The best thing about the Texas Legislature is that it ends. Each regular session wraps up around Memorial Day, and then, God willing, lawmakers go home. That hasn’t happened yet this year. May 29 was supposed to be the last day. But on May 30, legislators were still in Austin, called by the governor into a special session to pass two bills—on property tax relief and border security—that had been casualties of infighting between the House and Senate in the regular session’s final days.

Come July, the lawmakers are still here. When the first special session ended late last month, the House and Senate were still at loggerheads and hadn’t sent anything to the governor. So Abbott called a second special session. He has hinted the politicians may be here all summer, and lawmakers are furious.

How did we get here? Well, there’s some policy being debated. The current argument is about property taxes, the one issue on the second special session call. The Senate wants to expand the homestead exemption, giving more relief to homeowners. Right now a homeowner isn’t taxed on $40,000 of the value of their primary residence; the Senate would expand that to $100,000. The House, meanwhile, wants to send state money from this year’s surplus directly to school districts and make them lower their property tax rates going forward, which would give more relief to businesses and large property owners. Abbott supports the House plan, but he can’t get the Senate to agree. 

There is real substance being debated, but this being Texas, the policy dispute is secondary. There’s an overarching psychodrama taking place in Austin that’s a lot more interesting and arguably more relevant. To wit: Can Governor Greg Abbott cajole his way into being loved or respected or feared by any member of the Legislature who does not already feel that way? Has he figured out the One Weird Trick, as internet ads sometimes have it, that will allow him to finally—finally—find acceptance?

No. Well, probably not.

How does the governor of Texas get the Legislature to do what he wants? It’s a more difficult problem than it may seem. In other states, the party in power may just follow the lead of the governor, who is, after all, the top elected official. But in Texas, the Republican Party has multiple power centers and factions, each with a different agenda, and the governor is often easier to politely ignore than to deal with. Many governors over the years have been fine with this. Your Dolph Briscoes and your George W. Bushes have been happy to follow the lead of the Lege. But not everyone is.

There are also few examples to learn from in the modern era. In two decades of unified GOP control of state government, there have only been two governors. The first, Rick Perry, famously established his authority after his first session, in 2001, when he vetoed eighty diverse bills in what became known as the Father’s Day Massacre. Having established that he was willing to discipline and punish, he spent the rest of his fourteen years in office showing lawmakers that he was not an unreasonable man. He communicated his priorities and desires clearly, took time to develop personal relationships with legislators, and used his own experiences as a lawmaker to determine when to yield to the body and when to ask them to do more.

Abbott, his successor, never served in the Legislature, and his relationship with the body has long been fraught. In 2015, his first session, he promised Republican lawmakers in the House he’d back them strongly for reelection if they supported his modest plan to expand pre-K programs in Texas, which was opposed by conservatives. The program passed, but when it came time to pay its proponents back, Abbott broke his word. “No appearances, no endorsements, no fund raisers,” wrote Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg of Abbott’s support for those he cajoled to vote for the bill. 

That poisoned the well, and though years have passed, Abbott has struggled to rebuild trust. He has earned the reputation of someone who has no sway at the Capitol, where the real power rests in the hands of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. So, year after year, he’s taken different tacks to try to see what works. Little has. Here’s his approach this year.

1. Fumble the bag

The Eighty-eighth Legislative Session offered lawmakers a chance to govern on easy mode. They had no crises to deal with and a $33 billion budget surplus. Republicans aimed to spend half of that surplus on property tax relief, a top priority of both their business backers and suburban homeowners whose loyalty the party needs. But there was also a big item Abbott wanted: a school-voucher program, which would give taxpayer money to parents to send their kids to private schools.

In recent years, Abbott’s priority asks of the Legislature have been relatively piddly—items that lawmakers would have happily coughed up without his urging, such as money for border security initiatives. School vouchers are different. Many conservative voters want them very badly. But in a lot of the state, there aren’t any private schools at all. What private schools do exist tend to be religious academies that aren’t a good fit for every student. And Texas public schools are underfunded as it is—so diverting tax dollars to competing recipients of education money is a hard sell for many lawmakers.

