As the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott turned suing the Obama Administration into an art form. He doggedly investigated mail in voter fraud in an effort to prove vote fraud was widespread. He defended Republican-drawn redistricting plans for the Legislature and Congress against Democratic claims that they violated minority voting rights. He had a reputation for reading every major lawsuit that came out of his agency. Whether you agreed with Abbott’s policies or not, there was a widespread consensus that he ran a pretty good law firm.
As we pass the halfway point of Abbott’s second legislative session as governor, the conventional wisdom among legislators and lobbyists is that Abbott and his staff have been pretty ineffective in dealings with the Legislature.
First, in Abbott’s defense, the Texas Constitution makes the governor legislatively weak with limited powers. That’s because our current Constitution was written in 1875, just two years after Reconstruction Governor Edmund Davis barricaded himself in his Capitol office surrounded by state police, refusing to admit he had lost re-election. Davis pleaded with President Ulysses S. Grant to send federal troops to keep him in office, and Grant refused. Just eight years earlier, the post-Civil War military commander over Texas, General Phil Sheridan, had removed elected Governor James Throckmorton from office as an “impediment to reconstruction” and replaced him with a more compliant Elisha M. Pease. So to the men who wrote the state foundation document in 1875, a strong governor was equated with dictatorship and possible federal over-reach.
In recent decades, the governor’s power has expanded with ever increasing control of the growing state bureaucracy. Governors Ann Richards, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry repeatedly convinced the Legislature that various state agencies should respond to the governor more like a presidential cabinet than as independent fiefdoms.
But in the governor’s dealings with the Legislature, the rules adopted by the convention of 1875 still apply. The governor’s power is limited. To pass bills, he or she must win the favor of legislators one by one and keep attention on their items by using the bully pulpit, the news media, and the power of personality. Abbott does not seem to understand the old Texas saying: You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Of the past six governors, Abbott has been the least available to the news media, and his interactions with the Legislature have been marked less by charm than by becoming angry when he does not get his way.
The most recent example was Abbott’s confrontation with Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson over proposed cuts to the governor’s signature program: Pre-K education. During his state of the state address in January, Abbott chided lawmakers by saying he was “perplexed” by starting-point state budgets that did not fully fund high quality Pre-K. “Let’s do this right. Or don’t do it as all.” They apparently took him at his word.
Abbott pushes back against lawmakers targeting pre-K funding
In revising their budgets, both the Senate and House eliminated proposed funding for Abbott’s initiative—the Senate doing so on Wednesday night as it worked to finalize its version of the state’s two-year budget.
That prompted an irritated Abbott to make an impromptu face-to-face plea with the Senate’s chief budget writer, Jane Nelson, leading to an abrupt shift by her committee the following morning to restore less than half the funding.
The state is currently spending $118 million for the governor’s high-quality pre-K program in the 2016-17 school year, an amount that Abbott wants doubled for the two-year budget that starts Sept. 1. After initially including $150 million in the proposed biennial budget, senators cut funding for the program Wednesday night. After the chairwoman’s visit from the governor, the panel reversed course and budgeted $65 million for the program, leaving no money for additional forms of pre-K spending.
Two years ago, I reported that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick left a breakfast with Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus complaining that they were picking on him. It resulted in Patrick becoming the brunt of some jokes, but the comment was prompted by an outburst of complaint—a tongue lashing as some described it—from Abbott that Patrick’s Senate was not backing his pre-K package. The problem for both the House and the Senate was that many social conservatives opposed expanding pre-K education, but Abbott’s staff told lawmakers that if they backed it, he would help them in their reelection campaigns. But when it came time for Abbott to pay the piper in the 2016 elections, he was nowhere to be found:
Analysis: Can Abbott assemble an army for this session’s pre-K fight?
Abbott started his legislative push for early education as he took the governor’s office two years ago, asking lawmakers to put some money into pre-K and telling nervous state representatives, in particular, that he would back them during the 2016 election season if they were challenged for helping a program that counts many social conservatives among its critics.
They went along, putting the money into the programs — in spite of pushback from some social conservatives who aren’t crazy about pre-K. To hear many of them tell it, the governor wasn’t there when they called for help. They’re holding it against him.
Ramsey went on to note that Patrick may be no more successful in his efforts to pass the bathroom bill regulating bathroom access in government buildings to the biological gender listed on birth certificates. But Patrick is partnering with conservative Christian groups to push his bill, while Abbott does not appear to have done anything to rally the education community to support him on pre-K.
Even if Patrick loses on this year’s attempt to pass that bill, he will have assembled supporters he will need when he seeks re-election next year.
Like Abbott, the lieutenant governor might lose the inside game. Unlike the governor, Patrick has an outside game, too.
