- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
The day before the summer special legislative session began, Gov. Greg Abbott warned lawmakers that he would be keeping an eagle eye on how each of them voted on his 20-item agenda.
“I’m going to be establishing a list,” Abbott said. “Who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”
The morning after the Legislature finished its work, having enacted only half of the governor’s agenda and not his top priority of property tax reform, Abbott went on the air and made it clear who sat atop his naughty list — House Speaker Joe Straus — and argued that the future of Texas depends on either changing Straus or changing speakers.
“If we are going ensure that Texas remains the model for governance in the United States of America we must always be passing laws that constrain spending, that reduce regulation. It’s those two pieces, along with cutting taxes, that attract and expand the Texas economic environment,” Abbott said Wednesday on KYFO-AM in Lubbock. “We’ve got to make sure we have the current speaker support those principles or we’ve got to get the votes in the House to make sure we get those principles passed.”
It was a stunning declaration in a state where Republicans utterly dominate state politics. The governor of America’s biggest red state seemed to be initiating a GOP civil war. What’s more, Abbott was suggesting he would be in the trenches backing candidates who might be disposed to replacing Straus as speaker, which any current odds would consider a long shot.
“It’s a risky proposition because you could lose,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “If he gets behind electing anti-Straus primary challengers and those people lose, then the emperor has no clothes.”
“I am surprised that he wants to become involved in an intramural House leadership issue,” said longtime Austin lobbyist Bill Miller, who represents interests across the political spectrum. “Those races are deeply personal, and no one enters the ring without getting bruised.”
For those who might think that Abbott was just blowing off some post-special session steam, Dave Carney, the governor’s top political strategist, laid that idea to rest.
“I think it’s pretty clear the culture of the House is corrupt, that it’s a nontransparent system that doesn’t even allow these folks who say they are for these things to have an up or down vote on them,” Carney told the American-Statesman. “I think there’s going to be primaries, and there are going to be people who supported the governor’s agenda. He’s going to support them. If voters care about the property taxes and wanting property tax reform, then they have one way to fix it: vote for candidates and incumbents who are going to vote for real property tax reform. The same on these other issues.”
And, Carney said, picking up on an Abbott peeve with the House, “They just can’t work a full day. They didn’t even have enough respect for the voters to work a full 30 days.” The House gaveled out a final time on Tuesday, a day before the maximum 30 days allowed for a special session. The Senate finished its work a few hours later.
“We did get good things done during the special session. We just didn’t get enough done,” Carney said. “A simple thing like the state budget staying within the cost of living and population growth, a straightforward formula that allows state government to grow at a controlled rate. That would have passed with 90 votes in the House, but because of backroom machinations it died on a technicality, which should have been overruled.”
“Voters will have an opportunity to know all this and evaluate whether they are getting their money’s worth,” he said.
The governor launched his re-election on July 14, four days before the day he set for the start of the special session.
The special session and Abbott’s campaign, complete with buttons, to get the Legislature to go “20 for 20” in enacting this agenda, gave his state-of-the-art re-election operation some focus and drive, even as Abbott waits to see whether the Texas Democratic Party will mount more than a token campaign against him.
In the meantime, there are the GOP primaries in March and, Carney said, “We’re going to lay out a pretty broad agenda for the 2019 session.”
Would that mean the governor — who is better known for raising money than for sharing it with other candidates — might dip into what is now a $41 million, and growing, campaign kitty to contribute to legislative primary campaigns, where they could have an outsize impact?
“The governor has a vast arsenal at his disposal, and everything is on the table,” said Carney, who previously directed Rick Perry campaigns for governor and Perry’s first run for president.
For Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative activist who for years has made Straus Public Enemy No. 1, and who at times has expressed his frustrations with Abbott, to have the governor putting the speaker atop his naughty list for the special session was like Christmas in August.
“He could put a couple of million dollars into 20 races,” said Sullivan of Abbott.
“Plus, it’s his name,” Sullivan said. “Abbott is more popular than any of these state reps are in their own districts because he’s more known. State reps aren’t known.”
Republican political consultant Luke Macias, whose clients include seven of the 12 members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus — the most anti-Straus element in the House — and will represent some challengers seeking to join the caucus in Austin in 2019, said, “I think what conservatives are looking at Abbott for is, who he does endorse and who he doesn’t endorse.”
“Is he willing to come to the aid of conservative lawmakers who might be getting a challenge to the left in their primaries and what does he do when establishment Republican representatives who refused to support his agenda get challenged from the right?” Macias said.
Last year, Abbott endorsed and cut ads for two members of Team Straus — Reps. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, and Wayne Smith, R-Baytown — who were in primary runoff elections. Both lost, Miller to Kyle Biedermann, by 10 percentage points, and Smith to Briscoe Cain of Deer Park by 23 votes. Both Biedermann and Cain are Macias clients who joined the Freedom Caucus.
Carney said that, in choosing which races to get involved in, a lot will depend on the quality of candidates who emerge.
Straus has been challenged in the last three primaries and never received less than 60 percent of the vote. Straus lieutenants who could be targeted by Abbott include:
• Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who, as chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, has drawn more ire from the right than anyone but Straus, barely survived a primary challenge in 2016.
• Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, has never faced a primary challenger.
• Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee, beat back a primary challenge with 58 percent of the vote in 2016.
• Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who particularly irked Abbott with his ethics legislation during the regular and special sessions, hasn’t had a primary opponent since he was first elected in 2010.
• Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, chairwoman of the General Investigating and Ethics Committee, who, with Larson, was denounced by the governor’s office for “showboating” by trying to add ethics bills to the special session agenda, represents a moderate district in which then-state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, outpolled Dan Patrick for lieutenant governor in 2014.
• Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee, won 78 percent of the vote in his 2016 primary.
• Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, was last in a primary fight the first time he was elected in 2006. This time, he said Friday, “I’m not worried about it, but I anticipate it. If somebody comes along, we will mount a campaign and win the race.”
Zerwas had disparaged the governor’s session eve pledge to “scorecard members of the Legislature” as “one of the most juvenile things I’ve ever heard come out of the governor’s office.”
“I don’t propose to advise the governor on anything political,” Zerwas told the Statesman. “But getting in races to either battle or threaten members who I think have been good quality members looking out for their constituents and representing what I think are good, sound conservative values, is probably not something I would recommend.”
“It’s totally not productive,” Zerwas said.
Property tax stalemate
The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in June just after the regular session ended found satisfaction among Republicans, and especially among those who identify with the tea party who form the active core of the Republican base, with what the Legislature had accomplished, and no great outcry for more.
But Macias said that what Abbott is doing, beginning with a barrage of radio and TV interviews on Wednesday and Thursday, is whetting conservative voters’ appetite for more and giving them the issues, the vocabulary and the specific votes to talk about with their local lawmakers.
“The last-day stalemate on property taxes permeated the entire session, and what we need right now is for these representatives to go home to their districts,” Abbott told KYFO’s Chad Hasty. “They need to do town halls. They need to talk to their constituents. They need to listen to their constituents about the pressing demand for property tax reform.”
“They either need to come back and be prepared to support the idea that I was supporting, which was the 4 percent rollback, or they needed to come up with a better idea,” Abbott said. “The House did neither, so right now there is nonmovement on the desperate need for property tax relief.”
Likewise, Abbott said Straus and the House had thwarted transgender bathroom legislation, a state spending cap, a plan to spend state money to support private school tuition, and banning some union dues collection through government paychecks.
“All of these were reforms that never even got called up on a vote on the House floor,” the governor said. “At a minimum, what is needed, what is deserved by the citizens of the state of Texas is to have their members cast an up or down vote on these issues so that those voters, those citizens, our fellow Texans, get to decide if they want to retain or replace these House members.”
The always complicated relationship between the Big Three — Abbott, Patrick and Straus — grew more complicated in the hothouse of the special session.
The prime political directive for Abbott has always been not to allow any daylight on the right between himself and Patrick. But Abbott also wants to maintain the respect, trust and donations from what were once called the Bush and business wings of the party who find Patrick, who came out of the polarizing world of talk radio, too ideological, too drawn to social issues and too facile at fomenting controversy.
In fact, Straus had done Abbott a solid by killing the bathroom bill, said Jones, the Rice political scientist.
“I think the speaker did the governor a favor,” said Jones. “It’s not a bill the governor wanted to sign.”
Jones said the legislation, while popular with Republican primary voters, was a loser with the broader electorate, with younger Anglos, whom the party needs to keep in the fold if it’s going to extend its era of hegemony, and with powerful business interests. A letter to Abbott midspecial session from Houston business executives condemning any bathroom legislation was signed by, among others, John Nau, president of Silver Eagle Distributors and the treasurer of Abbott’s re-election finance committee.
Zerwas said that “the muted voice” of business opposition to the bathroom bill during the regular session rang out “loud and clear during the special session when there weren’t a whole of other distractions out there.”
Jones said he thought that Straus shouldn’t have adjourned early without working harder to strike a deal on property tax reform between the Senate’s 4 percent rollback rate and the House’s 6 percent, a deal that would have likely led to Abbott proclaiming the special session half full instead of half empty.
“I think the speaker is pushing his luck a little bit,” said Jones. “It does speak poorly for the Republican Party. They couldn’t come to an agreement on that, and that means the chances for school finance reform are pretty dim.”
But Zerwas said it was the Senate that walked away from seriously addressing school finance, and that the House had already gone a great distance in accepting any rollback provision, and it was the Senate that refused to compromise.
Meanwhile, most Texans paid little attention to the midsummer legislative drama, and conservative activists in a number of counties, including Straus’ own Bexar County, have passed resolutions calling on Straus to be replaced as speaker.
At a Travis County GOP barbecue fundraiser at an exotic game ranch in Creedmoor on the eve of special session, James Dickey — the former Travis County chairman who had just recently been elected state party chairman — said he had met with Straus about the 20-point special session agenda and told him, “Give us any seven or eight of those and we will cheer you for those seven or eight. Let other people scold you for what you wouldn’t do.”
Dickey continued: “Next year, our convention, the largest political convention in the free world, will take place during the 300th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio, during the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party of Texas, a block from the Alamo, and the theme of that convention is a line in the sand, and my comment to the speaker was, `Let’s show the line in the sand, let me make your intro video so that when you walk up there, our delegates cheer for what you have done for us. That’s what we want.’”
Asked Friday if he thought Straus had done enough to earn the cheers of delegates in his hometown next year, Dickey replied, “I don’t know yet.”