.

The homestead exemption on school district taxes, or the amount of a home’s value that can’t be taxed to pay for public schools, went from $40,000 to $100,000 at a cost of $5.6 billion.

The state will send $7.1 billion to school districts to replace money that would have been collected through local property taxes. That way, school districts can lower their tax rates.

What could happen in 2024: Taxpayers already are seeing the cuts reflected on their 2023 tax bills. The typical Texas homeowner should see a little less than $2,600 in savings over two years, according to estimates provided by the office of state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston-area Republican and the Senate’s chief tax-cut proponent.

Joshua Fechter

LGBTQ+ rights

Hundreds joined the Queer March on the Capitol in Austin on April 15, 2023.
Hundreds joined the Queer March on the Capitol in Austin on April 15, 2023. Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Republican lawmakers pushed a slate of bills that could impact the lives of LGBTQ+ Texans. Texas banned the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy for transgender kids and restricted the college sports teams that trans athletes can join. LGBTQ+ advocates argue these laws target their community and remove live-saving health care access to transgender youth.

Additionally, lawmakers tried to restrict children from attending certain drag shows by expanding the definition of sexually explicit performances in an attempt to protect minors from inappropriate material, measures that are being fought in the courts.

What could happen in 2024: The Texas Supreme Court will likely consider the constitutionality of restricting transgender youth from accessing hormone therapy and puberty blockers. Similar legal battles have yielded mixed results. While some courts have fully blocked these types of restrictions, others have made exceptions to allow some minors to access gender-affirming care. It’s unclear how the conservative state Supreme Court will rule on the issue.

— William Melhado

Extreme heat

Austin-Travis County EMS first responders cart Robert Shipp, 75, of Bastrop, to an ambulance during a 102 degree summer day outside Austin Wrench A Part in Del Valle on July 7, 2023. According to the EMS crew and Shipp, he was seen passing out while searching for car parts under the hot sun, and hadn’t eaten any food or drank any water all day.
Austin-Travis County EMS first responders transport a Bastrop man to an ambulance during a 102-degree summer day in Del Valle on July 7, 2023. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: A crushing heat wave blanketed much of the state through the summer, frequently pushing daytime temperatures into triple digits with little relief at night. Scientists say climate change is making these types of heat waves more common and more severe in Texas than they would be otherwise. Combined with a lack of rain that pushed much of the state into severe drought, the summer of 2023 was Texas’ second hottest ever recorded. It ranked just behind the blistering hot and extremely dry summer of 2011.

Some cities, including El Paso and Austin, went more than 40 consecutive days with 100-degree temperatures. According to early figures from the Department of State Health Services, at least 322 people died in Texas from the heat this year. Though the data is not yet final, it’s almost certainly the most people killed by heat in Texas in more than two decades.

What could happen in 2024: It’s too soon to know how next summer will stack up to the historical record. That’s because, aside from climate change, there are many factors that affect the summer heat. That includes the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, whether the state is in a drought, the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico and general storm patterns such as tropical storms. However, as global temperatures rise, climate change becomes more of a determinant of heat waves and other weather patterns.

Global average temperatures have already risen at least 1.1 degrees Celsius, or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial times. Scientists warned this year that the planet could very likely soon exceed a key threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Warming past that long-held international goal would likely mean widespread heatwaves as well as other intensifying climate change impacts, such as water supply shortages and sea level rise.

Erin Douglas

Electric grid

Snow covered the Texas Capitol grounds during the winter storm on Feb. 16, 2021.
Snow covered the Texas Capitol grounds during the winter storm on Feb. 16, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: The year started with intense political debate over how to reform the electricity market in Texas. In 2021, a deadly and disastrous winter storm revealed the shortcomings of the state’s power grid after power generators failed in the freezing weather and could not keep up with high demand. Since then, politicians have sought to change how electricity is bought and sold to improve the grid’s reliability.

Legislators this year passed policies intended to spur companies to build and operate more power plants fueled by natural gas, which they consider more reliable than wind and solar power because, in theory, they can operate at any time. Experts debated whether the policies will make a difference. This summer, record-breaking heat and power demand pushed the grid again near the brink, with grid operators repeatedly calling on residents to reduce their power use. A significant number of new solar farms and batteries helped grid operators pull through.

What could happen in 2024: Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the power grid, made a last-ditch effort to pay any company willing to bring a shuttered gas- or coal-powered plant back online for winter. That attempt failed. ERCOT President and CEO Pablo Vegas then characterized the idea as an extra precaution and said he expects to have enough resources to meet demand. ERCOT and state electricity regulators at the Public Utility Commission will continue to work to implement the electricity market changes that legislators approved.

Emily Foxhall

Water supply and infrastructure

Tom Bailey flushes out a water line in Zavalla on April 10, 2023.
Tom Bailey flushes out a water line in Zavalla on April 10, 2023. Credit: Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune

What happened in 2023: Texas’ crumbling water infrastructure came into focus this year after a record number of boil-water notices across the state — which can indicate aging pipes — as well as temporary water outages in Odessa and Zavalla. Increasing amounts of water loss and a crushing drought left some communities without enough safe drinking water for residents.

The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 28, which will allocate $1 billion to create a new fund for water supply projects and upgrades to existing infrastructure. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, known as Proposition 6 in November’s constitutional amendment election. That money is on top of the roughly $2.5 billion the state will receive over the next five years through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

What could happen in 2024: The Texas Water Development Board will likely need to come up with rules on how the $1 billion will be allocated. And because $1 billion will not be sufficient to address Texas’ water infrastructure problems, the state could discuss creating a permanent revenue stream for the new water fund.

Pooja Salhotra

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood, Texas A&M University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/01/texas-political-issues-2024/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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