Recently I wrote a story on Patrick supporting funding for one of the programs in the governor’s office, incentives for the film and gaming industry to operate in Texas. It’s really a tax rebate program, but is opposed by some tea party conservatives. The program had $95 million in one two-year budget that was then cut to $32 million for the current budget, and now is down to $10 million in the proposed House budget and $3.7 million in the Senate’s. When I tried to get a response to a conservative senator’s complaint about the program from Abbott’s communications shop, I was told to file an open records request. That’s a lawyer’s response, not a politician’s.
If Abbott’s relationship with the Senate seems strained, it apparently is no better in the Texas House:
Governor’s silence on hot issues leaves House lawmakers in no mood to play nice
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Maybe it’s a debilitating allergy to political risk, or maybe it’s plain-old smart governing.
Whatever you call it, Gov. Greg Abbott’s deafening silence on controversial issues that are roiling the Capitol hallways has left lawmakers on the western half of the pink dome — the Texas House — in no mood to play nice.
Grumbling in the Texas House about Abbott’s laissez-faire leadership is morphing into legislative backlash. The House has zeroed out Abbott’s priorities in the two-year state budget and seems in no rush to approve most of the governor’s designated emergency items.
While there is a certain wisdom to a governor staying out of the legislative process as much as possible, Abbott has just been missing in action on many issues. While in December he made a comment about not wanting men in women’s bathrooms, he also has not publicly taken a stand on Patrick’s bathroom bill, which is widely opposed by the state’s business community and LGBT rights activists. While pushing his fight against “sanctuary cities” that don’t fully cooperated with Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement agents on deporting undocumented immigrants accused of crimes, Abbott also has waffled on whether the state should end the program allowing undocumented students who have graduated from a Texas high school to pay in-state tuition to attend a college or university. He told lawmakers in January that he did not want any “looting” of the state’s rainy day fund to balance the budget without defining what he meant. The fund is likely to hit $11 billion by the end of the next budget cycle, and rather than hoard the money, House leaders want to use part of it to make up a revenue shortfall for the upcoming two years. If the House gets its way, will Abbott veto the budget?
Meanwhile, the governor appeared at a conference in Corpus Christi and sent mixed signals on how far the state should go in blocking local government control. There have been some legitimate struggles between the state and local governments in recent years, such as whether a local government can ban oil and gas drilling inside a city limits, or ban plastic grocery bags, or regulate ride-sharing services, or pass local nondiscrimination ordinances. But Abbott proposed what the Corpus Christi Caller-Times called a Big Brother approach to governance, and the Austin American-Statesman labeled as imprudent. As reported by the Texas Tribune‘s Patrick Svitek, Abbott said:
“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach,” Abbott said Tuesday during a Q&A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.
Such an approach, Abbott added, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”
The governor did not really define what he meant, but consider this: The state Department of Health Services, licenses and inspects restaurants wherever cities and counties do not. Most Texas restaurants are regulated by the cities. Whenever a big box retailer wants a curb cut for vehicle egress to its property, that is governed by a local regulation. For those municipalities with zoning, that is a local regulation of business. There are local regulations about construction that deal with local issues of rainwater runoff. If the state didn’t have enough budget problems already, imagine taking over all those regulatory functions that affect business. Maybe the governor had something specific in mind. If he did, he didn’t say it.
However, I have to note that Abbott met this morning with President Trump. Several governors earlier this week had a conference call with the president to discuss their worries over his budget’s affect on their states. Together with Abbott, Trump announced that Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge had committed the company to investing $25 billion in the United States with the intention of creating 20,000 jobs, including a new call center in McAllen. It’s worth noting that the Charter plans were in the works long before Trump took office; the company announced plans for the McAllen call center last August, according to the Statesman. Still, Abbott told Trump he is doing what he promised—bringing American jobs home.
In the department of State Regulators Just Want to Have More Fun, the Texas Tribune’s Jay Root has a story on state liquor regulators getting schmoozed by the liquor industry at conferences in San Diego and Hawaii, with both the industry and the taxpayers picking up the tab.
No agency can kill a buzz quicker than the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, but behind the scenes state liquor regulators have shown they know how to party — all on the tab of taxpayers and members of an industry they oversee.
Consider the boozy junket the top TABC brass took to San Diego in the summer of 2015 — depicted in a humorous illustration officials created during work hours at the agency. It portrays agency director Sherry Cook, licensing chief Amy Harrison, a TABC analyst and an agency contractor riding in a plane while holding or guzzling from bottles of Lone Star Beer.
“Here we come California!” reads the caption above the doctored picture. “Woo Hoo!!!”
For the details and a bit of outrage, read the whole story.