Abbott’s Politically Risky Special Session
The strengths and weaknesses shown in Abbott’s call for a special session.
Television cameras in the press conference room formed a tripod wall between Governor Greg Abbott and the Capitol journalists as he announced a special legislative session for July 18. Throughout the regular session, Abbott isolated himself from the legislative process—and as he delivered his call, the cameras insulated him once again. There would be no reporter questions to disrupt his message. He put forth the image of a man in charge, calling lawmakers back together on a twenty-item agenda. At the top was legislation to renew five regulatory agencies that are set to expire, including the one that licenses doctors.
In calling a special session with a broad array of issues, it was a show of strength—but also a demonstration of weakness. Abbott’s strength was using the power of his office to call the session and set the agenda. It also revealed his lack of leadership, because almost everything on Abbott’s list was something that might have passed in the regular legislative session if he had simply engaged lawmakers instead of sitting on the sideline until it was too late for the bills’ salvation. Abbott also set himself up for a potential pratfall if little to nothing on his list reaches his desk in the course of the thirty-day session. He now he owns this list of legislative priorities. Passage is as much up to him as it is the legislative leadership.
And his agenda for this special session is ambitious. Abbott promised a range of items, including overturning local ordinances that ban discrimination against people because of sexual orientation or identity. But his war on local government did not stop there. He also asked for bills overturning local regulations on using mobile devices in cars, on protecting trees, annexing land into a city, and how cities and counties raise taxes. Additionally, he wants a crackdown on mail-in ballot fraud, and he promised a pay raise for teachers that would cost the state $700 million to implement, all while putting off homeowner public school property tax relief for two years.
Without naming him, Abbott put the blame for the special session squarely on Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who had held up the legislation renewing the five state regulatory agencies—item number one on Abbott’s list. “A special session was entirely avoidable, and there was plenty of time for the legislature to forge compromises to avoid the time and taxpayer expense of a special session. As governor, if I am going to call a special session, I intend to make it count,” Abbott said at the announcement.
If you need further evidence that Abbott blames Patrick, the governor said at the press conference that he would not add anything to the special session call until after the Senate approves the only must-have legislation: renewing the state regulatory agencies. Patrick—who wanted to force a special session so he could pass his transgender bathroom policy and roll back property tax elections for cities and counties—has almost complete control of the Senate. Abbott’s marquee legislation is the only leverage he has to force another special session on his top two priorities. During the regular session, Patrick pledged to force a special session “again and again and again” until the bathroom bill passed. Once the agency renewal legislation is out of the Senate, Patrick will have no obvious way to force another special session.
Patrick was collegial in a statement he issued. “I want to congratulate Governor Abbott for his big and bold special session agenda, which solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas,” he wrote. “Almost every issue he addressed today passed the Senate during the regular session and I am confident the senators are ready to hit the ground running to move these issues forward.”
On the bathroom legislation, Abbott specifically said he supported House Bill 2899, which never got out of the House State Affairs Committee. That bill did not regulate bathroom use based on biological sex, as the Senate version did, but it would have overturned local nondiscrimination ordinances for people not in a class protected by federal law. Federal law does not protect people based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or whether they are a military veteran.
Over on the House side, Speaker Joe Straus, if he’s willing to take the heat, can simply not refer legislation on bathrooms or vouchers or tax rollbacks to a committee for a hearing. In other words, he could make a speaker pocket veto. The House also could approve the Senate legislation on renewing the agencies and then adjourn sine die, without another day—a unilateral end to the session. Between Democrats and rural Republicans who don’t want private school vouchers or property tax restrictions on local government, the votes would be there for such a drastic maneuver.
So long as the legislature is in session, the pressure will be on House Republicans. As presiding officer of the Senate, Patrick will be able to quickly send the legislation to the House. But on two separate votes during the regular session, the House voted against private school vouchers. The House also demonstrated a desire to start working on public school property tax reform, which Patrick said they needed more time to do. Abbott proposed creating a task force to study the issue between now and the 2019 regular session. That means little relief for property owners with rapidly rising appraisals. Instead, Abbott and Patrick are focusing on the far less significant restriction of property taxes that pay for city and county governments.
Presumably, Abbott said he would put his nineteen items on the call so Patrick would not hector him over bathrooms. And if everything else fails, he just blames the Legislature. Inescapable, though, is the fact Abbott was not a player for most of the regular session, as was pointed out in a New York Times profile on Monday: “Why is he so hands-off?” asked Julie McCarty, the president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party in the Fort Worth area. “Is that what his dream was, to become governor of the greatest state in the nation so that he could sit out on everything?” The story ended with Abbott defending his lack of legislative engagement: “’The governor’s job is far bigger than just a legislative session,’” Mr. Abbott said. ‘Most of my time is devoted to being the CEO of Texas, not being involved in a legislative session.’”
So a day after that story ran, Abbott gathered the state news media in to the governor’s press conference room, protected from questions by a wall of cameras, where he outlined his twenty-item agenda for the special session. If a substantial number pass, Abbott can rightfully claim a mantel of leadership. If they fail, blaming the Legislature may not be enough to save his reputation.