House Speaker Joe Straus tried to give Governor Greg Abbott last week a “realistic assessment” of how the governor’s twenty-item special session agenda will fare in the House. His thoughts? Not well. “The twenty-for-twenty thing has never been a consideration for us,” Straus told Texas Monthly on Monday.
With ten days left to go in the special legislative session, the House and Senate are largely facing the stalemate they had at the end of the regular legislative session. The Senate and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are demanding bills limiting transgender access to bathrooms and major restrictions on local governments and tax increases, plus other hot-button items. The House, meanwhile, is concentrating on public school finance reform, salvaging teacher retirement healthcare, and paying for therapy for disabled children. Abbott’s call for the special leaned toward Patrick and the social conservative agenda, telling the Austin American-Statesman on Friday that he was optimistic that the session would end with a “Texas that I consider to be far better, more conservative, that will continue the Texas model for conservative governance.”
But in recent weeks, technology companies and oil and gas industry leaders as well as the police chiefs in the state’s major cities have come out against the so-called bathroom bill. City mayors, including some from Republican areas, have expressed frustration with Abbott over property tax legislation he supports, which they believe will harm local growth. In short, the people and industries who once called the shots at the Legislature are now having to fight against a social conservative agenda that they see as potentially harmful to the state’s economic future.
We chatted with Straus about the progress of the special session, and what the House priorities are as the session winds down.
R.G. Ratcliffe: Molly Ivins used to say the business of the Legislature is business. In the course of the regular legislative session and now in the special session, we’ve seen the tech industry, the Texas Association of Business, the oil and gas interests, the police chiefs, the city mayors come out against…
Joe Straus: Educators, leaders of major law firms.
RGR: How has this Legislature gotten so divorced from the community leaders?
JS: I see those voices speaking out more clearly and more consistently, especially in the special session, and making a tremendous difference in what we’re doing. So I see it as a very positive thing. A lot of business leaders and a lot of business voices in this state have realized that they were losing influence, and so they’ve stepped up here in the past several weeks.
RGR: How did we get to this position? What has gone on in state government to get us here?
JS: A lot of it, a lot of why we are where we’ve been, is because too many of our political leaders have focused on divisive social issues instead of focusing on meeting the challenges that are very real facing the state. I see that beginning to change some. That’s a positive thing.
RGR: How is it changing?
JS: Because of the increased engagement of business leaders who I think were taking the “Texas miracle” a little bit for granted. Political leaders were taking it for granted too.
RGR: Has anything made you feel like it has changed for the governor?
JS: This governor or any governor has to be connected to what is happening in the economy and those who are most responsible in the private sector for making growth in the economy happen.
RGR: What is the ultimate end here?
JS: We’ve made some progress. I respect the authority the governor has to lay out an agenda for a special session. This one is very ambitious—twenty, and he’s added some more, and I’m glad he did, to a thirty-day session. To put it in some perspective: He had five priority items for 140 days, and then in a 30-day special session we have 20-plus priority items. We had a very productive week in the House last week and passed bills on all of our top priorities: school finance, retired teacher health care, property tax reform, the children’s therapy issue, all of this in a matter of a few days.
RGR: Are we done when this session ends?
JS: That’s up to the governor, but I had a productive meeting with him last week. I gave him a realistic assessment, a realistic update on what the House’s priorities were and what we were trying to accomplish, and, in a respectful way, going through his agenda. Some of the issues that were unpopular in the House in the regular session remain unpopular in the special. So we’re working diligently through as many of his agenda items as we can and also expressing, as we should, some of the House’s top priorities as well and hopefully he’ll add some to the call before the end.
We passed water bills last week. It rained today, but it’s been a dry summer. There are few things as important to the long-term future of this state as ensuring a future water supply. So we hope the Senate will see things our way on some of these water bills as well.
RGR: One of the things that some of the tea party-type groups have been promoting is the idea that the bathroom bill is not passing because Joe Straus is in the way, and they have their “Oust Straus” theme. Any concern that will become a litmus test in next year’s elections?
JS: This ties back to your first question about the business voices and law enforcement and educators and legal professionals, that particular issue really hasn’t gained a lot of traction up here.
RGR: I’m thinking of the primary contests. Does this become a litmus test?
JS: Those groups live and breath litmus tests. We try hard in the House to keep people together and focusing on issues that really matter to the future of the state. School finance reform, and property tax is closely associated with that, and others. So it would be a never-ending quest to try to satisfy some of those groups and their litmus testing. The House has gotten pretty good at ignoring the threats toward people by entities like that.
RGR: The lieutenant governor last week refocused his attention on attacking cities as Democratic strongholds, and even some of the Republican mayors expressed to the Morning News frustration with trying to make their case with the governor on tax cuts.
JS: Dan Patrick has a history of trying to pit people against each other, and in the House we try to focus on what made Texas a success, not looking to blame anybody, but trying to focus on solving problems. It’s a signal of national politics seeping into Texas. Divisive rhetoric like that doesn’t solve problems.
RGR: Has that hurt the Republican brand in Texas?
JS: You can’t look at elections and say that it has, but it also hasn’t helped us address in meaningful ways some of the problems of the state.
RGR: If you had your druthers, what all would have this session done by the end?
JS: I’m more interested in the House priorities and promoting those. We had a good week again last week, passing school finance, [Teacher Retirement System of Texas] health care, property taxes tied to school finance, and the children’s therapy rate issue was a very real priority of the House. You saw that unanimous vote. Every faction of the House came together to make that strong statement.
One example, and an example that we passed a bill on, is tree regulation. We were happy to pass a tree regulation bill, but we don’t have the same intensity and focus on promoting that as we do addressing the problems that are negatively affecting quite a number of disabled children.
RGR: Did the governor give you any indication on what level of his twenty-for-twenty was acceptable?
JS: We didn’t really go through a percentage or a baseline he had to hit. We went through a number of items on his list and I gave him a frank assessment. But it was a productive and cordial meeting.
RGR: What is your assessment?
JS: It’s not totally up to me. It’s up to the committee chairmen.
RGR: I understand, but you are in a position to have a feel for the House members.
JS: I’m more focused on the top priorities and making certain those happen. The ones below that, if they happen to happen, if they don’t they don’t. So I’m not really looking at it as a percentage or a hard number. I’m more interested in the quality than the quantity.
JS: I wouldn’t handle it differently than Chairman [Charlie] Geren did, bringing it to the floor in a responsible way. Some of what occurred on the floor, if I had a chance to do it over again, I probably would have attempted to help find a way for the outcome to be different than it was.
RGR: Are you surprised that issue has remained as divisive as it has?
JS: No, I’m not. It has been a divisive issue ever since it first came up several sessions ago. Unfortunately, the final version of the bill was not as close to Chairman Geren’s version as he introduced it.
RGR: What are the odds that we are done on August 16?
JS: I think the odds are good. We’ll be done on August 16. Beyond that is a question I cannot answer.
RGR: Will you be able to convince the governor that you will have done all that can be done?
JS: The House is going to work diligently through this agenda in a good-faith way. Again, we’re making good progress. The twenty-for-twenty thing has never been a consideration for us.