From the moment that the votes were counted in the Republican primary last spring, it was clear that one of the themes of this session would be Dan Patrick’s campaign to build himself into a statewide candidate in 2010 and David Dewhurst’s efforts to stop him. Like boxing, this is a contest that doesn’t have a scoreboard, but if I were a judge, I’d score the fight as going Patrick’s way. Yes, he suffered a knockdown in round 1, when he challenged the Senate’s 2/3 “rule” and got no votes other than his own. But he has been landing lots of jabs, and he’s almost impossible to hit. He’s the Republican Eliot Shapleigh–and I mean that as a compliment. The role that Shapleigh has chosen for himself is to change the intellectual framework of Texas politics. You can kick him off the Finance Committee, as Dewhurst did, and you can kill his legislation, as the Senate does, but you can’t prevent him from making his point that Texas is at the very bottom of the list of states when it comes to addressing the needs of its citizens. He is ineffective inside the rail, but outside the rail he makes point. Here is a recent e-mail he sent to Texas Monthly:

“So what does Texas look like after a decade under leaders who value tax cuts for the wealthy over good schools for children? Here it is. First in unisured, last in graduation rates. Last in clean air, first in sub prime loans. It is this basic conflict in values that drives the vote on SJR 13 [Averitt’s stillborn constitutional amendment to let the public vote to approve the property tax cuts]. Dewhurst wants to bank the 2010–2011 tax cuts (93% of which goes to people who make over $83,000) before restoring CHIP or Texas grants.”

Dan Patrick is the same person on the other end of the political spectrum, only where Shapleigh is an intellectual, Patrick is a populist demagogue (I know that’s a loaded word; I use it in the dictionary definition of “a speaker who seeks to make capital of social discontent and gain political influence”) on the subject of taxes and government spending. Like Shapleigh, he doesn’t care about being a member of the club, and he too stays on message 24/7/365. But his message is the opposite: that Texas government is too big and spends too much and that taxpayers and homeowners are the worse for it. I don’t want to carry the Shapleigh-Patrick comparison too far; Patrick is far more skilled at using the media to get his message out. As a radio talk show host, he has been able to build an impregnable constituency in the Houston area. He understands political theater. Even his press releases convey passion and eloquence. Whether he can make the leap to the big-time in four years remains to be seen. He will have to raise his name recognition in the Dallas area, and he will have to raise a ton of money–at least $20 million to run for governor–and it’s possible that Dewhurst, or perhaps Perry on behalf of, say, Roger Williams, could prevent that. But so far, five weeks into his political career, I think he’s been very smart about when to take the offensive.

Here is Patrick’s take on Dewhurst’s performance in the recent battle in the Senate over lifting the spending cap, excerpted from his press release:

THE RUSH AND THE PRECEDENT: Prior to the beginning of Wednesday’s session, the members of the Senate did not get a chance to review SCR 20 prior to voting. SCR 20 was introduced that morning and we were voting on it before lunch. The consideration of the resolution did not allow for a committee hearing, witness testimony or public reaction. Yes, SJR 13 (a related measure) was considered in committee, but we shouldn’t allow a last minute “bait and switch” with an entirely separate piece of legislation. The reason for the last minute switch was obvious. Proponents abandoned a doomed constitutional amendment path when it was obvious the votes weren’t there to overcome the 2/3rds threshold. A path of least resistance, with no allowance for public input, was substituted in an effort to salvage the plan.

What kind of precedent are we setting? By a ruling of the presiding officer, the Senate can take up a SCR on the floor without any other member knowing its effect on state government or its policies. A converse example is worth considering, in the 78th Legislature, the Senate considered SCR 1 requesting Congress to restore the deductibility of sales taxes for income tax purposes. This SCR had no effect on general law or policies of the state and every member of the Senate signed on as a co-author; however, it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee prior to being considered on the Senate floor. Wednesday’s actions have set a perturbing precedent and a record of such has now been recorded in the Senate journal. While I doubt we would ever suffer the harmful effects of this new precedent with our current Lt. Governor what about future presiding officers? Why did SCR 20 have to be rushed? There was no impending deadline that had to be met, no budget up for consideration. No need to rush and no need to create this precedent.

Round Two to Patrick. While I have written that Dewhurst acted within the rules in determining that the matter was procedural and therefore was arguably not subject to the 2/3 rule, technicalities are one thing and the big picture is another. Patrick’s position is not just demagogy; it is well researched and it makes a point that is hard to argue with. Would you want to be David Dewhurst going up against Dan Patrick in a forum before Republican voters on this matter? Patrick will say that Dewhurst silenced the voice of the people who wanted to protest lifting the spending cap.

Here’s another excerpt from the press release, this one about the 2/3 rule, of which I have been a strong proponent. But Patrick is dead right in asserting that Dewhurst uses it as a matter of convenience, finding a way around it when it suits his needs, as he did in redistricting and in lifting the spending cap. Again, notice how well crafted Patrick’s argument is:

THE 2/3 RULE/BLOCKER BILL. Much has been said about how the blocker bill (or the 2/3rds rule) brings about consensus. Hogwash! Wednesday, the vote counters could not overcome the 2/3rds block to consider the Constitutional Amendment. So an alternative was crafted. The alternative was not an effort to seek consensus, rather to find a way to pass a monumental and historical reclassification of spending with a simple majority vote. Frankly, I agree we should be able to pass legislation with a simple majority. But for now, majority rule is reserved for just a couple things – congressional redistricting and reclassifying $14 billion in spending as not spending.

Make no mistake; we busted the spending cap on Valentine’s Day of 2007. This time it was to allow the state to pay for the “Great Tax Shift of 2006.” Next year, we will have at least $14 billion in new money to fight over. Will the taxpayers come out on top or will the “needs” of the state prevail? I don’t have confidence in government to do the right thing when it comes to lowering the overall tax burden on its citizens. There is a long track record to support my skepticism.

It has been said that my vote against SCR 20 was because I don’t understand the budget. It is true – I don’t understand why we are hell-bent on spending 17% more in this budget than the last. I don’t understand how we can tell people, with a straight face, we have cut taxes when the overall tax burden has actually increased. The taxpayers don’t understand either, and they are the ones paying for the lessons.

One press release does not a gubernatorial contender make. But it does suggest that the conventional wisdom about dismissing Patrick as a force to be reckoned with needs to be reconsidered. He has to be taken seriously a critic of business as usual. Another indication was segment on a Houston TV station that was touted as an investigative report of local governments that were spending millions of dollars to hire lobbyists to represent them in Austin. I don’t have to tell you who was the first person interviewed, do I? Nor do I have to tell you what the lobbyists were hired to fight. That’s right. Dan Patrick and appraisal caps. Patrick’s closing line was, “Government is supposed to protect the taxpayers, not harm the taxpayers.” If you missed it, just wait until the 2010 GOP primary.

In short, Dan Patrick isn’t trying to pass bills. He’s trying to generate sound bites and TV spots. That puts him beyond the reach of Dewhurst’s power over the Senate.