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In First Session, Abbott Kept Drama at Bay

Gov. Greg Abbott, who took office in January as an enigma to even Capitol veterans, has ended his first session with a reputation as a thoughtful behind-the-scenes player with a less aggressive approach than his predecessor had.

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

Despite Greg Abbott's resounding 20-point victory in November, the only thing that seemed certain the day the new governor was inaugurated was the bonanza of barbecue prepared for the occasion. 

As he peered out from the Capitol steps, it was an open question how Abbott, the state's former attorney general, would navigate the political currents in the building behind him. He faced a redder-than-ever Republican majority anxious to shake up Austin, a lieutenant governor and speaker of the House backed by different wings of the GOP, and the 14-year legacy of Rick Perry, a predecessor whose swaggering style added political muscle to the historically weak post of governor.

“Stylistically, Perry was more a shoot-from-the-hip, gut-feel kind of guy, and you’ve got a guy who’s been a lawyer and a judge" in Abbott, said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist who has seen governors come and go in Austin. There are some politicians, Miller added, who "like that drama. They like political theater." Abbott is "not an actor on that stage. He's more like a producer." 

Sure enough, Abbott proved more sparing with the bully pulpit — often to the benefit of his largely realist agenda, which centered on border security, early education, ethics reform, higher education and transportation. In many ways, Abbott went after his policy priorities the same way he campaigned: He was cautious, measured and never willing to show his hand more than he had to.  

At the Capitol, the approach mainly kept him out of intra-party and bicameral warfare, allowing him to emerge relatively unscathed from a session that could have tripped up a more excitable governor. He treaded carefully on hot-button issues such as gun rights and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, keeping his positions flexible enough to mostly avoid the wrath of people who viewed those issues as more of a priority than he did. 

Perhaps no episode exemplified Abbott's style more than the debate over tax cuts that consumed the House and Senate for weeks and at one point threatened to blow up the session. After declaring in February he would veto any budget that did not include business tax cuts, Abbott steadfastly resisted entreaties to pick sides on other types of tax relief.

The House was targeting the sales tax while the Senate was eyeing property taxes; Abbott had initially expressed support for property tax relief but later said he would be open to either method. 

"It was the perfect symbolism," said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "There were countless times when the House or the Senate would have liked him to be far more engaged."

Added Bonnen, an Angleton Republican: Abbott "stayed out of the weeds and fights that would have derailed governors in the past."

Selective Engagement

Throughout the session, Abbott chose carefully when to engage, even when it looked like his priorities were in peril. Beyond his five emergency items, he was even more selective about speaking out unprompted. 

When he did, people listened. At an early-in-the-session luncheon hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tanklawmakers' ears perked up when Abbott offered an unexpectedly harsh assessment of the "patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model." The remark gave a green light to GOP lawmakers lining up proposals to roll back what they saw as local control run amok. 

"There's no doubt: Gov. Abbott led with that comment," recalled Jess Fields, a senior policy analyst at TPPF. "He made a point of saying it."

Abbott also made a point of asserting himself when a critical vote neared on a bill central to his pre-kindergarten emergency item. Abbott, whose mid-session profile sometimes seemed outstripped by his new dog Pancake, made an unusual full-court press for the plan, personally pitching it to the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate as well as calling members on the day of the vote.

Besides perhaps ethics reform, his office saw pre-K as the heaviest lift politically, no doubt aware of Tea Party concerns that his plan would open the door to an expansion of state government. Abbott's all-in strategy nonetheless paid off: The lower chamber overwhelmingly passed House Bill 4 on April 8, delivering Abbott not only a legislative victory, but also an affirmation that his approach to governing worked on politically charged issues. 

Under the pink dome, ethics reform easily registered as Abbott's biggest shortcoming, with legislative add-ons spelling doom for some of his farthest-reaching proposals. Abbott's go-to response has been that he got half of what he wanted on ethics, but that fraction likely dropped over the weekend with his decision to veto two bills because they included a loophole that would have shielded the personal finances of the spouses of married elected officials.

The ethics outcome has left some advocates feeling ambivalent: heartened that Abbott tackled the politically inconvenient issue — he was the first governor to put it on his fast-track agenda since 1991 — but disappointed that most of the strongest proposed reforms did not survive. 

"It's a very difficult issue to get everybody in both houses to agree to, and so the word that I use is courage. I think that it was courageous to put it on the agenda like he did," said Jim Clancy, a member of the Texas Ethics Commission. "The process was not clean and tidy, and I think when it got off the tracks, he put a stop to it." 

