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Analysis: Follow the leader — if you can find him

The governor has identified the issues he wants lawmakers to work on during the special session. He says he'll keep score to track friends and foes. But he hasn't publicly made his positions clear — so how do they know how to vote?

Gov. Greg Abbott (l.) and Kevin Roberts, executive vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, at a TPPF orientation session ahead of the special session, on July 17, 2017.

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You can’t vote with the governor if you don’t know what his positions are.

Gov. Greg Abbott told the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation this week that he’ll be keeping score during the special session that started Tuesday, letting people know which lawmakers are with him and which ones are against him. Abbott is putting 20 items on the agenda; it’s simple to figure out what he wants the Legislature to work on.

But the devil is in the details, as they say, and there is a world of difference between one set of restroom regulations and another, between various property tax proposals or voucher schemes. The governor has to take clear positions — a practice he assiduously avoided during the regular session — or members won’t know when they’re with him and when they’re not.

The session opened Tuesday and started as you might have imagined.

The Senate was in a rush to pass “sunset” legislation that it held hostage during the 140-day regular session because until that’s done, Abbott won’t allow consideration of the “bathroom bill” and other items dear to Republicans. To keep Democrats from slowing things down, Senate Republicans suspended the rules for giving the public a heads-up before a committee hearing. Suspending rules is akin to agreeing not to call penalties during a rough game; it might still feel like a foul, but it’s only a foul if the refs can call it.

Anyway, the Republican majority is in a hurry, in no mood to abide Democratic stalling. When it comes to that must-do sunset legislation, the Senate did more in the first three hours of the special session than it did during the regular session. Take your wins where you find them: Those bills will be up for consideration by the full Senate — perhaps on the way to the House — by the end of the second day of the session.

Now that the "bathroom bill" is on the call for the special session and the governor is working up a scorecard, members — voters, too — are going to want to know which version the governor likes.

The House — and this is the way the governor set things up — is in a holding pattern. House Speaker Joe Straus deflected questions from members about whether he will let committees get started on other legislation before the governor adds the rest of those issues, but the rules allow him to do so whenever he’d like.

The sunset bill will renew the charters of the Texas Medical Board and four other regulatory agencies for two more years; without that, those agencies would go out of business. Once that is out of the way, the real pace of the session will become apparent. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he wants the Senate to move quickly through the governor’s list. Straus has said the House will be deliberate, and he’s been openly disdainful of the “bathroom bill” and some of the governor’s proposed limits on local control and the powers of cities and counties.

Add the governor’s threat — it’s more vivid if you think like a politician who will be on the ballot in eight months — and you might find reason for caution.

Abbott himself has been cautious. He never gave full support to any of the three best-known versions of legislation that would limit use of public building restrooms and other facilities to people whose biological sex matches the signs on the doors for boys or girls, women or men. As he slowly migrated from a neutral position to adding the issue to the agenda of the special session, the Senate passed a version that regulated restroom use and struck down local laws already in place. The House passed a much milder version — one that Patrick criticized as anemic.

Now that it’s on the call for the special session and the governor is working up a scorecard, members — voters, too — are going to want to know which version the governor likes.

It’s not just potty policy, either. The Senate’s proposal for property taxes would ban local tax increases of 5 percent or more without voter approval. The House’s version doesn’t have the automatic elections, but would remake property tax notices so that property owners would have clearer information on what their local taxing authorities were doing to them.

Abbott hasn’t pointed to a favorite there, either. A legislator could vote for enough property tax reform to anger local officials back in the district while still landing on the governor’s naughty list. That’s fuel for a stall, if lawmakers are looking for reasons to go slow: Don’t vote until it’s clear what Abbott would do if he was a legislator instead of a governor with a scorecard.

This is a governor who made no sound before vetoing 50 bills at the end of the regular session. Many of the sponsors of those bills never saw it coming — because the governor didn’t show his hand before picking up that veto stamp.

There's no way to stick with him if you don't know where he is.

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.

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