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Analysis: Politics Wasn't at Play With Tax Hearing, Bettencourt Says

After questions about a special Senate committee hearing in San Antonio, and the appearance there of a challenger to House Speaker Joe Straus, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt makes a fairly strong case that there’s nothing to see here.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

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Paul Bettencourt says — emphatically — that he committed no political sin by holding a Senate hearing on property taxes in San Antonio before the primary elections.

It wasn’t a slap at House Speaker Joe Straus, says the Republican state senator from Houston. He did not invite Straus challenger Jeff Judson to testify at that hearing, but also had no means, or reason, to bar him from testifying. It was not an effort to give the speaker’s challenger a forum or to spotlight him. Judson showed up on his own — like any Texan can do, Bettencourt says — to say he is no fan of high property taxes.

“It wasn’t a political meeting,” he says. “It was just a public policy meeting.”

Besides, Bettencourt says, he sent his people to make peace with Straus’ people after the hearing, once rumors of a perceived slight started in political and lobby circles.

Bettencourt makes a fairly strong case that there’s nothing to see here.

That said, politics is just like high school. A murmur at a table in one corner of the cafeteria can become a full-blown scandal by the time it reaches the middle of the room, and burn out entirely before the end of lunch.

Bettencourt’s hearing — the murmur — got to the middle of the political cafeteria — the Straus camp — just as Texans started early voting in their primaries. Some of the speaker’s supporters took what appeared to be a slight as a deliberate slap, and Bettencourt heard his name could appear on the naughty list.

He says that particular dishonor is entirely undeserved.

“We did not call Jeff Judson as an invited witness,” Bettencourt says. As soon as that idea gained traction — he attributed it to lobbyists — “We checked in with Straus’ office just to make sure they didn’t believe it either.”

Bettencourt wants to keep his name off of the roster of senators who opposed incumbent members of the House, especially those allied with the speaker.

Several senators — notably Konni Burton of Colleyville, Bob Hall of Greenville and Don Huffines of Dallas — worked (or spent) hard to defeat incumbents in their own party who aren’t on their side of the GOP’s factional divide.

Bettencourt didn’t do anything of the sort and doesn’t believe his committee hearings amounted to a real transgression — and that if it was a transgression, it wasn’t intentional. Plus, he reached out to make peace. He doesn’t appear to have caused nearly the disturbance the other senators roiled up

In fact, he says he held the hearing in San Antonio because one member of his committee from that city, Democrat Carlos Uresti, suggested it, and the space at the University of Texas at San Antonio was available.

No harm was intended, he says. He adds that it would be out of line for the head of the Senate’s Republican Caucus to butt into other races anyway.

On the House side, his committee’s San Antonio visit raised some eyebrows but not much more. And he’s not on the same lists as the senators who worked to defeat some of their House colleagues.

The others are going to have a hard time when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next January. Surprised? Either you’re new to politics or your high school cafeteria didn’t make an impression.

Or you’re Konni Burton, who offered a not-backing-down defense on her Facebook page: “Speaking only for myself, I make no apologies for supporting candidates who I feel would be excellent additions to the Texas Legislature, and who would advance the scope and influence of the conservative movement.”

She went on to suggest any retribution for that would be inappropriate — a sign that Burton, like some others, is an adherent of the idea that elections are for fighting and legislative sessions are for governing.

The issue is not purely political, though that’s at the base. Bettencourt is genuinely interested in his version of property tax reform and doesn’t want to do anything to derail his efforts.

Meddling in political primaries against incumbent colleagues could make it hard to get his job done — and he’s a bit flabbergasted at the political intrusion into what he says is all about policy.

“I feel the concept of promoting someone is preposterous,” he says. “Every year between sessions is an election year. Everywhere you go, you’re going to find candidates. There’s no way to keep them out.”

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Politics 2016 elections Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Senate