With a 140-day regular legislative session and four special sessions in 2023, Texas lawmakers spent more time in Austin than any prior calendar years.

Yet less than one-third of Texas voters were confident that the Legislature solved key problems during its 246 days at the Capitol, according to a recent poll of 1,200 registered voters.

The big picture

Lawmakers struggled throughout the year to cut property taxes, increase state support for public school teachers, tighten border security and more. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority, known as private school vouchers, did not pass.

Community Impact spoke with Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin, to break down some of the most consequential things Texas lawmakers did in 2023.

A historic impeachment trial

In the final days of the regular legislative session, the Texas House overwhelmingly impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton with a 121-23 vote.

The third-term Republican was accused of abusing his office to benefit a donor, accepting bribes, retaliating against former employees and more. Paxton was suspended from office without pay for several months, until the Texas Senate acquitted him of 16 articles of impeachment in September.

Senators heard eight days of witness testimony before voting on the articles of impeachment. Two Republican senators—Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville—joined 12 Democrats in favor of conviction on some of the charges.

Paxton was the second statewide elected official in Texas to be impeached and face removal from office. Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson was impeached and removed from office in 1917.

The impeachment trial widened a rift between House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate. Patrick said Phelan “rammed through” the impeachment “while paying no attention to precedent.”

Throughout the year, the two legislative leaders also disagreed on how to implement property tax relief, increase public school funding and more.

An expelled House member

House lawmakers voted unanimously to expel former Rep. Bryan Slaton, a North Texas businessman, on May 9. A House investigation found Slaton gave alcohol to and had sex with a 19-year-old staffer.

Slaton’s expulsion left the lower chamber with 149 members. On Jan. 30, Republicans Jill Dutton and Brent Money will compete in a special runoff election to finish Slaton’s term.

Cutting property taxes

It took lawmakers 187 days to pass a property tax relief plan, one of their top priorities for the year. The House and Senate clashed over how to provide as many people as possible with “​​the largest property tax cut in Texas history.”

They eventually agreed on an $18 billion package in mid July, closing out the second special session of the year. Voters overwhelmingly approved the tax cuts during November’s constitutional amendment election.

The plan raises the state property tax exemption on Texans’ primary homes from $40,000 to $100,000. ​​Seniors and people with disabilities will be eligible for a $110,000 homestead exemption.

Since school districts receive most of their revenue from property taxes, the state is expected to spend $5.3 billion to reimburse schools for the increased exemptions.

Lawmakers also set aside $12.7 billion to “compress,” or reduce, school district maintenance and operations taxes, which make up the majority of a homeowner’s tax bill, by $0.107 for the 2023-24 school year. This is in addition to $0.1098 of compression included in the state budget.

Savings will vary by district, but lawmakers estimated taxes would drop by 23.8% on average.

The tax relief package also limits how much certain properties can increase in value annually and eliminates a tax for small businesses.

“There was really no other issue... coming out of the election and going into the session that Republican leadership was more committed to,” Henson said. “If there’s any surprise about that, it’s that they had so much difficulty actually getting the bill across the finish line.”

The Texas Politics Project found that 29% of Texas voters were “extremely or very confident” that lawmakers did enough to reduce property taxes. Because Texas does not have an income tax, homeowners pay one of the highest tax rates in the nation.

Tightening border security

In the final months of the year, Abbott directed lawmakers to create a new state crime for illegal immigration. The controversial policy was a top priority of Abbott and other Texas Republicans.

“Border security tops the list of things that Republican [voters] consistently identify as the most important problem facing the state,” Henson said. “The politics of that are magnified by the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House. ... It’s been a thorny and real policy problem given migration flows over the last couple of years.”

During their fourth special session, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 4, a new law that will give Texas the power to arrest and deport migrants who enter the state illegally.

El Paso County and two immigrant rights organizations sued Texas on Dec. 19, arguing the law, which is scheduled to take effect in March, is unconstitutional. Currently, only the federal government has the authority to deport migrants.

Abbott said Dec. 18 he believes Texas has the right to create and enforce its own immigration laws, citing a “border crisis.” He also said the new law was crafted to avoid delays in court.