Since 2015, vouchers have been a top priority of Patrick’s Senate, but every push has died in the House, thanks to rural Republicans who support public education. Early this year, it became clear that vouchers had barely more support in the Lege than they did a decade ago.

But Abbott kept doubling down on the issue. During the session, he held more than a dozen events around the state—mainly in private Christian schools whose current students’ parents wouldn’t be eligible for vouchers—to promote “parent empowerment.” Then, when the big bill stalled out but the House seemed ready to offer up a small voucher program that might pass the chamber and allow the governor to save face, Abbott released a statement saying he would veto the plan. The House needed to approve the version he wanted, and nothing short of it, he threatened, or he would bring them back in the fall in a special session to approve it.

As Abbott stayed focused on his brass ring, the relationship between the House and the Senate was falling apart. Disagreement over high-profile bills—first among them the property tax plan—turned to open and bitter sniping between the Speaker and the lieutenant governor. This was an opportunity for Abbott to exercise power: he could mediate the dispute. But Abbott failed to make clear where he stood on the property tax fight. He let the chambers handle it, while he returned again and again to vouchers.

When the end of the session came, the Lege had passed no property tax–cut bill. This had to be resolved: the party’s leaders had promised property tax cuts in their last reelection campaigns above all other issues. So Abbott, belatedly, turned his attention to property taxes and locked the doors of the Capitol from the outside.

2. Trap everyone in hell

On the night of May 29, when lawmakers were briefly celebrating the end of the session, Abbott called them back the next day. This was a pointed and confrontational move. Unless an item of business can be quickly addressed, other governors have given lawmakers time off before calling them back. (In 2017, Abbott called legislators back for a special session starting in mid-July.) Members are exhausted at the end of the session. They want to go home. Their marriages may be rocky; their kids may have started calling their neighbor Dad. Abbott declared he was ready to keep legislators in Austin all summer, in some of the most miserable weather the city has seen, until they had performed their duties to his satisfaction.

And he made clear he didn’t just want them to pass any property tax bill. Abbott can prescribe what issues are to be considered in a special session. In his proclamation, he instructed the Lege to consider a property tax bill—but one along the lines of the bill the House had passed, not the Senate’s. The two chambers had failed to agree on a compromise, and instead of trying to help them reach one, the governor was attempting to declare one side the winner by fiat. (He also told them to pass an anti-trafficking measure. That went nowhere.)

This was, obviously, going to go over poorly in the Senate—and it let the House off the hook of having to appease Patrick. The House, relieved to have the governor to provide cover for once, passed its tax plan and ended its special session almost immediately. The Senate was left sputtering. The Senate ruled, with long-standing precedent in hand, that the governor couldn’t lawfully control what legislation they wrote in a special session—only the subjects that they could consider. So the senators stuck to their guns. They passed their preferred tax plan and let the clock run out on the special session.

3. Shoot bystanders

By mid-June, both chambers were upset at Abbott: the Senate over property taxes, the House over vouchers. With all sides frustrated by him, Abbott decided to press his nonexistent advantage and take hostages. He vetoed 74 unrelated bills—from minor, local bills such as the one that would have established “Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 229” to more important ones, including a bill helping Texas college dropouts re-enroll and finish their degrees. If lawmakers behaved, he said, those bills might be reconsidered in a future special session.

In accompanying statements, Abbott made clear that nearly every veto was punishment for not agreeing to either his preferred property tax plan or his school-voucher plan. This was wanton violence. “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge,” says Blood Meridian’s demonic Judge Holden, “exists without my consent.” That’s nothing, said Abbott. Those things in creation that are “simply not as important as cutting property taxes,” Abbott wrote again and again, don’t have his consent, and neither will they exist.

This great power play culminated right before Father’s Day, and it seemed to consciously evoke the memory of Perry’s big play in 2001. But that’s where the similarities stopped. Perry was showing lawmakers that he was willing to play hardball, and that they needed to consult him in the future. Abbott was attempting to coerce lawmakers into doing something he wanted in the present. By actually vetoing bills, he was proving that the threat of vetoes hadn’t worked: he had clearly not succeeded in getting his preferred tax bill passed.

