Making friends and influencing people in the Texas Legislature

By Ross Ramsey

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the lieutenant governor is losing allies, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s gaining any.

The running narratives in the Senate since the November elections have been more about who’s out than about who’s in. The most recent example is Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who is the vice chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee but is not included on the five-member Senate half of the committee that will iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of that budget. That’s flat strange; in fact, it marks the first time in three decades that a Texas lieutenant governor has sent forth a budget conference committee with no members of the minority party on board.

Bill Hobby, a Democrat, sent over an all-Democratic committee in 1987. (The House’s panelists that year included four Democrats and a Republican.) For the scorekeepers among us, that was at a time when the Senate had 25 Democrats and six Republicans; the current cohort includes 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

So snub No. 1 was not putting the vice chairman on the conference committee, and snub No. 2 was not including any Democrats. Not everyone is being snitty; senators are full of praise for their five negotiators, even when they’re noting the oddity of the mix.

Before Hinojosa came Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, whose “estrangement” — that’s his word — from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick started ages ago. Patrick’s main political consultant ran a challenger’s campaign to Seliger in the 2018 Republican primaries. And as the session was beginning, some verbal towel-snapping between a Patrick aide and the Amarillo senator ended when Patrick took away Seliger’s assignment to chair a committee.

Before the session began, Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican and a Patrick confederate, stepped down from his chairmanship after an inconclusive investigation into accusations that he sent lewd texts to a college student.

Patrick punctuated Schwertner’s request to step down by saying he was going to relieve the senator anyway.

Pick your side, but count your votes, too: It takes 19 senators to bring something to the floor of the Senate, and there are 19 Republicans. And when you need Democratic votes, you might think of starting with the senator you installed in the powerful post of vice chairman of Finance — unless you’re on the outs. Hinojosa, for what it’s worth, issued a news release noting his appointment to the conference committee on the “supplemental budget” — a narrower piece of legislation designed to plug holes in the current budget while the appropriations bill takes care of the next two years.

This is in high relief at the moment. Property tax reforms, a key component of the education-and-property-tax package put forth by Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, scraped its way out of the Senate this week after Patrick threatened to blow up tradition to get his way. Seliger stepped in and voted to allow debate on the legislation, a move that freed his colleagues from a tough vote, and that bill is moving forward.

But the Legislature is stuck on another component — a proposal to raise enough money for property tax relief by raising state sales taxes by a penny. Lawmakers don’t have the votes at the moment. The lieutenant governor acknowledged as much in a private meeting with senators this week, asking Sen. Jane Nelson, who chairs the Finance Committee, to head a working group to look at sales taxes and other options that might make lower property taxes possible.

With just over five weeks left in the session, it seems fair to call that a Hail Mary pass.

One problem with that sales-tax-for-property-tax swap is that it has opponents on both ends of the political spectrum — forcing a proponent to get the needed votes from a bipartisan group.

Patrick sounded like he was trying to do that sort of thing, making a big speech at the start — on the day he and the governor were inaugurated — full of bipartisanship and shoulders-to-the-wheel language.

“The elections are over, and in two more years there will be another time to talk about the differences between the parties. But for right now — for the next 140 days — you expect us to do the work of the people,” he said then. And he used the idea to distinguish the state from the federal government: “In Texas we’re different. We work together across the aisle in a way that, quite frankly, both parties in Washington can take a note from.”

Now, after a week that began with his threat to go “nuclear” and destroy a long-standing Senate practice that was frustrating his efforts to push a tax bill, that inaugural claptrap is out the window. You need only look at one day’s work. On Wednesday, Patrick named the first purely partisan conference committee on the state budget in decades. And then he went to a news conference to pound the podium for an immigration resolution that had passed the Senate earlier on a party-line vote.

Resolutions are what you pass when you don’t have the authority to pass laws. The state doesn’t rule its border with Mexico; all it can do is implore the federal government to act on its behalf. It might work, at least for political purposes: Both the Democrats and Republicans held news conferences to score partisan points on the issue.

But it’s subtractive politics instead of additive politics. It split the Senate on one issue at a time when the state government’s upper management is trying to assemble a horde in favor of education and property taxes.

These kinds of battles are not unusual in the Texas Legislature. This thing is built for fighting. But it’s hard to accomplish something unusually difficult when you’re doing political business as usual. You have to have allies.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.

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