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The Best and Worst Legislators 2015

The Leadership Roundup

Governor Greg Abbott

Of all the leaders entering the legislative session, the biggest question mark centered on Greg Abbott, the first new governor in Texas in fourteen years. The attorney general since 2002, he led the Republican ticket last November and walloped Democrat Wendy Davis in the general election. Abbott laid out a conservative agenda that balanced investment (transportation, education) with grassroots causes (gun rights, border security). Though he kept a mostly low profile during the 140-day session, his office remained busy trying to resolve disputes between the House and the Senate, particularly as it related to the feud over taxes. The two chambers were more suspicious of each other than usual, and Abbott took that opportunity to use his leverage to help strike a deal and avoid a special session. The governor can claim, as a result, a range of victories related to his priorities: funding for high-quality pre-K education, money for highways and infrastructure, tax cuts for individuals and businesses, and investment in higher education. Perhaps most important, he solidified his control over the state; a widely expected challenge from Dan Patrick in 2018 appears to have been averted, as Patrick said at the end of the session that he would not challenge Abbott for his job. 

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick

The temptation is to portray Dan Patrick as a politician of arrested development, a selfie-snapping camera hog who complained during a private breakfast that the governor and speaker were “picking on me.” The truth is, Patrick came into the session with an agenda and a plan to bend the Senate to his will. He pushed senators to replace the long-standing two-thirds rule, which required 21 affirmative votes to bring legislation up for debate. The new rule required only 19 votes and effectively negated the Democrats’ ability to block legislation. But instead of shifting power from one caucus to another, the change shifted power from individual senators to Patrick. In a display of his strength, Patrick stripped two committee chairmanships away from the sole Republican to oppose the change, Craig Estes.

But Patrick did not get everything he wanted during the session. Although the House signaled early on that private school vouchers were off the table, Patrick oversaw a measure going through the Senate, partly to fulfill a pledge to his voters and partly to prove he could do it. Greg Abbott reacted throughout the session as if Patrick would challenge his reelection in 2018, and only in the final minutes did Patrick take that threat off the table. As one state official said, Patrick was “a message machine.”

In negotiations with the House, Patrick held on to a demand for property tax relief. The final deal was not what Patrick had proposed, but he walked away with some property tax relief. Patrick could claim to have won the game of chicken.

He also had two high-profile stumbles in the session. Early on, he claimed that open carry legislation did not have the votes to pass, a misstep that energized the base and propelled the issue to the forefront of the session. The second was naming an advisory committee of tea party activists who attacked Abbott over his pre-K bill, which they considered “godless socialism,” leaving some wondering whether Patrick had created a constituency he could not control.

Minutes after the Legislature adjourned sine die, Patrick hosted a lunch for senators and read off statistics that he said showed his fairness, noting that the old two-thirds rule would have blocked only 27 bills that ended up passing the Senate. What he didn’t say was that those bills included open carry, campus carry, the relocation of the Public Integrity Unit, and private-school vouchers. 

Democratic senators were powerless to stop Patrick’s conservative agenda and were hard-pressed to win headlines in the Senate. Republicans got the signal on opening day that it was best to toe the line. And the House learned it had a fierce opponent who would not surrender easily.

Speaker Joe Straus

As expected, on the first day of the Eighty-fourth Legislature, Speaker Joe Straus faced a formal challenge from the right wing. As expected, he was reelected to a fourth term in a landslide, with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike. Straus has grown wearily accustomed to spending the session under attack from various self-appointed conservative watchdogs, who consistently, and often deliberately, mischaracterize his politics and his principles. But the House’s deep respect for Straus is a testament to both his political views, which are fiscally conservative and culturally temperate, and his management style. He happily yields the spotlight to the members; even in the chamber, it’s rare to see Straus loitering on the dais.

At times, this low-key approach feels unduly passive, because Straus is the rare politician who should consider spending more time on the soapbox. He was the only leader in Texas, for example, who managed a clear rebuke after Representative Molly White publicly announced the precautions she was taking against any Muslim constituents who might decide to visit their state capitol. But his soft-spoken manners enabled the House to use its talent during this year’s tax brawl. Dan Patrick, looking for a fistfight, had to settle for Dennis Bonnen, and the power differential only cast Bonnen’s skill, and Patrick’s ego, in sharper relief.

Meanwhile, the House ran smoothly. Republicans and Democrats disagreed and had the occasional standoff but ultimately collaborated on most of the major issues. And in the end, as Straus had hoped, the House passed a fiscally conservative budget, made some investments in infrastructure and education, and thwarted a number of toxic proposals. Empowering Texans is more effective than strong-arming or suppressing them.

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