Some lawmakers—folks who have an interest in cultivating a relationship with the governor—praised his shrewdness. When one of Plano representative Jeff Leach’s bills was vetoed, he thanked Abbott for standing up to demand what he wanted, something Leach said was “much more important than my bill.” But for most, the move brought about a sense of bemusement. Abbott had punished the folks he would soon need on board to get what he wanted. What, exactly, was the plan here?

In an interview with Mark Davis, a conservative radio host in Dallas–Fort Worth, Patrick poked holes in the governor’s logic and dared him to do worse. “This veto threat didn’t work at all. It was a big nothingburger,” he said. One of the bills the governor killed, he said, set aside a Saturday in October to memorialize hospice care workers. Did Abbott really think the killing of that bill—or, even weirder, the incentive of bringing it back in a special session—was going to force the Senate to change tack on the expenditure of billions of dollars? “Our senators . . . are more committed to sticking to our guns than ever.”

Okay, now what?

4. Trap everybody in hell—again

On June 27, the second special session began. Once again, Abbott wrote that he would only accept the House’s property tax plan—not the Senate’s—and left little room for compromise. He doubled down.

When a breakthrough is reached, Abbott will doubtless trumpet it as a victory. But a Republican Legislature should not need seven months to pass a package of tax cuts. Tax cuts! And after the issue is resolved, the governor has hinted, to the chagrin of lawmakers, at other special sessions on other issues—culminating in a great voucher debate. If the governor hoped to tire lawmakers into compliance, he may have created an environment in which agreement is less likely.

What does Abbott hope to get from this? The answer is . . . elusive. Capitol observers have posited that he is attempting to play 3D chess with property taxes to obtain his true objective—the voucher program. He gives the House a win by trampling over the Senate, then turns around and presses the House to help him out on vouchers. That may well be what Abbott is thinking. But the logic doesn’t add up: Why would rural Republicans who think vouchers pose a threat to their all-important public schools change their minds because Abbott helped Dade Phelan look good in front of the corporate lobbyists backing his property tax plan?

At the end of all this fighting—and two expensive special sessions, paid for by taxpayers—it is hard to say that the standing of the governor, vis-à-vis his haters, has improved at all. Was this a prelude to a more, uh, robust plan?

5. Install stooges

Abbott’s next big opportunity to show his power over the Lege is in the Republican primary in March. He has hinted that lawmakers who block his school-voucher proposal could face challenges. That’s how vouchers passed in Iowa—voucher advocates successfully primaried Republican opponents. If the feud ends with a more compliant Legislature willing to pass Abbott’s priorities next session, he will have played the long game and won.

But here, too, it is worth maintaining a healthy skepticism. Abbott does not have a strong record of interfering in the Republican primary, dating back to 2017, when he targeted three dissident representatives in an attention-grabbing, expensive campaign to prove he had The Juice. He succeeded in only one race—and even there largely because his endorsed candidate, Mayes Middleton, was a prolific self-funder who had the support of a lot of grassroots groups.

It’s hard to see how a strategy of primarying opponents would work here. Consider Ernest Bailes, who represents a rural East Texas district and would be atop Abbott’s hit list, if the governor creates one, for making a flashy and influential stand against vouchers this session. It may be true, as the governor says, that Republican voters in Bailes’s district support school vouchers, in the same way they support many priorities that the party names. But it is unlikely that vouchers are a top priority for them. Liberty County, in Bailes’s district, is home to some 90,000 residents. But the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission lists no private schools there at all.

So what happens when Abbott shows up in North Cleveland, population 251, to say, “Hey—when your representative took his well-documented stand on behalf of your public school, opposing my plan to let Houston and Dallas suburbanites more easily access private prep schools, he royally pissed me off”?

Well, we’ll see. I’ll give Abbott this: it would be a better plan than anything else he’s cooked up this year.