Texas Legislature 2019

“Republicans have been turned French”: Hardline Texas conservatives worry their allies have gone soft

Activist conservative groups have long been aligned with the lawmakers they helped elect, like Texas House Freedom Caucus members and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Are they still on the same page?

During debate on the House state budget bill, state Reps. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, and Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, laugh over Stickland's attempt to kill an amendment. Stickland, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, had clashed with Springer in past legislative sessions.

They came out against an across-the-board pay raise for every teacher and librarian in the state. It passed the Texas Senate unanimously.

They railed against the upper chamber’s supplemental budget, a $9 billion proposal to pay for state expenses left over from the last legislative session. It passed unanimously.

And last week, when the Texas House took up a 2020-21 spending plan for the state, they exhorted lawmakers to vote “no” on the $251 billion proposal they called “bloated” and “fiscally irresponsible.” It passed unanimously.

Wednesday’s budget vote was the latest — and perhaps the most notable — example of the daylight emerging between hardline conservative groups like Empower Texas and the lawmakers they help elect, differences that have been apparent since Election Day. Last session, conservative activists saw their social priorities elevated by the lieutenant governor, and their strict fiscal preferences trumpeted by members of the hardline Texas House Freedom Caucus. But this year, as Empower Texans and others continue agitating for much the same priorities, their onetime allies in the Legislature don’t all seem to be on the same page.

That change comes on the heels of a midterm election that handed Texas Democrats more power than they’ve had in years, and the election of a new House speaker who has so far governed the lower chamber in a no-nonsense fashion. And it has continued to solidify as the state’s three most powerful elected officials project a united front as lawmakers focus on bread-and-butter priorities like property taxes and school finance instead of divisive social issues championed by those hardline groups.

“The grassroots are NOT happy, but the electeds are absolutely sure they are wiser than we are and will not listen,” said Julie McCarty, president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, a prominent conservative group in North Texas, in an emailed statement to The Texas Tribune. “You know, we're just the little people ... What do we know?”

McCarty’s grassroots group and Empower Texans are just two of a host of conservative organizations that have, to varying degrees, criticized the Legislature — and in particular, the Republicans they typically align with — for the work done so far this year. Empower Texans — and its well-funded PAC — is known for playing in Republican primaries, as well as taking a position on certain votes, which the group uses to rank lawmakers “pro-” or “anti-taxpayer” on its “fiscal responsibility index.”

This year, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential right-leaning think tank, has also cast a skeptical look at GOP plans for budgeting and property tax reform.

Some House Freedom Caucus members insist that groups like Empower Texans don’t have a role in negotiations that take place under the pink dome and, hence, can’t understand completely the motivations behind casting votes on certain pieces of legislation. And success for the caucus, as member Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, put it, will be measured when the Legislature gavels out in a couple of months.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said.

That approach, a departure from what defined the Freedom Caucus during the 2017 legislative sessions, is partially due to new House leadership that’s pledged to give every member in the lower chamber a fair shake in the process, members said in the lead-up to session. For the caucus, at least so far, that’s meant signing off on legislation members may disagree with in the name of “good faith,” instead of casting “no” votes on a bill that’s bound to pass anyway — a sign of renewed hope that they’ll ultimately end up represented at the negotiating table.

It has also meant working out differences with colleagues behind the scenes instead of publicly burning bridges with proclaimed political enemies on the House floor.

Nowhere was that sense of unity more obvious than budget vote Wednesday night, when every House lawmaker signed onto the $251 billion proposal.

“We’re excited at our success tonight … with every member being a part of that,” House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, told reporters after a relatively tame, but still lengthy, marathon debate. “Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal — every member came together on how to make our budget be successful … [they] worked together to bring the budget home in a very positive way.”

Empower Texans’ outspoken leader had a different reaction.

“It felt like the Republicans have been turned French and equipped with a white flag,” Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan tweeted as lawmakers debated the budget. In an email to supporters the next morning, he lamented the size of the spending bill and its failure to deliver what he called “meaningful property tax relief” — but even more frustrating, he wrote, was “the failure of the Freedom Caucus to fight for it.”

The Freedom Caucus acknowledged after the vote that the current budget proposal isn’t ideal. But a handful of amendments the group successfully tacked onto the bill — such as one to ensure that a certain amount of dollars goes toward property tax relief, and another to secure $95 million for alternatives to abortion programs in the state — justified its stamp of approval.

“HB 1 is not perfect,” read a statement by state Rep. Mike Lang, a Granbury Republican and chair of the caucus, after the vote. “This vote was early in the process … [and] the passage of these amendments from Freedom Caucus members is a step in the right direction and an act of good faith.”

