Analysis: Special session sniping underway before the opening gavels
The Texas Legislature is returning to Austin, but the leaders of the Senate and the House appear to be starting the new session on the same sour notes with which they ended the regular session seven weeks ago.
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At Wimbledon, tennis players shake hands at the beginning and end of each match. Boxers exchange fist-bumps before they start knocking each other’s brains out.
As a special session of the Texas Legislature commences, state leaders are trash-talking each other.
If you were hoping the gathering that begins Tuesday would offer civility and a fresh start after a rancorous regular session this year, you’re out of luck.
The oil-and-water relationship of the leaders of the Senate and the House seems perfectly intact. They appear to have spent the last seven weeks seething instead of cooling off.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out a teacher pay raise idea last Thursday that was light on details and dripping with derision for his House counterpart, Speaker Joe Straus.
Patrick would pay for teacher bonuses and pay increases with a mix of budget deferrals, local school district funds and, if voters go along, dedicated money from the Texas Lottery. Over time, the Legislature would force local districts to spend more of their budgets on teachers. He had some charts at Thursday’s announcement, but he hasn’t distributed — on paper or online — any of the nitty-gritty particulars.
All of that, he said, beats the “Ponzi scheme” Straus and the House offered during the regular session to increase state funding for public education. The lite guv isn’t operating in a vacuum here: Remember when Straus called the Senate’s transportation money shell-game Enron accounting during the regular session?
Straus responded with a bit of snark: “It’s encouraging to see the lieutenant governor's newfound focus on school finance reform,” he said in a news release.
Straus was already riding into the session on a quote about a Patrick priority known as “the bathroom bill” — that he gave to The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright for an opus on the Texas Legislature about what he told his colleague’s emissaries at the end of the session: “I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
Isn’t this promising?
The man in the middle, Gov. Greg Abbott, has been trying to cobble together something that a) makes him look like a leader, and b) offers some perception of victory for said leader. He’s got a list of 19 proposals for the Legislature to consider and he’s been advertising, via social media, his efforts to meet with senators and representatives in preparation for the 30-day “extraordinary session.”
He’ll open that list for consideration just as soon as must-pass legislation extending the lives of the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies passes the Senate. The Senate, you see, is where that legislation died during the regular session, forcing the governor to either call a special session or to allow anyone to practice medicine in Texas without a license.
Teacher pay is one of the governor’s 19 other issues, along with the bathroom bill, limits on property tax increases not approved by voters, overriding local laws protecting big trees, private school vouchers for special-needs students, limits on municipal annexations, extending maternal mortality task force and so on.
Some of those are new things for lawmakers to think about, but a large number are proposals that failed during the 140-day regular session. Abbott’s presession work won’t hurt, but he’s gonna have a mess on his hands if he can’t get the House and the Senate on the same page.
The tensions are not new. The regular Wednesday breakfast meetings between Abbott, Straus, Patrick and Comptroller Glenn Hegar broke down months ago. The governor’s late-session attempts at shuttle diplomacy fell apart, too.
On Tuesday, the governor’s top-down push for consensus starts its acid test. He’s circulating a “20-for-20” button to rally people to his agenda. Others are pushing a “sunset and sine die” button signaling their desire to do the must-pass bill and go home.
Maybe breakfast really is the most important meal.
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