As the special legislative session came to a sudden conclusion Tuesday night, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick walked away from the almost $1 million taxpayer investment without passing either of his signature issues.
Patrick closed the regular session by taking legislation to renew the state agency that issues medical licenses hostage, ultimately so he could force a special session on transgender bathroom use and property tax restrictions on the state’s cities and counties. In the special session, he demonstrated his near total control of the Senate by jamming eighteen of Governor Greg Abbott’s priorities for the special session through the upper chamber in a matter of days. Still, both of the bills failed.
The best Patrick could do was force the House to eat humble pie on a school finance bill that fell far short of the $1.8 billion representatives wanted to spend on public schools to slow the increase in local property taxes. The Senate amended the bill to take out the largest chunk of the House spending on school district tax relief, but did include a fifteen-member commission to study the state’s schools for the next two years.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the House expressed that the bill did not do enough financially for the school districts of Texas or in providing tax relief to homeowners hit with large property tax bills. “To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” said bill author Representative Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican. Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, urged her colleagues to vote against the bill. “I’m one person who doesn’t like being run over by the Senate,” she said. “I don’t like bullies.” The House sent the bill to the governor on a largely partisan 94-46 vote.
Straus blamed the Senate for inadequacies in the school funding bill. “After lengthy discussions with the Senate over several days, it became clear that sending the bill to the governor was our best option,” Straus said in a statement. “In its final form, this bill does not do nearly enough to help public education, but it does take some steps in the right direction.”
The biggest winners in House Bill 21’s passage are Texas’s retired teachers, whose health insurance program had been shortchanged $212 million when an overhaul plan was adopted in the regular session. Multiple representatives cited the potential funding loss as a reason for pushing the bill through.
Not long after it passed, Huberty made a motion to adjourn the House to conclude the session “in memory of House Bill 21.” Straus quickly gaveled the motion through. Some of the most conservative House members claimed later that Straus ignored their objections to the motion. The House Republican Caucus is meeting Wednesday morning at the request of the Freedom Caucus to discuss a requirement that the caucus elect the speaker, and if the session had lasted another day they might have been able to bring their fight to the floor to embarrass Straus, even if they could not knock him out of office.
Straus has been repeatedly elected and re-elected since 2009 with a coalition of Democrats and Republican allies. In two recent procedural votes, a slight majority of the House Republican caucus voted to overturn Straus’s rulings, though he prevailed due to the strength of his coalition. Because Straus kept the bathroom bill bottled up so that it would not come to a floor vote, social conservatives have been ginning up an “oust Straus” movement for next year’s Republican party primaries. In a post-session news conference, Patrick poured gasoline on those fires. “Thank goodness [William B.] Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo,” Patrick said. “He might have been the first one over the wall.”
Patrick blamed Straus and his leadership team for his agenda’s failure. “With 27 hours to go, they walked off the job,” Patrick said. In particular, Patrick was angry over a bill he wanted to require automatic tax rollback elections if a local city or county raised taxes by more than 4 percent. Currently, the rollback is triggered at 8 percent and only occurs if voters petition to hold an election. The House had amended the bill to allow for a rollback at 6 percent. The Senate objected and asked for a conference committee. When the House adjourned, it left the Senate in a take-it-or-leave-it posture. Patrick said the Senate refused to approve the House amendments because they had turned the bill into “a pile of mush.”
Still, the bathroom bill was Patrick’s marquee issue of 2017, backed by evangelical ministers. Businesses in the entertainment and hotel industry worried that it would create a backlash much like a similar bill did in North Carolina last year. Eventually, the LGBT community also was joined in its opposition by tech companies and the oil and gas industry, all of which feared the image of discrimination would make it difficult to attract talented employees to move to the state.
Patrick’s initial bargaining chip to force a special session—the medical board bill—passed, as did limitations on city annexations, an extension of the maternal mortality task force, and enhanced penalties for mail-in ballot fraud. “Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman.
Abbott could call another special session on bathrooms and taxes, but Patrick and members of the Senate spoke as if the legislative battle is done for this year. “It’s not going away. It’s going to be a campaign issue,” Patrick said, referring to the party primaries next spring.
However, a three-judge federal court on Tuesday declared that two congressional districts—district 27, held by Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, and district 35, held by Lloyd Doggett of Austin—violate the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act because they dilute the voting strength of Hispanic voters and must be redrawn. That can either be done by the Legislature in special session or by the court. The court also is expected to rule that portions of a state House district map also violate the law. Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated he will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would call a special session just to save Farenthold. But if the judges indicate a desire to redraw the state House in such a way to weaken social conservatives while enhancing the power of Democrats or Straus, there will be pressure on Abbott to get state Republican map drawers out in front on a new proposal for the Texas House.