As legislative session heats up, rift deepens between Straus, Patrick


Highlights

House Speaker Joe Straus is a traditional Republican; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a hard-line conservative.

The differences between them are more pronounced this session, as both enjoy strong support in their chambers.

They are at odds over their approach to budgeting and hiring a state auditor.

The differences in ideology and style between hard-line conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and traditional Republican House Speaker Joe Straus are nothing new. This legislative session, however, the divide has widened to include disagreements over some of the basic mechanics of managing state finances.

Texas, for instance, has been without a state auditor for more than a year because Patrick and Straus haven’t agreed on a replacement. For the first time, the Texas House and the Senate have used different starting points to calculate their proposed state budgets, meaning they cannot agree on how to view the current budget, much less how to shape the next one. Patrick and Straus have even sparred over whether to release a routine report on government efficiency.

“All of those elements have happened before. It’s just they haven’t happened all at once,” said Dale Craymer, executive director of the business-backed think tank Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “The House and Senate are two very different bodies, structurally and politically. And the political differences are probably greater this session than they have been before.”

The discord comes as significant decisions loom over whether to ban so-called sanctuary cities; how to fix the state’s widely criticized public education system and its social services for vulnerable children; and whether to regulate public bathrooms. On the only bill the Legislature is required to pass, the state budget, the two chambers’ initial proposals were $7.9 billion apart.

“It is unusual. It’s indicative of the apparent chasm between the House and Senate,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

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Other lawmakers, primarily Republicans, downplayed the divide between the Patrick and Straus, noting that Texas has a long history of showdowns between House speakers and lieutenant governors.

“There’s always differences between the House and the Senate. I don’t think there’s an unusual level of it,” said House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

State Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who chairs two committees, said the differences are “not alarming at all. … In the end, we’re going to have a responsible budget.”

Straus spokesman Jason Embry said, “With the filing of major bills on mental health and child protection in recent days and budget hearings underway, Speaker Straus feels very good about the direction of the session.”

Patrick’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Early moves

In the 2015 legislative session, Straus and Patrick came together on many GOP priorities, passing bills that cut the business franchise tax by 25 percent, funded an unprecedented $800 million border security campaign and allowed gun owners to openly carry their weapons in public.

But many conservatives in the Legislature are still smarting over the defeat of several Senate-passed bills that languished in the House, such as one that would have helped public school students switch to private or religious schools at taxpayer expense.

Patrick is again pushing an agenda that will appeal to social conservatives, promising to deliver a voucher-style education system and pushing a bill — opposed by big-city mayors, business owners, the NFL, NBA and more than 100 nationally known entertainers — that would block transgender-friendly bathroom policies.

While the dynamic is the same this year, Straus and Patrick appear to be staking out their positions earlier. Straus, for instance, has already voiced skepticism over the voucher and bathroom bills.

Capitol lobbyist Bill Miller said the early separation might be due to both showing confidence in their hold over their chambers. Straus, whose district extends from Alamo Heights to the northern reaches of San Antonio, didn’t face a challenger in his re-election as speaker for the first time this year, and Patrick is now in his second session as leader of the Senate.

“The House has shown an earlier firmness than we have seen in the past. The firmness is exactly related to confidence. And Dan Patrick has all the confidence in the world,” said Miller, who has worked with Republicans and Democrats. “They’re showing strength early. That’s a deterrent on certain things later. They’re marking their territory, so to speak.”

Nuts and bolts

Texas has been without a state auditor since John Keel resigned from the post in January 2016. The committee that selects the auditor is co-chaired by Straus and Patrick. It hasn’t met since March 2007.

First Assistant State Auditor Lisa Collier, who was Keel’s No. 2, has been operating the office since his departure. At a House Appropriations Committee meeting last week, she told lawmakers that the office could continue its duties — routinely auditing agencies for compliance with state law and producing special reports requested by the governor or Legislature — until a permanent replacement is selected.

“Since (Keel’s) retirement last year, the statute gives me the powers and duties of the state auditor,” Collier said.

Straus and Patrick don’t appear eager to name a replacement. Embry, Straus’ spokesman, said, “The State Auditor’s office continues to function under the leadership of an interim auditor.”

The stalled process of selecting a new auditor might suggest a lack of trust between the two Republicans over who is in charge of evaluating state programs.

Each session, the Legislative Budget Board, which is also co-chaired by Patrick and Straus, produces a thick report on government efficiency and effectiveness that often results in cost-saving measures being adopted by lawmakers.

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This year, however, Patrick ordered the report be withheld, and the board initially complied with his request. Most lawmakers learned that the report was being withheld at a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month, when the budget board’s director, Ursula Parks, said that Patrick asked for it to be withheld.

State law, however, requires the board to release any government efficiency reports produced by its staff. After Parks’ comments, the American-Statesman and other media outlets requested the report under the Texas Public Information Act, citing the law.

Straus then stepped in and sent a letter to Parks requesting that it be released for House members, consequently making it public. “It’s routine for House members to want to review the information in those reports, and that’s what the speaker directed the LBB staff to provide,” Embry said.

Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said he asked to shelve the reports due to “persistent questions about these staff-driven reports, which were not requested by the leadership. The lieutenant governor believes the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) should focus on their principle mission, which is developing the budget, and leave the policy making to elected officials.”

News stories have shown that the report contained critical findings on the Medical Transportation Program and the Medically Dependent Children Program, two Medicaid-funded services that were privatized by Texas lawmakers.

Budget battle

In decades past, the House and the Senate worked from the same initial budget proposal, which was alternately filed as House Bill 1 or Senate Bill 1 each session. In recent years, it became standard practice for the two chambers to develop separate proposals and work out major differences in a conference committee at the end of the session.

This year, in addition to having major differences in their proposals for the 2018-19 budget, the House and the Senate used different assumptions for how much money the state would have at the end of the current 2016-17 budget cycle.

“The bills that are before the House and the Senate this time are rather substantially different, with differences that run through each budget article,” Parks, the budget director, said at a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing. “These two budgets between the House and Senate also actually use a different starting point, which is new.”

The primary difference is that the Senate didn’t assume that lawmakers this year will pass a supplemental budget, which is a measure that fills in gaps in the current two-year budget caused by revenue coming in below expectations or costs exceeding the appropriated amount.

Because the Legislature chronically underfunds some programs, passing a supplemental budget has become routine and often mandatory. In recent sessions, for instance, lawmakers have ignored population growth and inflation in appropriating money for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for low-income Texans.

This year’s Senate Bill 1 makes no stopgap payment to Medicaid, allowing the upper chamber to claim a lower price tag for its spending plan but ignoring likely unavoidable costs.

The difference in assumptions means the House and the Senate are starting from even farther apart than they would be during a session that could be defined by a contentious budget battle.



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