2017-07-13 / Opinion

Abbott: Let’s try this again

Dave McNeely

In the special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott called to begin July 18, Texans may see some interesting legislative practices.

They include hostage-taking, or leverage, or tit for tat. That’s what caused the special session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Texas Senate’s presiding officer, killed a “Sunset safety net” bill at the end of the regular session.

It was payback to House Speaker Joe Straus for the House refusing to endorse Patrick’s pet transgender bathroom bill.

Patrick wanted a special session, for another shot at that bill, plus a bill to make it harder for local governments to raise property taxes -- which also failed to clear the House. Cities and counties vehemently oppose it.

Abbott wants the legislature to first pass the Sunset safety net bill, to keep five agencies alive -- including the Texas Medical Board that licenses doctors -- until the legislature can review them in its 2019 regular session.

In a special session, the governor dictates the subjects to be considered. Assuming the sunset bill passes, the governor says he’ll open the call to the bathroom and property tax bills, plus 17 others.

Abbott blamed the legislature for making the special session necessary. But as long as they’re coming to Austin to keep those agencies alive, he said they might also do some other work.

That sets the stage for legislative horse-trading. But the House and Senate differ in political philosophies, as well as administrative structures.

Patrick and Straus, who both call themselves conservatives, represent two different strains of the Republican Party.

Patrick pursues an ideological agenda, heavy on hot-button issues like the transgender bathroom regulatory bill, which appeal to his evangelical and Tea Party Republican base.

Straus is a more traditional Texas Republican: moderate and business-oriented. He believes in keeping government lean, but also in honoring its responsibilities on education, health care, transportation, criminal and civil justice – including appropriating enough money.

The transgender bathroom bill underlines their differences.

Straus agrees with the Texas Association of Business, major companies and civil rights groups, which oppose it as discriminatory against transgender people – an unneeded solution for a non-existent problem.

As North Carolina learned by passing such legislation in 2015, it can cause boycotts in sporting and entertainment events, conventions, tourism, and business expansions.

Patrick dismisses those economic consequences as unlikely, and insists the bill is needed to keep men from molesting women and girls in women’s bathrooms.

Straus and others say there’s no evidence that’s a problem -- and is already against the law.

The 31 members of the Senate don’t choose their presiding officer. The Texas Constitution decrees it’s the lieutenant governor, who is elected by Texas voters for a four-year term.

In the senate’s rules passed at the outset of each regular session, senators have traditionally given the lieutenant governor the powers to:

-- Appoint committees and their chairs;

-- Recognize senators to present bills on the senate floor – essentially setting the senate’s calendar;

-- Refer bills to committees of his choice;

-- Decide which senators to name to House-Senate conference committees, when needed to hammer out differences on a bill between the chambers;

-- Choose senate members of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state agencies every 12 years, to recommend potential changes, and decide whether to recommend the agency be continued; and,

-- Pick the senate members to join him on the Legislative Budget Board, which between sessions develops a rough-draft budget, for the legislature to flesh out during the regular session.

Collectively, those powers make the lieutenant governor the most powerful legislative force in the building.

The speaker of the House is chosen by its 150 members from among themselves – which means the winner must satisfy at least 75 other members. His term as speaker is for two years – same as his House term.

However, he doesn’t have to run statewide. He faces actual voters only in his home district – in this case, in San Antonio. Straus is now in his record-tying fifth term as speaker, and says he’ll run again in 2019.

House members, in their rules passed at the start of the regular session, give him all the powers the lieutenant governor has -- except the Calendars Committee sets the agenda. But he appoints its chair and members, so he obviously has influence.

Straus’s experience, consensus-building and work to keep members from having to vote on politically dangerous hot-button issues, have earned him enough respect that in January, he was elected to his fifth term as speaker unanimously.

Gov. Abbott, who seemed rather hands-off during the regular session, seems to be more hands-on in the special session he called. His challenge will be whether that’s enough to avoid another chaotic meltdown.

Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail.com or (512) 458-2963.

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