Analysis: Uncertainty in Gov. Abbott's First Session

Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his first State of the State speech to a joint session of the Texas Legislature on Feb. 17, 2015.
Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his first State of the State speech to a joint session of the Texas Legislature on Feb. 17, 2015.

While legislators have been busy with the first half of their 140-day session, the new governor has been traveling the state, talking about his plans and his priorities, working to turn the things he campaigned on last year into an agenda for the state government.

Greg Abbott hopes to end the session with some wins he can call his own — and to start erasing comparisons with his predecessor, Rick Perry.

He’ll get his first report card when the legislative session ends in 10 weeks.

Abbott’s so-called “emergency items” — outlined in his State of the State address last month — include early childhood education, higher education research initiatives, border security, transportation funding and ethics reform.

He’ll also be counting wins on issues that are important to him and didn’t make his short list. Before the Senate’s debate this week on a bill allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry their firearms openly, Abbott tweeted that he was warming up his bill-signing pen. And he promised early in the session that a state budget without a tax cut in it would get a veto. Both issues are moving quickly, at least on the Senate side of the building.

 

The emergency items, which were eligible for early consideration, are moving, though not because of the status the governor conferred on them. Border security is moving in the House and as part of the proposed budgets in both chambers (in very different forms). You can copy that sentence over again, complete with the parentheses, with “transportation funding” in place of “border security.”

The rest? To be fair to Abbott, not much has happened with anything on his list or off it, and it’s not unusual for leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Joe Straus to put their own agendas first.

Having Perry in the governor’s office for 14 years meant that the head of government and the direction of government became easily predictable. Uncertainty disappeared.

But it’s back now, and the speculation about how Abbott might govern has become a persistent storyline at the Capitol. Everyone is trying to gauge Abbott’s clout and his predictability.

Perry, a former lawmaker himself, had a pretty good feel for how legislators tick — and for how to persuade them. At the end of his first legislative session as governor, Perry vetoed 83 bills. For lawmakers, it meant another box to check on the way to getting legislation passed: See what the governor thinks. Perry’s clout increased.

By the time his seventh legislative session came around, senators and representatives who were fully trained to keep an eye on the guy in the top office were pretty good at guessing what they could get away with.

With Abbott, they are unsure. Between now and the end of the session on June 1, they’ll be testing the new governor the same way fourth-graders explore the tolerances and disciplinary skills of substitute teachers.

Nobody knows how this will go. But there is plenty of talk about the new governor’s power — kindled most recently by the slow start on Abbott’s top priorities and the quickening pace of legislation as the session approaches its halfway point.

 

Will Abbott take Straus’ side or Patrick’s side if the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor squabble? Will lawmakers pay any attention to the new governor’s priority issues — especially the one that would require them to clean up their own ethical habits? In a speech to the Dallas Chamber this week, Abbott explained what he understands “emergency items” to mean. “It’s a term of art in the Legislature, meaning it’s a priority for the governor, that the governor is hinting that it better be accomplished if you want to avoid a special session," Abbott said. 

See what he did there? Listen with a legislator’s ear and you hear the threat of a special session once the regular session is over. Just like school: Do all the work, or stay after class. Abbott is trying to tell lawmakers what to expect.

Don’t put too much stock in the idea that the slow progress on Abbott's emergency items so far is a measure of weakness. You can argue, as Abbott’s folks do, that they have made some headway.

You should know, too, that most of what the Texas Legislature does happens in the second half of the regular session. If Abbott’s issues are stuck in the pipes around the first of May, blood pressure readings at the Capitol might rise.

For now, it’s just a talking point, as everyone wonders how the new guy will differ from the governor he replaced.

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