- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Gov. Greg Abbott had no choice but to call a special session of the Legislature for what amounted to a technical fix.
But, making a virtue of necessity, the governor set out an expansive 20-item conservative agenda, including some previously intractable issues. This weekend, with scarcely a dozen days to go and sweeping success hardly in sight, Abbott expressed complete confidence that the session will end with a flurry of votes on many of his priority items — and compromise between the House and Senate, both led by Republicans with large majorities but with competing visions on how to approach issues ranging from the public school finance system to local tree ordinances.
“That’s why I said … if we’re going to have a special session I’m going to make it count, and almost to a point of certainty, I can tell you that in 10 days we are going to have a Texas that I consider to be far better, more conservative, that will continue the Texas model for conservative governance,” Abbott told the American-Statesman on Friday evening.
The governor’s upbeat appraisal comes before a single bill — including the sunset legislation to keep open the Texas Medical Board and ensure the continued licensing of Texas doctors — has reached his desk, and with some of his priorities still mired in committees awaiting a hearing or emerging in hard-to-reconcile Senate and House versions.
But Abbott, whose policy staff has been keeping close tabs on every development on either side of the Capitol, said: “We are on a trajectory where you’re going to see between now and a week from now — next Friday — a lot of things move very fast. We’ve got to match them up between the House and the Senate, but you’re going to see a lot of items move over the next seven days.”
While the governor expressed frustration with some actions on the House side that were not part of his agenda — including unanimous House votes Thursday and Friday to restore Medicaid cuts for children with disabilities, and the call by some lawmakers, endorsed by House Speaker Joe Straus, to expand the agenda to include ethics reform — Abbott said he was buoyed about where the session is headed by a private one-on-one meeting with Straus in his office Thursday.
Abbott spoke with the Statesman in his campaign office TV studio a few blocks from the Capitol. From there, sitting before a background image of the Capitol, he has conducted 29 interviews since the special session began July 17 with local TV stations across the state, usually broadcast live during their evening news shows, to brief Texans on the session’s progress and rally support for his agenda.
Friday night began with KTXS-TV in Abilene.
“Very importantly, we are building bridges as we speak between both the House and the Senate,” Abbott said, addressing the camera, an earpiece feeding him audio of the anchor in Abilene. “We all realize that we have deadlines looming. We all want to get legislation passed that will make Texas better, reduce regulation, improve our schools, and so we are seeing both sides really begin to come together now.”
“What I anticipate is continued progress like what we saw today and the past few days, and I’m very hopeful and really believe that we will get most if not all of these items passed,” Abbott told viewers in the Big Country.
While Abbott’s optimism might be strategic, it also reflects his private meeting with Straus on Thursday that left him more sanguine about the way ahead.
Abbott asked for the meeting after a couple of days of renewed sniping between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who complained that Straus is a “moderate” bent on obstructing the agenda he shares with the governor — and Straus, who has said that the lieutenant governor doesn’t understand the House’s more open and deliberative process.
“It’s just another day in the office,” Abbott said of the tension between the leaders of the House and Senate. “It’s not the first time this has happened.”
The Senate passed 18 of the 20 special session agenda items in the first week of the 30-day special session, while the House has passed bills that align fully or partially with just five of Abbott’s 20 priorities.
Both Abbott and Patrick have said that property tax reform is their top issue. The Senate has passed a bill requiring automatic rollback elections for any city or county tax increase of more than 4 percent. The House Ways and Means Committee has approved a bill putting the threshold at 6 percent.
“That’s a difference that must be reconciled,” Abbott said.
But, he said, “let’s go back in time. They couldn’t even get the rollback passed in the House during the regular session. This is a very meaningful step that we’ve achieved in the special.
“Now we need to get the House package and the Senate package and then find ways to match them up. That’s what the conference committee is all about. We’ll see what kind of deal can be struck. But obviously I and my office will be involved in those discussions.”
The bill, which is opposed by mayors and county judges across the state, must pass the House before negotiations can begin.
In his interview with KAMC-TV Lubbock on Friday, Abbott noted that, as of that day, “legislation has been passed out on both sides impacting school financing.”
“People are realizing something must be done along these lines,” he said. “Now it’s a process of matching up the House and Senate plans on reforming school finance, realizing part of it needs to be done now, part of it is overhauling our entire scheme, including the Robin Hood program that is simply not working for the state of Texas.”
John Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition legislative caucus, believes the governor’s optimism is well-founded.
On Friday, for example, the House Appropriations Committee approved House Bill 208 to limit state spending increases to population growth and inflation, a long-held conservative objective.
“It’s now up to 62 co-authors on a bill that’s one of the priorities for the governor and it’s moving, and I would use that as a good indication that things are moving in a positive direction,” Colyandro said. A bill needs at least 76 votes to pass.