“We think that Texas already has a constitutional authority to do this, but we also welcome a Supreme Court decision that would overturn the precedent set” in Arizona v. United States, Abbott said.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona immigration law that would have made it a state crime to be in the country illegally.

Opponents of SB 4 called it “one of the most extreme anti-immigrant bills in the country” and said the law would lead to racial profiling.

With Abbott’s support, the Legislature also passed bills that will increase criminal penalties for smuggling humans and allocate $1.54 billion to help the state continue building a wall along the Texas-Mexico border. Lawmakers said the money would fund approximately 100 miles of border wall.

Bills impacting LGBTQ+ Texans

During the regular session, lawmakers repeatedly argued over legislation surrounding LGBTQ+ people, including SB 12, SB 14 and SB 15.

SB 12 would prohibit “sexually oriented performances'' that occur in front of children. Although the bill was altered to remove direct references to drag shows, critics said it discriminated against LGBTQ+ Texans and criminalized drag performances.
  • A drag performer and several LGBTQ+ organizations sued state and county officials over the law in August.
  • A federal judge ruled in September that SB 12 was “an unconstitutional restriction on speech” and could not be enforced.
SB 14 prevents transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming care, including puberty-blocking medication and hormone therapy, which are used to treat gender dysphoria. The law, which went into effect Sept. 1, also banned gender-confirmation surgeries; however, medical experts say they are rarely performed on children.
  • Five Texas families, three physicians and two LGBTQ+ organizations sued the state in July, arguing SB 14 discriminated against transgender children by denying them treatments that nontransgender youth could still access.
  • A Travis County judge temporarily blocked the law, but the Texas Supreme Court later ruled it would go into effect as scheduled.
  • The full case is still pending before the state’s high court, which may hold a future hearing.
SB 15 requires that Texas college athletes compete on sports teams based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Lawmakers approved a similar law impacting high school athletes in 2021.Limiting local control

House Bill 2127 prevents city and county officials from adopting or enforcing ordinances that go beyond state or federal law in a variety of areas, including agriculture, business and commerce, finance, labor, natural resources, occupations, and property.

During the regular legislative session, bill author Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said the measure would ensure consistency across Texas and offer certainty for local businesses.

“We want those small-business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families, not trying to navigate a byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time they cross city [boundaries],” he said during an April 18 debate in the House.

The city of Houston filed a lawsuit challenging the legislation in July, arguing it was too vague and broad. Officials argued the Texas Constitution gives cities the right to tailor their laws to meet local needs. The cities of San Antonio and El Paso later joined the suit.

A Travis County judge later ruled the law was unconstitutional but did not block it from going into effect Sept. 1.

“This bill was the culmination of several sessions of efforts in the legislature to assert authority over local governments,” Henson said. “The primary targets of this bill ... are the big urban centers in the state that are primarily overseen by Democratic elected officials.”

Education funding abandoned

House lawmakers repeatedly rejected Abbott’s top priority, education savings accounts, in 2023. The voucher-like program would give families public money to pay for private schools.

A coalition of House Democrats and rural Republicans blocked the proposal Nov. 17, with 84 members voting for an amendment that killed the chamber’s sweeping education bill.

Several public education proposals also died amid high tensions within the Texas GOP.

“[The voucher debate] poisoned the whole discussion of public education at a time when there was the potential to provide more funding for these very wildly popular measures like increasing teacher pay, and putting more money into school safety,” Henson said.

According to the Texas Politics Project, voters widely supported the failed education policies:
  • 82% of voters were in favor of increased school safety funding.
  • 81% were in favor of raises for public school teachers.
  • 68% were in favor of increasing how much money schools receive per student.
Meanwhile, 54% of polled voters supported the creation of a voucher, education savings account or other “school choice” program.

What’s next?

All seats in the Texas House are up for election in 2024. Abbott has endorsed primary challengers to several House Republicans who voted against vouchers.

The governor can also call lawmakers back for a fifth special session at any time this year, although he is not expected to do so. The 89th regular legislative session is set to begin on January 14, 2025.