Seven weeks after legislative deadlock prompted Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to hold dueling press conferences, each accusing the other of forcing the governor to call a special session, Texas lawmakers are back in Austin for just that.
The next month will reveal the extent of the friction between the two chambers’ leaders — and if those tensions have left the state’s policymakers paralyzed. It will also test Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s leadership after a regular 140-day session in which he drew criticism from within his own party for keeping too much distance from the Legislature.
Abbott had little choice but to call lawmakers back for up to 30 more days to avoid shutdowns of the Texas Medical Board and a few other state agencies that became hostages in the war between House and Senate leaders. He also added 19 other items to their agenda, including boosting teacher pay, limiting the ability of Texas cities and towns to regulate land use, and regulating bathroom use in public buildings for transgender people, the topic that inspired the showdown between the House and Senate in the first place.
The governor has spent the break cobbling together alliances, tapping House and Senate lawmakers to carry priority legislation and lining up support from special interest groups and trade associations. That hasn’t stopped the flow of ill will between Straus and Patrick.
The pair — stylistic opposites with differing visions of the Republican Party to match – have long traded barbs. The lieutenant governor regularly catalogs the conservative reforms he says die at the speaker’s hands, a theme echoed by a faction of anti-Straus lawmakers in the House. Straus has a history of thinly concealed jabs at Patrick’s bombastic brand.
“He’s an entertainer, a talk show guy. And a statewide elected official. I’m not,” he told a Lubbock radio host in March.
But they’ve now brought their daggers out into the open, with Abbott’s priorities caught in between.
At a recent press conference called to unveil education initiatives for the special session, Patrick accused the speaker of laying the groundwork for a statewide income tax with his school finance plan, which he likened to an “education Ponzi scheme.” Making no attempts to downplay his frosty relationship with Straus, Patrick said the House leader had refused to meet with him one on one since the legislative session began. Straus responded to the event with a tart statement, saying simply that he was encouraged to see the lieutenant governor’s “newfound focus” on school finance.
On Monday, during a speech to an Austin-based conservative think tank, Patrick doubled down on his attacks against Straus, saying he refused to “sit back” while Straus derailed the governor’s conservative agenda. After Patrick repeated the state income tax claim, a Straus spokesman issued a statement saying the speaker "doesn't support a state income tax because it would be bad for Texas and harm our economy, just like the bathroom bill."
While Patrick has emphasized that the governor’s “agenda is my agenda is the people’s agenda” and said he is eager to go “20 for 20” — passing all the governor’s legislative items — Straus has been less enthusiastic.
Shortly after Abbott announced the special session items in June, Straus compared the agenda to "a room full of horse manure," saying he would stay hopeful that there would be “a pony in there somewhere.”
Last week, in a prepared statement given to The Texas Tribune, Straus said that he was “optimistic that we can reach consensus on several priorities in the special session,” noting that the House, Senate and governor found common ground on many issues during the regular session.
That is unlikely to include the “bathroom bill” Patrick has championed. Straus, who has from the beginning argued the legislation would hurt the state economically, recently framed his objection more frankly in an interview with The New Yorker.
In describing a final attempt by Senate leaders to negotiate a bathroom bill before the end of the regular session, Straus recalled telling two senators, “I’m not a lawyer, but I am a Texan. I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
The House also has significant differences on education policy, including school finance reform and private school vouchers.
A spokesman for Abbott, John Wittman, said in a statement that his office has been working with both chambers for the last six weeks.
“If these items do not get passed, it will be for lack of will, not for lack of time. The governor thanks the Senate for their commitment to finish the people’s business swiftly, and he looks forward to working with both the House and Senate to get these bills to his desk,” he said.
"I’m not going to play that game"
While their leaders make war, individual lawmakers remained cautious with their predictions for the special session.
“Everybody recognizes the obvious, but there is a strong desire to have votes on these issues, and I think that’s what unites everybody,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.
House members largely said that since they had to come back for a special session, they intended to make the most of it — but that did not mean the chamber would be in lock-step with the governor or lieutenant governor’s agenda.
“We’re going to be there, we might as well try to work with them,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Education panel. “I don’t have animosity toward anybody. I’m not going to play that game.”
State Rep. Lyle Larson, another Straus ally, said he expected the House would pass measures similar to what the chamber approved earlier this year.
“We’re going to bring back things that are important to keep Texas moving forward and I don’t think you are going to see a lot of preoccupation about what the governor or the lieutenant governor want,” said Larson, a San Antonio Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “You are going to see a contrast between the House and the Senate in the special session. We aren’t going to allow the Senate to continue to try to bully their way through the House. It’s a separate chamber for a purpose.”
Despite indications he has more wooing to do in the House, Abbott has made clear he won’t settle for a special session with no accomplishments. During a speech to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation Monday, Abbott said he would be publishing a list “on a daily basis to call people out — who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”
Over the first two weeks of the session, according to aides, the governor has also planned over 30 TV interviews and over 20 radio interviews, covering every media market in the state. Abbott, who announced his reelection bid last week, so far faces no serious Democratic or Republican contenders.
Asked whether Abbott is willing to call additional special sessions if lawmakers don’t pass his agenda items, chief strategist Dave Carney said it is "absolutely on the table.” While Abbott would prefer lawmakers finish their work in 30 days or less, Carney said the governor "would have no qualms about calling them back.”
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting to this story.
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the number of dueling press conferences Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus held at the end of the 2017 regular legislative session.