- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Gov. Greg Abbott began his Tuesday announcement in a scolding tone.
“We should not be where we are today. A special session was entirely avoidable,” Abbott said before summoning lawmakers to return to Austin to tackle an expansive conservative agenda. “There was plenty of time for the House and the Senate to forge compromises to avoid the time and taxpayer expense of a special session. Because of their inability or refusal to pass a simple law that would prevent the medical profession from shutting down I am going to call a special session to complete that unfinished business. But if I am going to ask the taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count.”
The next 17 minutes, as Abbott unveiled the packed agenda for a 30-day special session to get underway July 18, were probably the best, and for him, the most satisfying, of his 2½ years as governor.
Abbott upbraided Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, without naming him, for the political machinations that forced an overtime session, even as he quickly supplanted Patrick as the prime mover of the conservative agenda in Texas.
He confronted House Speaker Joe Straus, who had foiled some shared Abbott-Patrick priorities, with an agenda the San Antonio Republican, with a propensity for moderation, will be hard-pressed to stop or slow amid the focused glow of a special session.
And the governor challenged a Capitol press corps, which had written story after story about how he had been missing in action the last several months, to keep pace as he ripped through the 20 items he was placing on the call for the special session.
And, with that, the governor swung his wheelchair to the right and rolled out of the press conference room without entertaining a single question.
“He did snatch back the initiative from Patrick,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, among the pundits who had derided Abbott for a lack of hands-on leadership during the regular 140-day biennial session that ended May 29.
On a Wednesday appearance with Hal Jay on WBAP radio in the Metroplex, Abbott sounded delighted with what he had wrought and how thoroughly he had blown up under-the-dome assumptions.
“One of the fun things I have is I get to see all the speculation that people have, whether it could be about the special session or other things and, as usual, it turns out all the speculators are wrong,” Abbott said. “No one saw this coming. But I knew if we were going to have a special session, by God, it was going to be on issues that I consider to be important.”
The concern about cost is mostly rhetorical.
The main expense of a special session is the $190 per diem that each of the 182 members of the House and Senate collects for each day they work. That’s $34,580 a day. If the governor had called a special session just to pass a measure keeping the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies operating, he could have had a discount special session for only about a $100,000. If all 182 legislators work all 30 days, the price tag will be a little over a million dollars.
But the discount special session would have angered Patrick and many in the party’s social conservative base. And a special session that only added so-called privacy legislation — a bill to regulate the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals — and property tax legislation to require voters approve increases of more than 5 percent, would have left Abbott looking like he was simply bowing to Patrick’s demands.
Instead, said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Abbott’s “kitchen sink” conservative agenda is a bold stroke.
“This is Abbott, using the governor’s office, taking the bully pulpit and turning it rightward,” Henson said.
“Finish the job”
Abbott’s big play of gubernatorial authority might have been unexpected, but it was of a piece with his vision of how his authority ought to be deployed, the same vision which had him lying low for most of the session.
Texas governors, Abbott said, are supposed to lay out priorities in their State of the State Address in January, and then mostly stay out of the way as the Legislature legislates, only coming in, especially toward the end of the regular session, to guide and mediate.
It is only after the regular session ends that the real power of the Texas governor springs to life, with his veto power, but especially with the sole authority to call special sessions — as many as he likes, 30 days at a time — and to decide the issues lawmakers can consider.
Some legislative insiders will complain that the necessity of a special session this year suggests that Abbott failed to exercise a stronger hand in the regular session.
But for most Texans who even have an opinion about that, the necessity of a special session will probably be seen as a failure of the Legislature, not the governor, with the governor now stepping in to hold a feckless House and Senate to account, a version of history that Abbott, as the most popular figure in the process, will be only too happy to embrace.
“Ultimately, when the voters start paying close attention it won’t matter whether issues were resolved in the regular session or special session as long as they were properly addressed,” said Ray Sullivan, a veteran of special sessions as Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff. “And, unlike the regular session, the special gives the governor a louder megaphone and very specific ability to set the agenda, which doesn’t exist in the regular session.”
Almost as soon as he called the special session, Abbott launched a campaign to “finish the job.”
