- By Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Gov. Greg Abbott only got about half of what he asked for out of the Legislature’s special session, and the day after it abruptly ended, without even sending him a bill on his top priority of property tax reform, he laid the blame for the session’s shortcomings squarely on House Speaker Joe Straus.
Asked by host Bob Frantz on KTRH radio in Houston — the first of eight Abbott radio and TV interviews Wednesday — whether Straus, a San Antonio Republican now serving his fifth term as speaker, was responsible for what didn’t get done, Abbott replied, “Well, of course.”
There was, Abbott said, the “dillydallying” by the House on extraneous issues as the Senate sprinted at session’s start to pass 18 of the governor’s 20 agenda items. There was the quicksand of “stalemate” that did in property tax legislation and “permeated the entire session,” he said. And there was Straus’ personal and public guarantee that he would never let legislation pre-empting the ability of localities to create their own transgender-friendly bathroom policies get to the floor.
“There’s no evidence he’s going to change his mind on it, and that’s why elections matter,” said Abbott.
Abbott, with nearly $41 million in his campaign account and, so far, no significant opposition for re-election next year, has promised to get involved in Republican Party primaries in the 2018 legislative elections, and his post-special session comments suggest that seeing Straus doesn’t return as speaker in 2019 might be on his mind.
Abbott said another special session is always an option, but what is needed is a change in the membership, or at least in thinking, in the House.
“A special session is appropriate if we can get something done,” he told Chad Hasty on KYFO radio in Lubbock. “Otherwise it would be nothing more than a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.”
Abbott’s criticism of Straus echoed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s own relentless attacks on Straus, which began in the regular session and culminated in a news conference after the Senate gaveled out for the final time Tuesday night.
“With 27 hours to go, they walked off the job,” said Patrick, complaining that the House left the Senate no opportunity to negotiate changes in the House version of Senate Bill 1, the property tax reform measure, that Patrick said the House had “turned into a pile of mush.”
The Senate demanded that taxpayers approve city or county property tax increases above 4 percent, while the House preferred a 6-percent trigger.
“The Texas Senate didn’t quit early. The Texas Senate didn’t go home without the job getting done,” he said. “Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo. He might have been the first one over the wall.”
Straus commends members
Straus took the slings and arrows in stride, perhaps because Abbott’s and Patrick’s frustration with him indicated he had succeeded in thwarting priorities of theirs he didn’t share. Straus had managed to carry the day and looked to be in a stronger position than he was at the end of the regular session with his members, whom he sometimes protects from votes they’d rather not take.
‘“I’m proud of our House members who worked diligently in the special session, passing legislation that was in the best interest of all Texans. The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach,” Straus said in a typically restrained statement.
The low-key response was buttressed by the seemingly upbeat demeanor of members of the 95-person House Republican caucus after meeting Wednesday morning for 90 minutes.
The meeting, which drew 80-some members, was called by members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus most interested in deposing Straus as speaker who wanted to talk about a protocol for making sure the next speaker is the pick of a majority of the caucus before being elected by the full House.
If it had the makings of a tense showdown, it apparently was anything but.
“It was a very positive meeting, everybody agreed discussing the process is good,” said Rep. Matt Krause, a member of the Freedom Caucus from Fort Worth.
“Should we have a process in place by which we get together before every session, so that the caucus can come to some kind of decision about who the speaker should be?” Krause said. “I think there was a consensus that this is healthy discussion that needs to continue.”
“And that could be Joe Straus,” Krause said. “We all voted for him last time. We could go through this whole process and then Joe Straus is the one who comes out of it and, if so, we all vote for him on the House floor.”
Asked if the tone of the meeting reflected confidence in Straus’ leadership, Rep. Ron Simmons, the Carrollton Republican who sponsored both the transgender bathroom and special needs school choice legislation that never got a vote in the House, said, “We didn’t talk about that, but the last standing ovation in there was for the service he gave us this session and potentially going forward. “
“I enjoyed this morning’s Republican Caucus meeting. It was good to hear from many of our members, and I’m glad I had the chance to thank them for the work they’ve done and the sacrifices they have made,” Straus said in a statement. “I want to thank Gov. Abbott for working with the House on his very ambitious agenda in the special session. We considered every idea carefully, listened to constituents, and acted on a number of crucial issues such as helping retired teachers.”
“House Members voted for new limits on property-tax growth and significant school finance reforms, but in the short time available, we did not reach final agreement with the Senate on those issues,” Straus said. “I’m grateful for the members who fought for school finance reform and other priorities of the Texas House.”
Abbott cited his legislative victories, including money for the state teacher retirement system, limits on annexation authority and a few anti-abortion bills.
On Wednesday, he signed bills creating a school finance commission, strengthening patient protections related to do-not-resuscitate orders, extending the maternal mortality task force and restricting municipal fees for removal of trees on private property, even though the trees bill was not all that different from one he vetoed in the regular session.