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Abbott on the Knife Edge of Success/Failure

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Although Governor Greg Abbott has suffered national embarrassment over his pandering to conspiracy theorists over the military exercise Jade Helm, Abbott is poised to have a very successful first legislative session as governor. The only potential pitfall is the impasse over taxes between Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the House, a conflict that could force the budget into special session this summer.

House members are rattling the chains of the ghost of session future by noting that if there is a special session this summer, Comptroller Glenn Hegar will have to issue a new revenue estimate and it might be lower than the estimate lawmakers currently are using to write the final budget. In other words, there might be less money available for spending or tax cuts if the session lapses into the summer.

I ran into Hegar earlier today, and he told me the revenue estimate remains “on track.” He noted there were $2.3 billion in sales tax collections in April, up 1.1 percent from April 2014. Hegar said that’s not an exciting increase but is about what his office was expecting when he made the current revenue estimate in January. Things could change if the oil industry shuts down completely, he said, but “the numbers are still right on track.”

That gets us back to the standoff over House sales tax cuts versus Senate property tax cuts. While there’s still plenty of time to resolve the issue, the lobby is not optimistic because there are political benefits to Patrick in legislative failure. Patrick would be in a position to tell his constituents he stood firm for a property tax cut and could blame the session’s failure on a lack of leadership by Abbott.

The governor in his state of the state address seemed to take a hard stand in favor of property tax cuts: “I will also insist on property tax reduction. It’s time for property owners – not government – to truly own their property.” But then last month, Abbott refused to take sides in the House/Senate dispute on what tax cuts would be best for the state. “The good news about Texas, which is different than other states, is now we are having a robust discussion about other ways to reduce taxes,” Abbott said.

That waffle reduced Patrick’s bargaining position, but he keeps pointing to Abbott’s first statement as a sign that the governor is on his side. The House also strengthened its hand by passing its sales tax bill 146-0 last week.

With such a big crash possible, you might ask why I say Abbott is headed to a successful legislative session. So let’s look at some of the other items on his agenda.

1.The Legislature has sent him the bill he wanted overturning Denton’s ban on oil and gas drilling in the city limits.

2.The Senate today is supposed to take up Abbott’s proposed expansion of pre-kindergarten programs in Texas. At one point, there was talk that Patrick would push to have a private school voucher program added to the bill, but Abbott has gotten Patrick to back down.

3.Abbott’s desire to eliminate the Emerging Technology Fund to create the University Research Initiative passed the Senate and also was added as language in HB 26 last week.

4.Transportation proposals to dedicate part of the motor vehicles sales tax to highway construction are now in a House/Senate conference committee.

Several areas remain iffy for the governor. At least seven bills are in limbo because of the House and Senate differences. Each chamber has passed its own open carry handgun bill, as well as their own versions of border security and moving the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County district attorney’s office.

An ethics bill sought by Abbott received approval from the Senate, but it is far weaker than what Abbott sought. Ethics legislation is moving slowly in the House. But if anything passes, Abbott will claim victory.

The memory of Abbott telling the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military as it executes its Jade Helm exercise will fade quickly. What will last in Texas politics is the question of whether Abbott’s first legislative session was a success across his agenda or a failure to pass a tax cut.

(AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)

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