At the Capitol, Abbott won early praise for his grasp of the lawmaking process, and for being up front with legislators about potential vetoes. That seemed like a contrast from Perry, who was accused of blindsiding lawmakers with dozens of vetoes after his first session. But as the veto period wound down this past weekend, Abbott left some lawmakers — mostly Democrats — publicly reassessing their first impressions of him. That's despite the fact that every member whose bill was vetoed received a heads-up call from Abbott's office before the decision went public. 

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, thought she could rest assured that Abbott would sign her bill letting an East Houston neighborhood set up its own management district, especially after his office worked with hers "every step of the way." Yet Abbott vetoed House Bill 2100 on Saturday over questions about the district's boundaries, drawing a sharply worded statement from Hernandez that deemed his promises of collaboration "baseless."

"Since the beginning, we thought it was a cooperative approach and we were in constant communication," Hernandez said Monday. "There's no excuse for the veto of this bill because the governor's office helped draft it."

Right Flank

Throughout the session, Abbott largely protected his right flank on the most visible issues, though he invited conservative ire in the form of his pre-K plan, which advisers to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blasted as "socialistic" and a "threat to parental rights." The missive from Patrick's Grassroots Advisory Board led to a closed-door confrontation between Abbott and Patrick — the "breakfast blow-up," as it's known on Congress Avenue — that left some Capitol observers divining the first genuine flash of anger from the typically mild-mannered Abbott. 

"One thing about Abbott — he's a very congenial guy, but he's a hard, tough guy, and I thought there was sort of a hardness and toughness in that moment," said Miller, the lobbyist. 

More recently, Abbott has taken heat from social conservatives who want him to call a special session to deal with the U.S. Supreme Court's imminent ruling on gay marriage. He has declined to do so, and the campaign for a special session has gone to the airwaves, where the narrator of a radio ad says Abbott "caved in to the homosexual political movement" by not acting boldly enough on the issue during the regular session. 

But Abbott's no-drama style even extends to the special session, which his predecessor often used to push divisive issues. In one of his more revealing post-session interviews, Abbott suggested he does not want to call any special sessions this year — or any year, for that matter.  

"I'm trying to send the message that there is a new expectation in the Capitol," Abbott told KVUE-TV in Austin. "That is that legislators and people who have an interest in what's going on here in Austin get their work done in the 140 days that we meet here and we're not going to have these mulligans, these do-overs, in special session after special session."

Outside of Austin

Outside of Austin, Abbott found himself settling into the national spotlight that naturally follows the governor of the second-largest state in the country. 

He remained a reliable call for radio and TV producers looking for his take on the federal encroachment du jour, often the status of Texas' legal challenge to President Obama's executive action on immigration. And his national profile no doubt increased when he responded to his first cross-state calamity in the form of deadly flooding that arrived just in time for crunch time at the Capitol. 

Most non-Texans, however, first heard of the new governor following his decision in May to have the state National Guard monitor an upcoming military training exercise known as Jade Helm 15.

Abbott insisted he was simply responding to the legitimate concerns of constituents, though a bipartisan chorus of critics accused him of pandering to conspiracy theorists who saw the operation as the beginning of a federal takeover. In the context of the entire session, though, the move stood out — even to Abbott's critics — as a head-scratching departure from his aversion to rocking the boat. 

"It's kind of grotesquely out of step with much of the rest of the conduct of his legislative session, at least from what I've seen," said Todd Smith, a former state representative who garnered national attention for writing Abbott a letter highly critical of his decision. "I am choosing to believe that it’s just something that happened in the heat of the legislative session that he probably privately regrets."

2015 and Beyond

With his first session behind him — and no mulligans in sight — Abbott is expected to use the next several months to travel the country and the world pitching Texas to out-of-state businesses disgruntled with high taxes and heavy regulations. It's a role Perry pioneered, but Abbott has happily pointed out he will be armed with some selling points his predecessor did not have: a multibillion-dollar franchise tax cut and a renewed emphasis on educating Texas' workforce from pre-K through college. 

Next year and beyond, he has vowed to again turn his attention to ethics reform and make it an issue in the legislative elections. Veto statements over the weekend left no doubt he sees the 2017 session as an opportunity to pick up where the most recent one left off on the issue. "Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session — the right way," Abbott wrote in his explanation of why he vetoed one of the two bills that had the spousal loophole. 

More immediately, Abbott is joining almost every elected official in Texas and taking advantage of the end of a session-long ban on fundraising. He will start filling his coffers for a potential re-election campaign with fundraisers through the end of the month in Texas' largest cities, and he was expected to start hitting the phones Monday.

If most post-session reviews are any indication, he will likely have plenty to boast about to donors. 

"I thought he came out of it completely unscathed," Miller said of Abbott's first legislative outing. "Nary a scratch."

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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