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Analysis: As the legislative session winds down, who will be king of the hill?

As the Legislature grinds its way through the final three weeks of the regular session, the state's top three leaders are pushing and shoving, figuratively speaking, to the finale and beyond — to the 2018 elections.

From left: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus.

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Dan Patrick stole a big win from Joe Straus on “sanctuary” cities. Greg Abbott took to Facebook and stole the issue from Patrick. Straus’ House popped the governor on ethics. Abbott told some religious leaders they should turn up the heat on the House to get the “bathroom bill” unstuck.

With less than three weeks left in the session, things are getting a little chippy among the state’s top three leaders.

The drama on the surface hides the politics beneath.

The speaker of the House turned onto a rough patch of road when Senate Bill 4 — the “sanctuary cities” legislation — moved significantly in the Senate’s direction when it came up for consideration in the House. The Senate bill was strict. The starting House bill was less so. But the members of the House amended it to allow police to ask for the immigration status of people they detain or arrest — what’s been referred to as a “show us your papers” provision — and Abbott signed it into law on Sunday night.

Score the first bit as a win for the Senate, and for Patrick, who had been hoping — against recent history — that the House would go along with the Senate when that bill reached the full membership.

Abbott’s signing grab was a nice deflection. With little notice, he did the deed on Facebook Live from his office. He shut out the protesters he might have drawn with a public signing. He didn’t have to face questions from reporters, who weren’t invited. And he didn’t have to share the spotlight with the little people who made the bill possible — a group that notably includes not only senators and representatives but also the lieutenant governor who has made a fetish of announcing that he will not challenge Abbott for governor in 2018.

The House tagged the governor last weekend, handily passing a heretofore unnoticed bill to disqualify big donors from gubernatorial appointments — to end a storied tradition of Texas governors giving the best and most prestigious gigs to the people who gave the most to their campaigns.

Nothing stirs the legislative pot like ethics legislation. The business of regulating politicians is something those politicians take personally, which is understandable. But there’s more to it: Ethics legislation is also an opportunity to hurt enemies, sully reputations and settle scores.

The 91-48 vote on what the author called a “pay for play” ban would block anyone giving more than $2,500 to a governor’s political campaign from becoming his or her appointees to the state board and commission spots long considered plums to supporters. If that vote wasn’t pointed enough, remember that cleaning up government ethics is one of the four “emergency” issues highlighted by Abbott at the beginning of the session.

Score that win for Straus.

While members of the Texas House are picking the governor’s tail feathers from their teeth, time is running out for the “bathroom bill” so dear to social conservatives this session.

And after months of cajoling, Patrick finally nudged Abbott to assist his call to overturn local laws and school policies and require transgender Texans to use the restrooms and other public facilities that correspond to their “biological sex.”

The Senate has approved that legislation, but the House version died in committee. It could show up as an amendment to other legislation before the end of the session, however. Abbott told a radio interviewer that he told a group of pastors that, if they want that in state law, they need to work the House, where it has stalled and where Straus has made his opposition clear.

That might get the bill passed, which would be a win for Patrick. But it really helps Abbott, who can’t be blamed if the legislation fails. Anyone looking to run as a conservative alternative to the incumbent governor isn’t getting any daylight on this issue. Straus’ win is on the other end of the party, where business conservatives have been working to kill legislation they believe will hurt the state economically.

Governors usually control the final weeks of a legislative session, punctuating the action with their vetoes and — as Abbott demonstrated on social media on Sunday night — with their bill signings.

But the positioning is interesting. Not long from now, the main topic of conversation in the political class won’t be the legislative session. It’ll be the 2018 elections — where positioning is everything.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Legislature is moving into the part of the calendar when certain dates are circled in red. More bills are killed by clocks and calendars — by those circled deadlines — than by votes.
  • 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.
  • 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. 

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State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas Legislature