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Texas Legislature 2019

“I’m still doing penance”: How Kel Seliger gets by in the Texas Senate dog house

After opposing leadership — and mouthing off — the second-most senior Republican in the Texas Senate is the only senator who was not recognized to bring up a bill for a vote on the floor.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, in the Senate chamber on April 11, 2019.

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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Toward the southwest corner of Kel Seliger’s sprawling Texas Senate district, in sparsely populated Andrews County, sits one of just four facilities in the country licensed to store certain types of radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste is tricky to manage, and to keep doing it, the facility occasionally requires help from its representatives at the Legislature — here, a law authorizing it to accept out-of-state waste; there, a measure recalibrating the fees charged for storing that waste.

This year, Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, filed a bill aimed at keeping the struggling facility financially solvent, fighting down fees he calls debilitating. But the proposal died for want of a vote by a midnight deadline Wednesday — the apparent casualty of a Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick grudge.

The second-most senior Republican in the Texas Senate — who has found himself out of Patrick’s favor after opposing the lieutenant governor’s priorities and making a memorably rude comment about one of Patrick’s top aides — is the only member of the upper chamber who was not recognized this session to bring any of his bills up for a vote on the Senate floor. Some senior Republicans lay out dozens of bills in the chamber each year; even freshmen Democrats have had several opportunities this year to bring their bills to the floor.

“It’s up to the lieutenant governor’s discretion to call who he wants, when he wants,” Seliger said in a recent interview in his spacious first-floor Capitol office. “He didn’t call me.”

Senators are each allotted a few spots on the Senate’s intent calendar — a list of bills eligible for consideration from which Patrick can choose. But Seliger’s bills languished there for days.

Never hearing his name called was “the beginning of the message,” Seliger said. Eventually, a clear message came, though never directly from the lieutenant governor: Patrick would not recognize him — not on the waste facility bill, not ever.

There’s no question in Seliger’s mind as to why his legislation seems to have been held up by the man wielding the gavel.

“We are not close,” he said wryly. “I’m still doing penance for 2017.”

That was the year Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s top priority bills — votes, he is convinced, that moved Patrick to ostracize Seliger and strip his leadership positions. Seliger is the only returning Republican who doesn’t chair a Senate committee, aside from one senator who voluntarily gave his up after an inconclusive sexual harassment inquiry. Patrick’s office has said Seliger is not being punished for his ideological positions.

Patrick, whose popularity as a conservative talk radio host fueled his political rise, seems to relish a fight, and his forceful personality has successfully steered the state’s agenda toward his party’s right flank. In 2015, during his first month leading the Senate, he effectively cut Democrats out of the conversation, clearing the way for Republicans to bring bills to the floor without bipartisan support. But he’s a fearful force for Republicans, too; an intraparty feud with him is a good way to suffocate popular legislation, as House Speaker Joe Straus learned in 2017.

Still, Seliger, a graduate of Panhandle public schools and Dartmouth College who predates Patrick in the Senate, has managed to finesse some of his ideas all the way to the governor’s desk.

Some of his bills have been tacked on as amendments to other lawmakers’ proposals. Other kernels of legislation he maneuvered into broader bills authored by colleagues in better standing with the boss. But the only bills he’s passed with his own name on them went through the Senate’s “local and uncontested” calendar — a docket of noncontroversial bills typically passed without debate during sparsely attended sessions. He passed nine measures out of the Senate that way — everything from a bill that renames the Southwest College for the Deaf to a measure that allows students to graduate high school even if they fail their exams, so long as a committee of their teachers agrees.

It wasn’t always easy to get those measures on the local calendar. With a timely blue card, any one senator can effectively axe a bill from the list, forcing it onto the more perilous intent calendar. One of Seliger’s bills got six “nays” when it was voted on — meaning there was more than enough opposition to boot it from the easy road, forcing it onto a path where Patrick might not let it succeed. A great deal of staff-to-staff negotiations — sometimes pleading — went into keeping the legislation on track.

Still, by limiting Seliger’s legislative leeway to the local calendar, Patrick could effectively prevent an ideological opponent from advancing anything remotely controversial, much the way Democrats are treated in the chamber. Some bills, for one reason or another, can’t be put on the local calendar — like Seliger’s bill for the Andrews waste facility, which had a heated hearing, was estimated to cost the state millions and had two “nay” votes in committee.

That measure is “not without controversy,” Seliger said, “but we were prepared to debate it.”

“This is important to Andrews County,” he said. “They get some pretty good cash flow off of it; it employs a couple hundred people, jobs that did not exist before. … I’m afraid if we don’t get this done, at some point, [the facility] will default.”

In a statement, the lieutenant governor’s office didn’t deny that it had kept Seliger from laying out bills on the floor.

“Senator Seliger did not bring that much legislation to the Senate this session and he did not speak to the Lt. Governor about any of his bills,” said Sherry Sylvester, senior advisor to Patrick. “Despite that, West Texas has a great legislative session as the Lt. Governor worked closely with Sen Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, on education, property tax relief, water and transportation.”

In the past, Patrick and Seliger had worked cordially as colleagues; in 2011, Patrick voted for two of Seliger’s local measures aimed at helping the Andrews facility. Then, in 2017, Seliger voted against a pair of the lieutenant governor’s top priorities, a bill aimed at restricting local governments' abilities to raise property taxes and a program similar to private school vouchers that would have subsidized private school tuition and homeschooling expenses.

This session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee — a post he had enjoyed, and an important one during a session in which West Texas was fighting to open a veterinary school in his hometown of Amarillo — as well as his seats on the budget-writing finance committee and the public education panel. Instead, Seliger was named chairman of a new, smaller committee on agriculture.

