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Analysis: Can Abbott assemble an army for this session’s pre-K fight?

Gov. Greg Abbott has hit tough sledding with his call for more spending on early education in Texas. Lawmakers aren't warm to the idea, to say the least, and the governor hasn't assembled an army of supporters to back up his position.

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The governor of Texas is getting bullied on his request for serious money for a serious pre-kindergarten program. Messing with governors can be risky business, but Texas lawmakers aren’t answering Greg Abbott’s call.

Texans aren’t, either.

In a year of frequent and large rallies and protests at the Texas Capitol, pre-K is a relative dud. It’s popular with many educators and politicians, but it hasn’t drawn the kind of crowd that might turn some heads inside the big pink building at the end of Congress Avenue in Austin.

Where is Abbott’s army?

President Trump has a sizeable one, even if it’s not always as big as he tweets.

Ted Cruz put together some crowds when he ran for president and will be tested again when he’s seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate a year from now.

Political groups without elected drum majors in front of them have assembled mighty parades, starting with the women’s marches in Austin and other cities this year and including smaller but still significant demonstrations for school choice, for and against abortion rights, on immigration and border security and gun rights, and on and on.

Not for pre-K. The governor is trying to persuade Texas lawmakers to put serious money into pre-kindergarten programs, but they are showing him zeroes and small numbers instead. He's showing small numbers right back: Advocates for early education can fill a news conference room, but not the grounds of the Capitol. 

Some issues roar. This one squeaks.

And when you get down to it, where’s the threat? What happens if Texas lawmakers don’t heed Abbott’s call? He won’t be happy, but he hasn’t shown evidence of electoral risk to his opponents. He also can’t rely on good will to carry him to victory on this particular issue.

Abbott started his legislative push for early education as he took the governor’s office two years ago, asking lawmakers to put some money into pre-K and telling nervous state representatives, in particular, that he would back them during the 2016 election season if they were challenged for helping a program that counts many social conservatives among its critics.

They went along, putting the money into the programs — in spite of pushback from some social conservatives who aren’t crazy about pre-K. To hear many of them tell it, the governor wasn’t there when they called for help. They’re holding it against him.

When it comes to pre-K, “Don’t do it at all” seems to be a popular bumper sticker slogan in the Texas Legislature right now.

At this point, it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or not; it’s the predominant legislative folklore on the matter, the story legislators tell when they’re talking about Abbott and pre-K.

It explains why some of them were cranky about the second-round challenge in Abbott’s State of the State speech this year. He noted the proposed funding for his pet program in legislators’ early drafts of the next budget and declared them anemic: "They nod in the direction of pre-K, but they turn a blind eye to the goal of achieving high-quality pre-K," Abbott said. "If you're going to do this, do it right or don't do it at all."

“Don’t do it at all” seems to be a popular bumper sticker slogan in the Texas Legislature right now.

Plus, the governor’s inside game isn’t great. Those budgets haven’t budged much. He visited Senate Finance Chairman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to talk about it last week. He got more buzz than budge; senators were talking about his effrontery for a couple of days, but the Senate added $25 million to the $40 million already set aside for the program — still far less than the $118 million per year Abbott is seeking for pre-K.

Sometimes, you need outside help.

For instance, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has hit a wall with his push for state regulations on who can use which bathrooms in public buildings. The Senate voted his way, saying people in most publicly owned buildings in Texas should use the restrooms that match their “biological sex” and erasing local regulations that allow people to choose restrooms according to their gender identity.

It’s not a popular piece of legislation with House Speaker Joe Straus — the guy who runs the other half of the legislative obstacle course. It’s a hard political fight, with a fair amount of friction between socially conservative voters and conservative businesses wary of discriminatory laws. Abbott, like a lot of other politicians, hasn’t declared a position — a safe, if temporary, way to avoid the crossfire between his supporters.

So Patrick, like Abbott, is stymied? Nah. He’s out mustering an army of “one million voices” to shake the foundations and bolster support for his position.

Even if Patrick loses on this year’s attempt to pass that bill, he will have assembled supporters he will need when he seeks re-election next year.

Like Abbott, the lieutenant governor might lose the inside game. Unlike the governor, Patrick has an outside game, too.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • If Texas legislators cut the state budget this year, it won't be because they didn't have the money. It'll be because they didn't want to spend the money they have.
  • At about the same time this week, one set of Texas lawmakers was working on ways to limit the growth of property taxes that fund local governments while another was considering legislation that could cost local governments a lot of money.
  • The federal judges who said the state's congressional maps are invalid last week are in position to take another step — to require Texas to get federal permission whenever it wants to change election and voting laws.

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Public education State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Texas Legislature