It's been a less-than-ideal session so far for Gov. Greg Abbott's budget wish list.
He has seen both chambers give short shrift — or no money at all — to some of his biggest priorities: his signature pre-K program, the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Governor's University Research Initiative. In some cases, lawmakers have done so despite specific calls and direct appeals by Abbott to fully fund the programs.
Yet as the session's most important bill heads to conference committee, the governor has before him a negotiating tool that many did not see coming at this point last session: the ability to issue line-item vetoes at a more granular level than his predecessors did. The result of a power struggle two years ago in which Abbott ultimately prevailed, the expanded veto authority could give him new leverage in the budget battles as he seeks to salvage his priorities.
"This really is the political Sword of Damocles of sorts right now," said Jason Sabo, an education and human services lobbyist involved in the pre-K issue. "I think that it's absolutely on the table, and I think that it's potentially, arguably, one of the best levers that the governor has at this point."
Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget expert with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Austin, said Abbott's expanded veto power would make it easier to haggle with legislators.
"If you've got 40 things to veto now instead of one lump sum, it is a lot easier to do that kind of negotiating" because a governor can focus on individual items lawmakers care about, she said.
The expanded veto authority came from a political tug-of-war that unfolded after the 2015 session, when Abbott crossed out $227.6 million in spending in the $209.4 billion, two-year state budget. The Legislative Budget board argued Abbott had overstepped his authority because the vetoes targeted budget riders — directives to state agencies that are included in the budget but do not actually make any appropriations.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick backed Abbott in the dispute, even calling for a special committee to look at the budget board and other legislative agencies. Comptroller Glenn Hegar put the funds on hold and requested an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton's office, which ultimately declared the governor's vetoes were valid.
The opinion by Paxton's office does not carry the force of law but could be influential if Abbott's vetoes were ever challenged in court. That has not happened yet, leaving the governor essentially free to use the expanded veto power — or threaten the use of it.
"Clearly, it gives him a greater power base from which to negotiate," said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, an Austin think tank on tax policy. "Ultimately, it will probably require the courts to make a final determination one way or another.”
Since taking office, Abbott has made no secret of his desire to accrue more veto authority. In his 2016-2017 budget proposal, he called for a constitutional amendment giving the governor "reduction" line-item authority, which would allow him to approve a specific appropriation but scale back its amount. The idea went nowhere at the Legislature.
Abbott has not offered any hints about how willing he is to stretch his veto power in the current budget process, and his office declined to comment for this story. But in recent public statements, he has increasingly looked forward to conference committee to settle some of the session's biggest debates.
"On the budget, those are issues that are going to work out during the conference committee process, and we'll have plenty of time to address those issues," Abbott told reporters Monday in Houston when asked to clarify his position on when lawmakers should tap the Rainy Day Fund, the state's savings account.
State Rep. John Zerwas, the Richmond Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Abbott's expanded veto power "really hasn't" been a factor as budget writers have worked through the 2017-2018 spending plan.
"We have gone forward with the budget as usual," he said, adding the House's version was "not at all" written in a way to account for Abbott's expanded veto power.
Zerwas also said it remains to be seen whether the veto authority will give Abbott new leverage in the budget-crafting homestretch.
"That wasn't really something that was in place during the last conferencing session," Zerwas said. "I honestly don't know."
The office of Zerwas' Senate counterpart, Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson, did not respond to requests for comment. Nelson has been the subject of Abbott's direct appeals for more attention to his priorities in the budget, including a much-discussed meeting last month that came shortly after the Senate zeroed out funding for his pre-K program.
Some are skeptical Abbott could effectively leverage the expanded veto power in the coming weeks. They say he has already played his best hand by using it last session, when it was not as expected. Now, budget writers have had the opportunity to build defenses into this budget.
Plus, any specter of such a veto may not play well with some lawmakers who've already been put off by Abbott's hardball approach to the budget this session. In his State of the State speech, he bluntly called on lawmakers to fully fund the pre-K program, telling them to "do it right or don't do it at all."
Now Abbott is pinning his hopes on the conference committee to get his way on pre-K and other priorities.
"The House has a plan. The Senate has a plan," Abbott said last month, addressing the disparate approaches to pre-K in the budget proposals.
And, Abbott added, "the governor has a plan."
- Abbott is looking to the budget conference committee to sort out how to best fund pre-K in Texas.
- Abbott made clear some of his budget priorities in his State of the State address earlier this year.
Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.