In a January interview with The Texas Tribune, Seliger called that reshuffling retribution for his votes two years ago. Sylvester, a top aide to the lieutenant governor, quickly shot back. That weekend, Seliger told a Lubbock radio host he had “a recommendation for Miss Sylvester and her lips and my back end.” By Tuesday, Patrick had revoked the chairmanship that had been Seliger’s consolation prize, a demotion Patrick said came in the wake of a “lewd comment … that has shocked everyone.” At the time, Seliger acknowledged he had been wrong to direct his comments at Sylvester instead of at Patrick.

Sylvester said this week that Seliger has yet to personally apologize to her. Patrick’s office has indicated that it was Seliger’s rude comment — not his votes — that set the tone between him and the lieutenant governor, stalling Seliger’s legislation. Democrats, after all, still pass bills in the Texas Senate.

But Seliger believes it’s his positions, not his crass comment, that have gotten him into trouble.

“This is not a kindergarten feud because I’ve not done anything to anybody else on the schoolyard,” he said. “This game includes everything. It includes statesmanship. It can include pettiness. It can include vindictiveness. Politics is made up of a lot of things, and I am not naive about that.”

He paused.

“I know more about it than I wish I did, but I’m not naive.”

If the tiff had involved two lawmakers with more pliable personalities, cooler heads might have prevailed by now. But Seliger is not one to grovel, and Patrick, it seems, does not easily forget.

As it was, the implications of the spat were obvious, even in January. In the Texas Senate, a bill needs a three-fifths vote — 19 of 31 senators — to come to the floor for debate, even though it needs only a simple majority to pass. Seliger is Patrick’s 19th Republican vote. But his conservatism does not always resemble Patrick’s.

And Seliger — who stopped riding motorcycles after an accident but still flies himself from Amarillo to Austin regularly after he ran his one-engine airplane into a chain-link fence in 2015 — is something of a mule.

“I don’t protest innocence of some stubbornness,” he said.

Seliger was the human hurdle obstructing Patrick’s top priority of the session: a property tax reform bill, tagged as a must by the governor and House speaker, that limits local governments’ abilities to raise taxes without voter approval. Seliger, a former Amarillo mayor who displays a Texas Municipal League “Legislator of the Year” plaque in his office even as “local control” has become a dirty phrase at the Capitol, called the measure “punitive.” For months, the bill sat rotting.

Seliger found himself uninvited to more than one meeting that included the rest of the Senate’s GOP Caucus. In radio interviews, Patrick repeatedly and not so subtly harangued Seliger, claiming, “We have 19 Republican senators; we have 18 votes.” It’s “frustrating,” Patrick told conservative radio host Mark Davis in April, “to have one Republican block the will of the people and even the will of their district.”

Finally, after Patrick threatened to blow past Senate tradition and force a vote on the bill with or without him, Seliger yielded his ground, allowing debate on the bill but voting against it.

“I am not voting in favor of this bill,” he declared at the end of a lengthy floor speech. “I am voting for the Texas Senate — for our traditions.”

It was his most prominent stand — the deepest his spurs ever dug into the Senate leader’s side — but hardly his only show of opposition.

He was the only Senate Republican to oppose a religious refusals bill that allows workers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their occupational licenses are at risk for workplace behavior, a measure LGBTQ advocates call a “license to discriminate.” (“When you’re the only Jew on the floor,” Seliger said, “it’s a different shade on your opinion” on discrimination.)

He was also the only member of his party to vote against a bill to ban red light cameras — “a local decision,” he said.

And Seliger was the only senator from either party to vote against the “Fido-Friendly Outdoor Dining Act” to allow pets on restaurant patios. (“I have all these phone calls: ‘You don’t like dogs.’ I love dogs! ‘You don’t like restaurants.’ I love restaurants! ‘You don’t like leashes.’ I love leashes!” he said. “I just think that is a local decision.”)

“I don’t know why anyone would want to vote against dog owners,” Patrick said in an interview in March.

Seliger, 65, describes himself as a Reagan conservative who’s stayed constant while his party — and the Senate — change around him. He’s remained a staunch ally of local governments even as they increasingly come into the crosshairs of Texas’ Republican-dominated Legislature. All the while, he’s had to navigate a tightly wound chamber whose rigid leader has declared him persona non grata.

That pressure plays out in different ways. Sometimes Seliger votes for bills he considers “despicable” to avoid appearing intransigent. (One was the 2017 “bathroom bill” that would have restricted transgender Texans’ access to certain public facilities.) Sometimes he consoles himself — with the guidance of his lawyer colleagues — that courts are likely to strike down troubling bills anyway. Sometimes he stands on principle and suffers the consequences.

“I’m trying to strike a balance,” he said. “I realize that it’s not really a balance. But sometimes you have to hold your nose.”

Seliger won reelection in 2018 and says it’s too soon to decide whether he’ll run again in 2022. If he does, he’s all but certain to draw a primary challenger from the party’s right flank. In 2018, he handily beat down two Republican opponents, one of whom had on his campaign staff Allen Blakemore, who also works as political strategist for Patrick. (Patrick has said he played no role in the Seliger race.)

Fear of that inevitable challenge, or of leadership, doesn’t tempt Seliger to change his votes, he insists. But “there’s always things I can do differently,” he said.

For example: “I don’t have to express to a member of the lieutenant governor’s staff exactly how I feel about something,” he said. So his candid — some would say “crude”— commentary may change — “a little bit,” he said.

“Only a little bit.”

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League 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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