If the governor is largely indifferent to the Capitol press corps, he communicates effectively via Facebook and Twitter, on Fox News nationally and on local TV and drive-time and conservative talk radio in Texas. After Tuesday’s announcement, Abbott was busy branding the special session agenda as his own and rebranding the end-of-session narrative as he did his best to bring the House and Senate together.
“The conversations were almost constant for the last two, maybe three, four weeks of the session,” Abbott told Lubbock talk radio host Chad Hasty on Thursday. “For pretty much the entirety of the month of May, I was doing shuttle diplomacy between both the House and Senate leaders to cut a deal that involved not just this issue of the sunset legislation for the Texas Medical Board, but on these other issues in which there was a great divide.”
With Hasty, and in other interviews, Abbott placed the onus mostly on Straus for what wasn’t accomplished in the regular session.
“In my conversations, and also in my perceptions, it seemed that (Straus’) priorities differed from, for example, from these priorities that I have on the special session call,” Abbott said. “His priorities differed from the deals we were trying to broker at the end of the session.”
But Straus spokesman Jason Embry noted that the House passed all five of the governor’s emergency items, and that on property taxes, the House passed what members thought was a better alternative to the Senate’s approach.
“The House voted unanimously to empower property owners with better information that would help them participate in the setting of local property tax rates,” Embry said. “More than half of local property taxes are school taxes, and that’s why the House passed House Bill 21, the only bill that addressed school property taxes in a meaningful way.”
“Speaker Straus listens to the members of the House and encourages the members to vote their districts,” Embry said.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the theme for Straus in the hostile terrain of this summer’ special session will be “triage.”
“If you’re Straus, you need to pick and choose your battles wisely,” Jones said.
By the close of the regular session, Patrick and Straus had drawn their lines in the sand on the bathroom bill.
For Patrick, it is an issue of common sense and a moral imperative.
For Straus, it is the height of demagoguery.
It is the issue on which the special session is most likely to break down, perhaps, in the end, requiring the governor to call yet another special session to resolve it.
In the meantime, Abbott’s handling of this most volatile issue has shown some ingenuity.
Instead of denying Patrick another chance to reach his prized objective, Abbott sought to diminish its centrality.
Instead of denying Patrick’s demands, he gave Patrick more than he demanded.
Patrick responded positively to what he called the governor’s “big and bold session agenda.”
“Almost every issue he addressed today passed the Senate during the regular session and I am confident the senators are ready to hit the ground running to move these issues forward,” Patrick said in a statement shortly after Abbott’s special session announcement.
Scant interest in bathrooms
In Abbott’s blitz of talk radio appearances, the bathroom bill barely came up.
In 20 minutes Friday with Kris Moore on KCRS in Odessa, they talked about Abbott’s call for property tax relief, his call for a $1,000 raise for every teacher in Texas, for legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, but no mention of bathrooms.
That appearance was followed by the governor spending another 20 minutes with Scott DeLucia on WTAW in Bryan/College Station, who toward the end of the interview said he didn’t really want to bring up bathrooms, but thought he should allow the governor to speak his piece on it, with Abbott saying he didn’t want boys and girls in schools showering together and that it was important to have uniform rules across the state.
The governor’s interviewers all seemed interested in whether he thought the Legislature would actually enact many of those 20 pieces of legislation in only 30 days.
Sure, Abbott said.
“It’s pretty easy because for almost all of them, nothing new needs to be created. I am resurrecting bills that were already proposed, that were largely debated on, many of them already passed out of the Senate,” Abbott said in his interview with Hasty. “I know with my conversation with the lieutenant governor that these are items that can be passed out of the Texas Senate in short order. It’s just a matter of getting them to the House floor, getting a vote on them.”
“Are they going to stand for them and vote for them or are they going to evade them and/or not vote on them?” Abbott asked. “So they need to be putting the work in right now, for the next five and a half weeks so they come to Austin ready to vote on these matters.”
And then, returning to the scolding tone with which he prefaced his call for the special session, the governor said, “We don’t need to have them waste time by coming in at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then adjourn at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
“They need to come to Austin with their work hat on. Go to work at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning, work all day and pass things out. They’ve got plenty of time to get it done,” Abbott said. “If they don’t get it done it’s because they’re lazy. It’s because they lacked the will. They lack the desire to get this done, and the taxpayers of the state of Texas are not going to tolerate it.”