Tensions between the Texas House and Senate came to a head at a regular weekly breakfast Wednesday where Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus aired their grievances with one another and directed their top aides to work things out before the session ends in less than six weeks.
The governor was piqued by criticism of one of his top priorities — state funding for pre-kindergarten — that seemingly came from Patrick’s camp, according to several sources familiar with the breakfast conversation.
“I will say this for anyone who’s been wondering where Abbott has been,” said one. “He arrived today.”
Abbott also cautioned the lieutenant governor against holding that pre-K legislation hostage until the House acted on school choice or other bills dear to Patrick.
Patrick told the governor that he didn’t direct his Grassroots Advisory Group to issue a letter blasting the House’s pre-K bill.
The breakfast also includes Comptroller Glenn Hegar. The chiefs of staff for all four leaders were there, too, and left with orders to come up with a plan of action and report back. None of the participants would speak on the record about the spat — first reported by Texas Monthly’s Burka Blog — but each of the top three officials issued statements saying they are working together.
“Gov. Abbott has a strong working relationship with Lt. Gov. Patrick and looks forward to working with the House and the Senate to address Texans’ priorities,” Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
Abbott was not the only state leader unhappy with the state of the session.
Patrick complained in the meeting that the House is sitting on Senate bills — receiving them without sending them to committees for hearings or to the full House for votes. Through the beginning of this week, the Senate had sent 319 bills and resolutions to the House for consideration and only 34 had been referred to committees. Patrick also complained about antagonism from two Straus lieutenants, Reps. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
Bonnen and Patrick tussled earlier in the session over differences in the Senate tax plan, which includes bigger homestead exemptions from property taxes, and the House plan, which would cut state sales taxes by three-tenths of a cent. They tangled again this week after the Senate voted on its own border security bill instead of Bonnen’s House Bill 11.
Before the breakfast, Patrick crossed paths at the Capitol with Geren. In the brief encounter, the Fort Worth Republican said he ribbed Patrick about the lieutenant governor’s advisory board coming out against the pre-K plan pushed by Abbott and approved by the House.
“I said, ‘That was a pretty good ambush you put on the governor the other day,’” Geren recalled late Wednesday. Patrick replied that he had no idea what Geren was talking about, according to Geren’s account.
Geren said the exchange was not a confrontation: “I would never do that. I have too much respect for the office.”
“If he got his feelings hurt,” Geren added, “then maybe his skin’s a little too thin.”
The Senate has also complained about the House passing its own versions of legislation when the Senate acted first. For example, the House voted on its own bill allowing open carry of handguns this week, ignoring the Senate version that passed a month ago. In retaliation, the Senate voted out a border security bill of its own, ignoring the version approved by the House last month. Both chambers have to pass the same legislation with the same language and same bill number for it to become law.
Also at the breakfast, Straus complained of outside groups hectoring his members with mailers and phone calls and internet posts whenever the House disagrees with the Senate, and promoting Senate legislation over House legislation. When Patrick said he had no control over those groups, Straus apparently noted that Patrick had not complained about them or tried to stop them.
But the pre-K debate was the apparent trigger for the three-way grousing session.
On Tuesday, a group of grassroots advisers organized by Patrick blasted pre-K legislation passed earlier this month by the House, calling it “Godless” and comparing it to practices in “socialistic countries.”
Patrick responded in an email Tuesday that he had not seen the letter before it went out, didn’t solicit it and was working on an education package that includes pre-K. “I look forward to working with the senators, the House and the governor in the coming weeks to create a comprehensive package that includes A-F, parent trigger, opportunity districts, online learning, school choice and a pre-K program that's good for Texas. Together, these bills will have a positive impact on education in Texas,” he said in that written statement.
His grassroots group was unapologetic after the letter went out. Just before midnight on Tuesday, Julie McCarty, a Tea Party activist from Tarrant County, posted on Facebook about the letter: “Well, somebody had to say it because 128 of our electeds sure weren't standing up to the governor! ... This pre-K bill is bad for Texas, bad for the budget, bad for kids and bad for families.”
McCarty thanked by name the state representatives who voted against the bill and then wrote, “I hear the pressure from Abbott was intense.”
McCarty acknowledged “confusion” about whether Patrick was given advance notice of the letter. JoAnn Fleming, who chairs the advisory board, said she notified a Patrick staffer about the letter Monday.
It is not the first time the group has pressed lawmakers on its priorities. Fleming confirmed it has sent out similar letters on school choice and Shariah law. And those probably won’t be the last, she said.
“Sorry, we didn’t intend to ruin their breakfast,” Fleming said of the pre-K letter, “but we’re not going to back down from our opposition.”