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Analysis: For three Texas leaders, even some losses could be victories

Measuring the progress of legislation is easy: This one passed, that one didn't. Political success in a legislative session is different: A mediocre legislative record can be a victory for all sides.

The three leaders of Texas appear jovial at a short meeting of the Cash Management Committee on July 18, 2017, as they face a potentially contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Legislature. 

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The special session of the Texas Legislature could come out like a soccer tournament for 5-year-olds: No matter what happens, everybody gets a trophy.

The layout of this legislative overtime is familiar: 20 issues, a maximum of 30 days, one must-pass issue and 19 that would make this or that political group happy. Failure to address that must-pass issue is really the only thing that could make lawmakers look incompetent. It’s about maintaining the operation of five agencies — including the one that licenses doctors to practice in Texas — for another two years.

This one is easy. Nobody’s against it. Had the politics of the moment worked out differently, this special session would have lasted less than a week.

Now we’re approaching the halfway point of the 30 days that the special session can last. The Senate zipped through Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda, not surprising because the big items on the list started with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and got a warm welcome on his end of the Capitol: bathrooms, property taxes, education vouchers and so on.

The House is moving slowly, but it’s moving. Abbott is waiting for things to sign or veto, and he has apparently backed off a public threat to keep score on which lawmakers were with him, against him or uncommitted.

He wants all 20 of the items on his agenda written into the law books, as does Patrick. Speaker Joe Straus and the House have resisted some of those things and have differences of opinion about some of them. They disagree with proposals to regulate transgender Texans’ use of public bathrooms; that one will have a hard time in the House, where Straus has taken a stand against it. The two chambers have differences to reconcile on legislation that attempts to slow future increases in local property taxes. There are even disagreements on trees, with the governor asking lawmakers to countermand local efforts to control when property owners can cut down big trees. The House’s response was to pass legislation that the governor has previously vetoed.

If this episode ended with no new laws other than that agency “sunset” legislation and perhaps a fix to the state’s health care insurance for retired teachers, each of the state’s top three officials and most of its state legislators could return home as victors.

Some of what the governor has asked for will make it to his desk. His chances of getting all 20 issues in a form he likes are slim. And this is where those participation trophies come into play.

If this episode ended with no new laws other than that agency “sunset” legislation and perhaps a fix to the state’s health care insurance for retired teachers, each of the state’s top three officials and most of its state legislators could return home as victors.

While the governor would love to check 20 boxes on his list, one will suffice, if it’s that must-do sunset legislation, because he can honestly tell voters that he did what he could with a dysfunctional Legislature. Anything beyond sunset is gravy. His win was in the list itself, establishing him as an incumbent governor in line politically with the most conservative statewide official in Texas: Patrick.

That’s how Patrick gets his trophy even if the session falls well short of his and the governor’s goal: He represented the stalwart culture warriors in the GOP from soup to nuts, beginning before this year’s regular session with his own list of conservative issues, a promise that they would get the Senate’s coveted low bill numbers and attention. He effectively forced the governor’s hand; even a cursory reading of Abbott’s special session proclamation and Patrick’s low-numbered Senate bills reveals the lieutenant governor’s influence on the 85th Legislature and the governor himself.

Patrick is already positioned to hit the 2018 election cycle asking the movement conservatives in the GOP to send more of their own to Austin to help him move policies and pet programs that he can’t pass this year.

Straus is Patrick in reverse. He’s been the stalwart of the traditional Republican establishment, the chamber-of-commerce types noted more for economic conservatism than social conservatism. They’re squeamish about the bathroom bill, protective of public education and, like almost every group in Texas, really angry about rising property taxes. Like Patrick’s backers, they’ll hail Straus for taking up the fight, and he can enter 2018 the same way Patrick does, calling on Republican voters to send reinforcements.

With up to two weeks of potential special session mistakes and misadventures ahead of us, this appears to be working —  in a political sense.

Three state leaders, three trophies. Plus, Texas might still be regulating doctors a month from now.

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Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus Special sessions