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Analysis: Think Texas has a weak governor? Not in the month of May

A Texas governor's powers peak at the end of a legislative session, as deadline-haunted legislators begin to fear the threat of a veto from the state's chief executive.

Gov. Abbott delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber on Jan. 31, 2017.

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Lawmakers and their leaders are gradually losing power. The governor — that guy many of them have been ignoring up to this point — is gaining power.

This isn’t a Game of Thrones thing. It’s built into the system.

Greg Abbott can veto bills, but only if they reach his desk. May is when they start pouring in. Lawmakers can overrule a governor’s vetoes — but only if they’re in session. The session has to end on May 29.

You see it?

As of Thursday morning, 38 bills and resolutions had been sent to Abbott. The vast majority of those were resolutions — important to the people who sponsored them or were named in them, but mostly not important to anyone else.

Here’s the point: 6,968 bills and resolutions have been filed this session. Most won’t pass. That’s how it works. But the numbers — and the impending legislative deadlines — frame a recurring and temporary transfer of power that marks the end of every legislative session.

Bet you a dollar those legislators are hearing how much Abbott would like to see some pre-K money in the final budget. Bet they’re listening, too.

Abbott will soon get bills he won’t accept or reject until after lawmakers leave town — until after they have missed their chance to challenge any vetoes he makes. That’s leverage. Pretty soon, legislators who might be more inclined to wag a finger in the governor’s face will be bringing candy and flowers, currying favor and smoothing out provisions that aren’t to Abbott’s liking.

Texas governors can’t pass laws themselves. Like everybody else in this sausage factory, they depend on others to get what they want. Until the last weeks of a legislative session, they have only the power of persuasion on their side. At the end, however, the bully pulpit grows teeth; a governor can back up his or her concerns about a bill with the threat of killing it.

That’s the stuff of legislative horse trading. You need this? Give up that. Y’all are interested in what? The governor is interested in something, too.

Abbott has been trying to persuade lawmakers to create and pay for a much more robust pre-kindergarten program in Texas. In large measure, they’ve been ignoring him. They just haven’t been listening.

But all is not lost. The House and the Senate are “in conference” on the state budget, meaning each chamber has sent five members to work out the differences in their proposals for the next two years of state spending. The governor doesn’t get to play, directly. But he does have a line-item veto, and he gets the last word on much of what will be in the state budget for the two years beginning in September. And he and his aides have been talking to those 10 negotiators to express their views.

Bet you a dollar those legislators are hearing how much Abbott would like to see some pre-K money in the final budget. Bet they’re listening, too.

The same forces are at work on other legislative subjects. The governor had four things on his list of “emergency items” when he gave his State of the State speech earlier in the session. Legislation against cities allowing legal sanctuary for undocumented immigrants is on its way to him now, approved by both the Senate and the House. The wheels are turning on his request to join a “convention of states” that would propose changes to the U.S. Constitution. The same goes for repairs to the state’s chronically mediocre protections for abused and neglected children. Lawmakers are changing some ethics laws in response to his call for reforms in how public officials and employees are regulated.

The first half of a legislative session belongs to lawmakers themselves, and to the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House in particular. The power is in what legislative seeds are planted, which ones are nurtured and which ones wither from lack of attention.

May is harvesting season. The legislative give-and-take reaches a new pitch. Bills die. Lawmakers struggle to remove remaining obstacles for their pet ideas and projects.

And the biggest obstacle at the end of the course comes into focus: A governor’s veto.

They’re listening to him now.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Texas legislators — along with everyone watching them — expected to lock horns over transgender Texans and the bathroom bill. But the raw debate over sanctuary cities legislation could be the hallmark of this 85th Legislature. 
  • Texas legislators cannot bind future legislators by preventing them or forcing them to do something. But they can certainly make their future decisions uncomfortable.
  • The Senate doesn't like the House's hit on the Rainy Day Fund. The House doesn't like the Senate's delay of a deposit into the state's highway fund. Neither wants to raise taxes. But all is not yet lost — unless they want to fight about it.

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State government 85th Legislative Session Child Protective Services Governor's Office Greg Abbott Sanctuary cities Texas Legislature