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Analysis: Abbott's Caution on Display in Tax Fight

Texans grew accustomed to the swagger and bombast of Rick Perry, a governor who didn’t shy from confrontation with the Legislature and upended the notion that his office was inherently weak. Newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott, ever cautious and lawyerly, is cutting a different path.

Gov. Greg Abbott at a Tax Day press conference on April 15, 2015.

Over more than a dozen years, Texans grew accustomed to the swagger and bombast of Rick Perry, a governor who didn’t shy from confrontation with the Legislature and upended the notion that his office was inherently weak. 

Newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott, ever cautious and lawyerly, is cutting a different path.

There was no better indication of the contrast than Abbott’s pronouncements on tax cuts this week, when he backed away from his promise earlier this year to “insist” on property tax relief, instead saying he is also open to a competing proposal to reduce the sales tax rate — an issue that has left deep divisions among Republican legislators.

For the general public, a tax cut by any name may be sweet. But stylistically speaking — as he demonstrated on the campaign trail — Abbott was displaying a style of vague pronouncements and noncommittal policy positions on controversial issues that became his trademark on the campaign trail. 

Some analysts say it’s wise for Abbott to avoid wading into the middle of an intramural GOP fight — which in this case pits the moderate leadership of the Texas House against the Tea Party-backed leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“It makes sense for him to not get in the middle of the House and the Senate at this point,” said Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s tax relief on the table. Might as well wait to see what they’re going to come up with.”

Henson said there is “some risk” that Patrick — said to be keeping one eye on the Governor’s Mansion — could make political hay out of Abbott’s bid to compromise. But overall he called it a “smart play from somebody in the governor’s office at this early stage in his tenure.”

Abbott could also benefit by leaving the door open to a plan that business groups support. Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said his group fears that under the Senate bill the property tax cuts will evaporate and eventually go up for businesses. He also said a sales tax cut would help both businesses and consumers.

“Given a choice between the two, we support the House bill,” Hammond said. “In our view everybody wins.”

But critics on the both the right and left pounced on Abbott’s new position on tax cuts as evidence that he won’t stick up for his own proposals once they get into the nitty gritty of a legislative fight.

Tea Party activist JoAnn Fleming, who chairs the grassroots advisory board put together by Patrick, says voters will hold Abbott accountable to the contents of his formal February speech to the Legislature, when the governor promised to push for property tax cuts. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows the property tax is the least popular state levy among voters.

“What matters to the grassroots of Texas is what Gov. Abbott put in his State of the State message,” Fleming said. “It’s on the record. It’s in the text of his speech. … When you say it and it’s in ink, we believe it. And that’s going to be the measuring stick.” 

Longtime Democratic strategist Matt Angle, meanwhile, said the latest episode speaks volumes about Abbott’s style — and one that may surprise voters accustomed to a long line of swashbuckling governors.

“He’s a more passive governor than many of us are used to,” Angle said. “When it comes to actually having to make policy choices, he starts getting soft in the middle.”

Abbott has come under fire for failing to articulate a strong position before. In the fall election against Democrat Wendy Davis, her campaign constantly needled Abbott for being wishy-washy on major campaign issues.

For example, she criticized Abbott for not taking firm positions on hot-button issues such as private school vouchers, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the so-called Texas Dream Act, which allows young undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates but has been targeted for elimination by Patrick and other conservatives.

And when it came to weighing in on a state plan to protect the threatened dunes sagebrush lizard and keep the federal government from listing it as an endangered species, Abbott split it right down the middle.

Asked in 2013 by the Odessa American if the lizard protection plan was working as intended, he quipped, “I can’t say that it is. And I won’t say that it’s not.” 

(It’s worth noting that, despite the criticism, Abbott crushed Davis by 20 points — the worst drubbing a governor has gotten in a general election since George W. Bush cruised to a second term in 1998 — even though the bedraggled Texas Democrats were promoting the Fort Worth Democrat as their best candidate in a generation.)

Since getting elected, Abbott has won high marks for reaching out to Democrats and minorities and being more inclusive of lawmakers in the often difficult give-and-take of a legislative session. And last week he worked to counter Tea Party opposition to his plan to spend $130 million on a pre-kindergarten program that he had made a centerpiece of his 2014 campaign.

But Abbott, whom firebrand U.S. senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls his mentor, has also found himself abandoning positions he articulated in his policy proposals. On the campaign trail, for example Abbott unveiled open carry and campus carry gun proposals that contained key safeguards such as licensing requirements and opt-out provisions for schools. But later he told reporters he would take “whatever legislation” expanding Second Amendment rights reaches his desk — safeguards or not. 

More recently, Abbott altered his message on property tax reduction. During his state of the state address, the governor said he would not sign any budget without business tax cuts and “will also insist on property tax reduction for Texans.”

That was not the same message he delivered at a press conference Wednesday. Abbott noted there were competing proposals between the House and Senate — between property tax reductions for homeowners on the one hand and sales tax rate cuts on the other — and indicated he could support either one of them. 

“I think it’s important that the House and Senate be able to work toward what they consider to be the best solutions for reducing taxes in this state and we’ll have plenty of time over the remaining 45 days to work toward the best solution,” Abbott said.

The governor also pointed to the weekly meetings he holds with the lieutenant governor, House speaker and comptroller as they plod through “the full array of issues that we are working on this session.” 

Right after Abbott delivered his remarks about the dueling tax plans, Patrick, the lieutenant governor, acted as if the governor hadn’t just left the door open to either plan.

“I agree with Governor Abbott that I too will not support any budget that does not have franchise tax relief,” Patrick said in an emailed statement. “I also will not support any budget that does not have property tax relief, as well.”

It was a different story in the House, where Abbott’s conciliatory message got a big thumbs-up. The author of the sales tax cut legislation, Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, applauded Abbott’s willingness to let the two sides hash it out and come up with the best plan. 

“Abbott’s being a leader and he’s recognizing that this process is about debating and discussing ideas, and he’s doing what a leader ought to do: allow that to happen,” Bonnen said. “I see it as a sign of strength.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Association of Business are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Dan Patrick Dennis Bonnen Greg Abbott Texas House of Representatives Texas Senate