Despite that good faith, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said after casting his vote for the budget proposal, “it was a bad day for conservatives.”

“I hope it’s not a foreshadowing of the rest of the session or the final version of the budget,” he told an Empower Texans-affiliated radio show.

Beyond the budget, hardline conservatives are unhappy with lawmakers’ approach so far on their biggest issue of the session — property taxes — which critics on the right say has focused too much on reform and not enough on relief. The major tax bills in both chambers would slow the growth of property taxes, but not directly lower homeowners’ bills. Other proposals would have a more tangible impact by compressing school district tax rates or increasing the homestead exemptions, but some groups consider even those efforts insufficient.

“There seems to be an effort among some in Austin to try to redefine ‘tax relief,’ hoping taxpayers are too stupid to notice their property tax bills are continuing to rise. That would be a mistake,” Sullivan wrote in a March 25 email to supporters. “Rather than just deliver on their promises to limit government and give tax relief, some in the legislature are playing semantic games. They want taxpayers to accept ‘reform’ as a substitute for relief.”

“That dog don’t hunt,” he added.

In recent legislative sessions, hardline conservatives have gotten more traction in the Texas Senate than in the House. But this year, they seem to have lost the ear of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who in the past has been their most powerful ally.

Patrick, who embraces his reputation as the most conservative lieutenant governor in Texas history, has been known for the punishing pace at which he pushes conservative bills out of the Senate. But this session, he’s running his chamber at a more moderate clip, focusing on bread-and-butter issues over the headline-grabbing social issues that defined his tenure last session, and emphasizing the role of bipartisanship every chance he gets. The Senate is down one Republican member since last session, a loss that threatens Patrick’s ability to ram conservative priorities through his chamber.

“The elections are over, and in two more years there’ll be another time to talk about the differences between the parties,” he said at his January inauguration, two months after he won re-election with a margin a third as big as it had been in 2014. “But for right now, for the next 140 days, you expect us to do the work of the people.”

An early sign of daylight came during the first week of session, when Patrick declared that his side had already “won” a 2017 fight over a “bathroom bill” that would have limited transgender Texans’ access to certain public facilities. (The bill did not become law in 2017, and Patrick suggested it wouldn’t require the Legislature’s attention in 2019.) That remark came the same week that Texas Values, the hardline conservative group that pushed the bill two years ago, named it one of its three top priorities.

It was a similar story earlier this month when the Senate passed a supplemental budget proposal that would pour $9 billion into leftover expenses including Hurricane Harvey recovery — too much money, Empower Texans argued, calling for “no” votes.

When the bill came up for debate, Sen. Bob Hall — an Edgewood Republican who was elected with significant financial backing from Empower Texans — asked a few questions of its author, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. When she gently but firmly assured him that the budget was “a responsible, conservative-but-meeting-the-needs-we-need-to-meet budget,” he backed down and said he looked forward to collaborating further.

Ultimately, the supplemental budget bill passed unanimously, leaving hardline conservatives fuming.

“Missing [former Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville] and [former Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas] right now,” Empower Texans’ Cary Cheshire tweeted during the debate, lamenting the absence of two staunch conservative senators who lost in tight general election races last fall.

“It’s getting harder to remember Republicans actually still hold significant majorities in the Texas Senate and House,” tweeted Sullivan, whose group’s PAC has given Patrick over $850,000 in the past five years. “For now.”

Sherry Sylvester, a senior advisor to Patrick, defended the lieutenant governor’s record this session, saying “because of his record of standing firm on conservative principles, Texans know they can count on Lt. Governor Patrick.”

She added that “property tax relief is his top priority,” and the other 29 bills he’s marked — which range from abortion legislation to lawsuit reform — “are also conservative priorities.”

To be sure, the Senate has pushed some bills that have hardline groups celebrating, like a Patrick priority bill that would protect occupational license holders from losing their licenses for conduct they say was motivated by “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But the same groups have taken issue with other bills on Patrick’s priority list, in particular a proposal to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.

“Show of hands, who elected Republicans to the state legislature to prioritize raising the age to buy tobacco?” questioned Brandon Waltens, an employee of Texas Scorecard, a news outlet which is a product of Empower Texans.

The session is far from over, and there’s certainly still time for conservative activist groups to see more of their priorities championed.

Last session in late April, state Rep. Matt Schaefer, then chair of the Freedom Caucus, tacked on a last-minute amendment to a controversial immigration enforcement bill. That addition — criticized as a “show me your papers” provision by the left and celebrated by many on the right — is just one example of how hot-button conservative priorities could emerge unexpectedly in the session’s final days.

But for now, hardline conservatives remain dissatisfied.

“It is unfortunate that we are seeing Republicans go weak at the knees,” McCarty lamented.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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