TEXAS VIEW: Abbott, let the Lege go home! Special sessions on vouchers are un-Texan


That would be the advice, we’re guessing, that the ghosts of Texas lawmakers past would impart to their present-day counterparts. Sequestered for a fourth and perhaps fifth special legislative session by a petulant, albeit persistent governor, the current crop of lawmakers is probably inclined to take the advice.

Indeed, on a crisp fall afternoon last week, it looked to one editorial board member at the Capitol like most lawmakers had decamped already. A few Capitol visitors meandered through the majestic marble halls. A gaggle of Austin elementary school kids tested out the superb echoic qualities of the 218-foot-high interior dome. Outside the massive wooden doors of the south entrance, workers repairing the Capitol roof jostled clanging pipes as they repositioned scaffolding. Inside the building and out, Department of Public Safety troopers cradling their black AR-15s outnumbered state officials.

Most lawmakers, no doubt, realize they’re wasting their time and our money hanging around the Capitol while Gov. Greg Abbott tries to figure out how to wangle enough rural Republicans to support a school voucher scheme that would make him the golden boy for ardent voucher supporters nationwide. (A hard-fought voucher victory might even make him a plausible vice-presidential candidate for the former president he endorsed during their recent joint visit to South Texas.)

It’s ironic that Abbott, heir to the Republican Party’s traditional allegiance to small, unobtrusive government, has kept lawmakers for five months and possibly more in Austin, a blue city the governor and many of his fellow Republicans profess to hate. That’s not the Republican way. It’s not the Texas way, where the resolutely anti-government, post-Reconstruction state Constitution of 1876 still holds sway.

“It was a document drafted by people who preferred to be left alone, to keep their affairs close at hand and their government at arm’s length,” Stephen Harrigan has written in “Big, Wonderful Thing,” his 2019 history of Texas.

Suspicion of government, whether state or federal, is why the drafters of the 1876 constitution reduced the governor’s term from four years to two (since restored by amendment to four); it’s why the governor’s appointment power is limited compared to other states. It’s also why our judges are elected, not appointed. It’s why we insist on stingy salaries for lawmakers, who meet in regular session every other year, not annually. The late T.R. Fehrenbach, writing in “Lone Star,” his 1968 history of the state, quoted a typical Texan of the post-Reconstruction era, explaining that biennial sessions were better, not only to save money, but also because “the more the damn legislature meets, the more Goddamned bills and taxes it passes.”

Here, here!

Abbott, subject in this one-party state to only the most minimal checks and balances on his power, has found that he enjoys wielding the cudgel of big, intrusive government. He jumped at the chance to expand his authority during the pandemic, clinging to a public health disaster declaration that afforded him unprecedented power long after the COVID-era became past tense. Whether it’s state government imposing the nation’s most stringent restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy, usurping federal responsibilities for border enforcement, overriding local control (particularly in blue cities) or seeking to impose a voucher system that would rob public schools of desperately needed revenue, he’s decided in his third term as governor that minimalist government is for wimps.

Now that 21 of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, as well as most Texans, have told the governor over and over they’re not interested in vouchers, he has a decision to make: Does he call lawmakers back for a fifth special session, hoping he can pressure, threaten, cajole and browbeat enough rebellious Republicans to switch their vote on vouchers? Or does he transition to campaign mode, recruiting GOP candidates willing to challenge anti-voucher lawmakers next year? (Of course, he could do both.) He’s already endorsed House members who supported vouchers and one primary challenger to an incumbent: Hillary Hickland, a voucher enthusiast from Belton, is running against state Rep. Hugh Shine, a Republican voucher opponent from Temple. Hickland, who home-schools her three children, has also launched crusades against sexually explicit books in school libraries.

Another special session or not? It’s a tricky decision for the governor. On the one hand, he risks getting slapped down again on the voucher issue, making him look ineffectual.

Perhaps to take his mind off his dilemma, Abbott went sky-diving last week in tandem with a 106-year-old World War II veteran named Al Blaschke. The Georgetown resident told reporters afterward he was singing Frank Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling” as he floated 8,000 feet down to earth. He even sang to Abbott once the two were on the ground, reminding the governor that “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

A governor who has done his best during the Trump era to reinforce our state’s image as selfish, cold-hearted and cruel probably ignored the message. A governor who seems to prefer stoking culture-war panic and pushing divisive social issues has shown little interest in addressing some of the big things that would make most Texans smile. You know, like funding for public schools that keeps up with inflation and raises for teachers.

Abbott governs under a constitution that for all its limited government appeal is inadequate, even for an overwhelmingly rural state like 19th-century Texas. We’re not going to get a replacement that reflects the challenges of a large, urban, increasingly diverse state, a state that could do so much more with its bountiful blessings.

We don’t have to settle, though, for a myopic governor. Voters in a fast-growing, rapidly changing Texas could insist on statewide officeholders whose combined perspectives really did reflect the view from 8,000 feet up. That expanded horizon would include public schools that meet the needs of all our children, access to health care for every Texan, constructive solutions in tandem with Washington to ease border challenges, innovations in the nation’s most important energy state to address climate change, among other challenges within our reach.

We applaud the audacity of the governor, a wheelchair user since a tragic accident left him paralyzed, to dive from an airplane. We wish he were just as audacious on behalf of his fellow Texans. We’d love to see a governor whose vision is as big and wide as Texas itself.

Houston Chronicle