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Analysis: Texas leaders posturing in public for legislative advantage

Texas state leaders are debating several important issues in a very public way, delivering their messages to one another through rallies, press conferences, trade association meetings and the media. Get your popcorn ready.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a rally at the Capitol for school choice January 24, 2017. Both Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick spoke in favor of expanding school choice options. Students, educators, activists and parents marched on the south lawn to show their support for expanding school choice options during National School Choice Week.

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It’s as if everyone in Texas has been invited to the weekly state leadership breakfast.

That’s the Wednesday morning get-together — when they do get together, that is — between Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Joe Straus and Comptroller Glenn Hegar. It’s a tradition for the first three offices; they added the comptroller to the mix last session, just to keep the counter of the state’s money in the room.

That quartet met privately this week, but they’re talking to each other in a very public way.

Hegar delivered his biennial revenue estimate the day before lawmakers came to town, telling budgeteers how much they will have to spend in the 2018-19 budget. Nothing unusual there — the estimate is always a public announcement.

The public patter among the other three has been much more pointed. Patrick has been politicking for the latest version of school choice and for requiring people to use public-building restrooms and other facilities based on their “biological sex” and not their gender identities.

Straus has been relatively silent on the school issue — a silence that prompted Patrick to demand a House vote on the issue at a rally this week. “We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice. It's easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it,” Patrick said. The lite guv is pushing “education savings accounts” that would allow parents to move their kids from public to private schools — and to take with them some of the money that would otherwise be used to pay for their public school educations. The Senate has previously passed voucher legislation. It has never escaped the House, where enough legislators from both parties have misgivings.

Both Patrick and Abbott spoke in favor of those ESAs at a Capitol rally this week. Abbott said he would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. “I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk, and when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas,” he said.

Patrick implored the House to bring it to a vote and not to starve it to death in some dark corner of the legislative maze. That’s a sign that he thinks it will zip out of the Senate — and that he thinks House members might behave differently in a public vote than in private. “I think they’re depriving their constituents of having the option of school choice,” Patrick said on KFYO Radio in Lubbock on Thursday.

After all, it’s not unusual for a legislator to be for or against something up until the moment when he or she is out where voters can see what’s going on.

Straus has been louder and more negative on the bathroom issue. Patrick, however, is all in. He gave it a low bill number — Senate Bill 6 — to signify that it is one of his priorities. He has dissed objections from the Texas Association of Business and several corporations who regard it as a way to discriminate against transgender Texans. Patrick says the legislation is needed to protect people from perverts who might use current laws as an excuse to enter restrooms and other facilities where they don’t belong.

Straus said in one forum that the measure is not “the most urgent concern of mine.” He told the Texas Association of Business that it would be helpful to know what the governor thinks about the legislation. "If you are concerned — I know many of you are — now is the time to speak up," Straus told association members. He hit that same note again in private conversation with business leaders in his hometown of San Antonio. That might make Abbott uncomfortable, but it would give Republican lawmakers some cover — no matter what position the governor were to take.

It’s not unusual for a legislator to be for or against something up until the moment when he or she is out where voters can see what’s going on.

If Abbott opposes the bill, GOP lawmakers would be able to say they have no reason to debate or vote on a bill the governor doesn’t want. If he’s in favor, they’d be able to tell businesses and voters to share their views with the fellow holding the veto pen and to leave legislators out of the fight.

Last year, Abbott wiggled out of a chance to weigh in. He did it again in Washington, D.C., where he was attending last week’s presidential inauguration. His silence gives the House room to stall, and it gives opponents and proponents more time to lobby members of both chambers.

“This is an alarming issue that is an obvious concern to a lot of Texans,” Abbott said. “I think it’s very important that legislators have the opportunity to listen to the concerns of their fellow Texans and consider the right remedies for those concerns.”

The public conversation extends to the state budget. Both the House and Senate filed bills, which show them to be $5.3 billion apart on proposed state spending. It’s the Senate’s turn to lead this biennial dance, and the Finance Committee started hearings this week. The House doesn’t even have its budget committee appointed.

Patrick is already out there working it. He said in that radio interview on Thursday that the Senate “did the responsible thing” in writing a bare-bones budget and wondering whether the House had its head on straight: “I can’t explain the House budget. ... They budget money they don’t have. They don’t have it. The only way the House budget will make any sense is if they raise taxes.”

Higher taxes? Those are fighting words. Maybe their breakfast chatter is more genial.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Senate's proposed budget, with one exception, is a carefully assembled conservative start to a 20-week legislative spending negotiation. But they finished off their work with a chainsaw
  • A recent study of mayoral races — those important but rarely epic meat-and-potatoes exercises in civic responsibility — revealed some ugly facts about voters in general and Texas voters in particular. 
  • For lessons in how to speak positively about bad news — without telling lies — you might consider studying at the feet of the people who write the Texas budget. 

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State government Bathroom bill Dan Patrick Glenn Hegar Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature