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Texas Legislature 2021

Analysis: A call for unity in government — in Texas, two years ago

State leaders started their last legislative session, in 2019, with a call for unity. By their measure, they got what they set out to accomplish. They’re back to normal this year — not at odds, but not singing “Kumbaya,” either.

Governor Greg Abott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen pet Pancake, the governor’s dog after …

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Unity might seem like the political word of the day after its place at center stage in President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, but Texas officeholders were singing the same song two years ago.

Remember? Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and then-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen gathered at a table on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to talk about how they were locking arms to take on education and other serious issues, to ignore distractions and to have a “meat-and-potatoes session.”

Even the governor’s dog, Pancake, was there for the photo op.

That was news, in part, because it was unusual.

We appear to be back to normal now. They’re not squabbling, but the tight unity of two years ago hasn’t been evident in the legislative session that started this month.

The governor is busy cozying up to law enforcement and making war with Austin and other cities. The lieutenant governor is lobbying health officials about who should be at the front of the line for the limited number of coronavirus vaccines — an effort that puts him, gently but clearly, at odds with the governor, whose health advisers expanded eligibility despite the supply problems.

Dade Phelan, the new guy at the helm of the House, is busy figuring out which members will be doing which jobs on which committees in his newly organized chamber.

It’s not that the top three state officials are going to disagree on much — just that it’s not a unified front this time. And it marks a change in what has sometimes seemed to be a one-man government. When the Legislature was out of session, the response to the pandemic was centered in the governor’s office. There are more actors onstage now, including the legislators and their leaders.

The big issues facing the Legislature and the executive branch during this year’s session include COVID-19, the economy and the state budget, law enforcement practices, racial justice, and redistricting. But the approaches might be different.

Abbott has dealt with the pandemic largely on his own since last March, with the Legislature out of session, out of sight and out of mind. Now lawmakers are back to grade his paper, to talk about his powers and — for some of them — to try to make sure legislators will have a say in the next emergency.

One immediate problem is vaccine rationing — the constant shifts, in the face of vaccine shortages, of who is eligible and who ought to be first in line to get their shots.

Patrick jumped into that conversation with a letter to health officials that seeks some revisions in the governor’s rollout plans. The governor has opened eligibility to front-line health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, Texans who are 65 years and older, and those who are younger but have certain chronic medical conditions. The lieutenant governor suggested giving priority to subgroups — people older than 74, for example — and putting the others temporarily on hold.

Patrick is still playing nice, complimenting Abbott’s leadership at the end of his letter to health officials, but he’s not on the same page.

Outside, the state’s attorney general has picked up a figurative megaphone, first to mark his general position in opposition to the new administration in Washington. The next day, he was more specific, taking a hard line on federal immigration policy and promising to put the power of the state’s legal office behind that effort.

“When the @JoeBiden admin breaks the law, I take action,” Ken Paxton tweeted on his state account late Thursday. “I have told @DHSgov to immediately rescind its illegal, unconscionable deportation freeze — or TX will sue. As AG, I will always put Americans, Texans first — not dangerous aliens who must be deported!”

He was good to his word, filing his first lawsuit against the new administration Friday.

This would not be a jarring headline: “Republicans leading the Texas government oppose policies of Democrats leading the federal government.” Dogs bite people all the time; expecting unity in that relationship might qualify as irrational optimism.

The start of the legislative session is a different story, especially after leaders’ harmony in the 2019 session produced their desired results, and did it smoothly.

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