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Analysis: A legislative session ending on the lieutenant governor’s terms

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has put the clock to his advantage. With a week to go in the regular legislative session, his threat of pushing lawmakers into overtime if he doesn’t get his way on pet issues is paying off.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confers with State Sens. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Royce West, D-Dallas, on March 14, 2017.

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Everyone in the Texas Capitol was reading from Dan Patrick’s script on the second-to-last weekend of the Legislature’s regular session.

Sure, others got little bites, like the governor’s successful late grab for economic development funds and the speaker’s success at paring back the bathroom bill so dear to social conservatives and so threatening to economic development.

Patrick, more than anyone else in leadership, has put the clock to his advantage. And with a week to go in the regular session, his threat of pushing into overtime if he doesn’t get his way on pet issues appears to be paying off.

Would a special session of the Texas Legislature be good for anybody? And is it really necessary?

Possibly, and no.

Start with the second question. The only reason for a special session right now is to resurrect bills the Legislature can’t get passed during the regular session. The outlook for that is considerably better now than it was at the end of last week.

The lieutenant governor is not making everybody happy, but he’s making everybody he cares about happy.

Some of those bills are required to pass, like the state budget and legislation that would extend the lives of several state agencies that are scheduled to shut down unless lawmakers say otherwise. Without those bills, all or part of state government would shut down on Sept. 1.

Some are optional, like legislation that would regulate which restrooms transgender people in Texas use and a bill that would require local governments to seek local approval before raising property taxes more than 5 percent.

You probably know that Patrick linked the four bills last week when he threatened to prevent Senate votes on the two required bills if the two others — high on his list of policy priorities since before the session began — were not approved first.

Lieutenant governors and House speakers cannot call special sessions, but they certainly can force governors to call them, and nobody in the Texas Capitol seems to doubt Patrick would do that by blocking passage of two bills required to keep state government going.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s in a bit of a bind, too, since he has expressed his own support for the two optional bills (optional in the sense that the government will continue whether or not they become law). He’d have to bring the Legislature back for overtime to pass a budget or the agency revival bill or both, but he’d be under a lot of political pressure to include Patrick’s pets on the agenda. And House Speaker Joe Straus, in a statement after passage of the bathroom rules for Texas public schools, said that Abbott had indicated the issue would be on the agenda of a special session.

That’s why political folklore holds that the powers of Texas lieutenant governors rival those of Texas governors.

Patrick’s strategy is working at the moment — the budget is on its way back to the House and Senate for final approval, and the House has passed legislation that would continue threatened agencies. But both bills still have to pass the Senate. Patrick still has a lever in hand as he and his senators negotiate the final form of the property tax and bathroom bills.

What’s more, he has set himself up as a hero for the GOP’s most conservative voters — the people who put him in office. And it works for him whether the win comes in the regular session or later, in a special.

He’s not making everybody happy, but he’s making everybody he cares about happy.

That answers that other question — the one about who benefits. If a special session makes it look like the state government isn’t doing its job, there will be a tendency to blame the fellow in the middle office. Abbott is sidling up to Patrick, but the lite guv will get most of the credit for forcing these issues.

The governor’s political successes will have to come elsewhere — from other bills he signs or vetoes that make his important financial and electoral supporters happy.

Straus and the House are Patrick’s foils here, if he can make that stick, but it would be hard to do. It’s an insider’s argument easier sold to legislative regulars than to the people outside the twelve blocks around the Texas Capitol. Texas voters know who Abbott is. Many — not as many, but many — know who Patrick is. But Straus has never been on a statewide ballot. House speakers don’t get their clout from statewide support like the others do. They’re not as exposed to voter ire, either. If anyone suffers in a special session, it’s usually a governor.

Regular sessions come with a lot of built-in distractions. Special sessions are focused. Call a session on Patrick’s set of four issues and lawmakers and the public watching them will be focused on bathrooms, property taxes, the state budget and whether a handful of state agencies deserve to be rescued.

These four issues are part of a swirl of policy questions competing for headlines right now, a mix that includes fixes to foster care and child protective services, a ban on texting while driving, state government trumping local regulations on ride-hailing companies, a ban on sanctuary cities, cuts to the state’s franchise tax and so on.

Every legislative issue has some key players. During a 140-day regular session, the work is spread out, and almost all of the members are busy. In a 30-day special session, most of them are waiting for the work product of the main players. That gives them time to pick at the limited number of bills on the agenda, to play procedural games to derail things they don’t like and to enable things they do. It undermines the power of horse trading, too, since most members don’t come into a special session with bills of their own. You have to be nice to people if you want their votes for your own bill. But if you don’t have a bill of your own...

Mischief, an important part of any legislative toolkit, rises in importance in a special session. It’s easy to fail, especially if the reasons for a special session are as contentious as the ones Patrick selected in the second-to-last week of the session.

Lawmakers have a whole week to finish; a special session isn’t really necessary. But if they have one, it will be on the lieutenant governor’s terms — just like the end of the regular session.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • There's a simple test to tell you whether the promise of a tax cut is really a tax cut: Is there money in your hand?
  • Amid rumors of a special session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put out a short list of bills he wants the House to pass if he's going to let the Senate advance must-pass legislation. And he appears to have the upper hand in the last days of the session.
  • Rumors of a special session are a normal feature in the last days of a regular session. There's no emergency that would force a special session, but don't discount the Texas Legislature's ability to force one by failing to finish its work.

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