Colyandro said that no one gets everything he wants in a session or a special session and, in measuring the governor’s success, “I don’t know what the right number is.”
But, he said, “what I do know is that other than the sunset bill — which they have to pass — these other items on the call are all things that the Republican majority wants to see pass.”
Asked his threshold for success, Abbott replied, “All 20 are threshold items. I want to see all of these items addressed by the Legislature.
“Listen, here’s the deal,” he said. “You can’t guarantee that every legislator is going to agree with your agenda. What you can expect is that issues will be voted up or voted down. And we need to know where the body politic is so we can know which agenda items we can continue to pursue and expand upon.”
The most contentious issue is legislation to regulate bathroom use by transgender people, championed by Patrick and social conservatives, backed by Abbott and opposed by Straus and a coalition of civil rights and business groups, the latter including major donors to Abbott and other Republicans.
The Senate approved a bathroom bill, called the Texas Privacy Act, after a daylong debate in which Democrats vehemently fought against it.
Straus has said he does not want to see the bill on the floor. And while he has acknowledged that the bill by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrolton, pre-empting local schools and governmental entities from creating their own transgender-friendly laws, might pass if it reached the floor, that doesn’t mean that most members want to vote on it.
But Abbott said it would be “way premature” to assume Simmons’ bill won’t get a vote.
“Anything can happen in the next 10 days.” he said.
‘Rules of the game’
Aside from the blitz of TV appearances, the governor also has used the studio to cut Facebook videos — two dozen so far — with 19 senators and representatives who authored legislation furthering his special session agenda.
“We have partnerships with these legislators. They are helping us by carrying these bills, by working to pass them, so we want to give them exposure,” Abbott said. “There are well over 10,000, sometimes over 20,000 people who will have viewed them. So they are getting exposure they would never get.”
Abbott warned before the session started that he would be keeping track of who was with him and who was against him on his agenda, a delineation that might continue right into the March Republican primaries.
“I think as governor I need to strongly consider getting involved in primaries to make sure we continue to elect the type of officials who are going to be reflective of conservative governance,” Abbott said.
“Texas, as you know, has been known to have its own brand, its own model,” he said. “It’s essential that that model not erode, so I will be doing all that I can in this next election cycle to ensure that we will have representatives and senators who stand for Texas values, that will keep Texas exceptional.”
Could that include working to defeat a Republican incumbent?
“We’ll see. It’s premature,” said Abbott, who has nearly $41 million in his campaign account and, so far, no serious opponent. But, he predicted, “I will be involved in primaries in the upcoming election cycle.”
Asked his thoughts on Straus’ future as speaker, the governor said he would “reserve judgment” until after the special session, adding, “If I get 20 for 20 I’m a happy guy.”
“This is not my special session,” Straus told the Statesman on Wednesday.
“The lieutenant governor made it no secret that if he didn’t get a few of the things the way he wanted them, he would create the situation we are in today,” said Straus, who blames Patrick for the failure to pass the sunset legislation for the medical board during the regular session.
Nonetheless, Straus said, “I think the House is doing a good job going through the governor’s agenda item by item and passing a number of bills that are included in his call.”
The governor was irked by the time the House spent on “non-germane” issues this past week.
“Everyone knows the rules of the game. It’s not like anyone is blindsided here,” he said. “So they know that the governor decides what’s going to be on the call. They know they have to take care of business. They know nothing is going to be added unless and until they take care of business. So if they want to add things to the call, they’ve got to get busy on the items of the call.”
“Anyone who’s spending time on anything but those 20 items, they’re not just wasting time, they’re wasting the taxpayer money; the taxpayers are paying them to be here,” he said.
It has been noted that unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, who served as a member of the Texas House and as lieutenant governor presiding over the Texas Senate, Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general, has never served in the Legislature and might be less wise in its ways.
“We have achieved legislative goals that Perry pined for but was never able to achieve,” Abbott said. “Our success rate has been superior. Our results have been superior. We have done more to cut taxes, to limit spending, more to advance education.”
And of his signature success in passing a ban on sanctuary city policies during the regular session, Abbott said, “Perry not only pined for it; he also called a special session for it. He pushed, he pushed and he pushed, and he was just never able to get it done.”
What made the difference this time?
“Could be the pusher,” Abbott said.
While the governor might seem to be setting himself up for a fall by his continued insistence that he wants all or most all of his agenda to reach his desk, Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist and seasoned observer, said there is little risk for Abbott.
“I think the governor is going to come out of the session, regardless of the outcome, as a winner, because he is driving public policy,” Miller said. “It gives him campaign rhetoric, and he can claim the victories as his own, and he’s setting conservative public policy, which as governor is exactly what he wants to be doing.
“So it’s a win-win for him,” Miller said. “Whether they pass one or 20, he’s going to win on this deal.”