Texas lawmakers see a more engaged Gov. Greg Abbott: Will it pay off?

By Patrick Svitek

On Wednesday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott made an appearance in the Texas Senate. It wasn’t entirely a surprise, but the timing was impossible to ignore: The previous afternoon, Abbott’s proposal to raise the state sales tax to pay for property tax cuts had collapsed in the Texas House.

As he worked his way around the Senate chamber railing, Abbott playfully deflected a reporter's question about the House's rejection of his preferred plan the day before.

“Now do you really think I came here to talk to you?” he said.

The visit was at least Abbott's tenth to one of the chambers this session, a significant increase from the sessions he oversaw in 2015 and 2017, when he drew criticism from some lawmakers for being detached and aloof. This time, Abbott appears intent on turning around that image while making historic changes to the way Texas funds schools and levies property taxes in the process.

Yet with less than three weeks left in the session, it remains to be seen how effective that outreach will be. That is especially true as lawmakers scramble to reach consensus on GOP leaders' top priorities, school finance and property tax reform, and Abbott remains careful about overtly choosing sides between the chambers.

State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said Abbott has been “more engaged than any governor I’ve seen in my four sessions being here,” a period that dates back to Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry. Still, Goldman acknowledged that there are just a few weeks left to see if Abbott’s more hands-on approach will yield the big wins he has promised to voters.

“I think the end of May will tell,” Goldman said, “but I know every single member appreciates his engagement and involvement and definitely listens to what he has to say.” 

Of course, lawmakers have little incentive to openly criticize the governor in the session’s final weeks, when bills are moving closer to his desk and his power increases. But even those who have previously clashed with Abbott say they have seen a marked improvement in how he is dealing with members.

“It’s been 100 percent better,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, the San Antonio Republican who Abbott unsuccessfully worked to unseat in the 2018 primary. “I think it’s a completely different approach, and I think everybody really appreciates it.”

Statewide, Abbott is quite popular, but his relationships within the Legislature have historically been more tenuous. That was punctuated last year by his attempts to unseat Larson and two other inter-party opponents; two of his three adversaries nevertheless returned to the Legislature.

Larson and other legislators gave credit to not only Abbott but also his senior staff, which he switched up after the 2017 session. Lawmakers said they were particularly appreciative of chief of staff Luis Saenz and senior adviser Tommy Williams, both Capitol veterans who brought deep legislative experience — and relationships — to Abbott’s office. Williams served in the Legislature for more than a decade, retiring from the state Senate in 2013 as the powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Saenz is also a familiar face at the Capitol, having been a senior adviser to Perry, Abbott's appointments director when he first took office and a lobbyist.

Staffers like Saenz and Williams “have made it smoother … this session for a lot of people,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the House Public Education Committee.

Abbott has ratcheted up his meetings and calls with lawmakers, looking to build relationships and form consensus in both formal and casual settings. Last month, for example, instead of heading to Minneapolis to see Texas Tech play Virginia in the NCAA men’s basketball championship, he opted to attend House and Senate watch parties in Austin.

The most noticeable change, perhaps, has been Abbott's visits to the House and Senate floors, often ahead of major votes. In some cases, he has hung around for over an hour, chatting up lawmakers — not just those involved in priority legislation — as he slowly makes his way across the floor.

“He’s definitely more involved than ever,” said Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who said he has used Abbott’s visits to the upper chamber as an opportunity to talk through legislation.

Of course, Democrats are not thrilled with many of the policies the governor is prioritizing. They have come out in force against his property tax reform proposal and taken issue with smaller priorities, like Abbott’s efforts to roll back cities’ paid sick leave ordinances.

Two key bills — Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform measure, and House Bill 3, a plan to overhaul school finance — are well-positioned to reach the governor’s desk before the Legislature gavels out this month. Accomplishing those two thorny policy issues would mark a major victory for the governor, even as other proposals, like the tax swap, have floundered.

Behind the scenes, some lawmakers involved in the session’s priority items say Abbott has struck a healthy balance between leading legislators and respecting each chamber's internal deliberations.

“I think he’s cast his vision, but he also understands there’s a legislative process," said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and is spearheading the property tax reform bill in the lower chamber.

“I don’t think there’s been a time we’ve been looking for the governor and he hasn’t been available for us," Burrows added.

Still, the governor has also hedged his bets — at least publicly. When the Texas Senate advanced a $5,000 teacher raise proposal, his office didn’t send out a statement praising the bill. It did, however, when the House passed its school finance proposal — a subtle signal that he favored that chamber’s pitch, which gave local school officials more control over pay raise decisions while significantly decreasing the amount of recapture money richer districts sent to poorer ones.

But some of the lawmakers Abbott was trying to help say those are difficult tea leaves to read — and a more assertive stance from the governor would help shepherd issues through the Legislature faster.

“Abbott doesn’t seem to understand the complexity of these bills,” said one Republican in House leadership. “You can’t compromise on recapture versus across-the-board pay raises. It’s either one or the other.”

Now that the Senate and House have passed different versions of the main education and property tax reform bills, they’re hopeful a conference committee can kick out something meaningful. But they wonder, privately, whether they’ll get much help from the middle office.

“He’s been more involved this session, but he still doesn’t push back against [Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick] much,” said a Republican committee chairman who asked that his name not be used.

Abbott has nonetheless built a close relationship with Bonnen, who the governor had come to know well as they hashed out high-stakes legislation together during the previous two sessions. It is a departure from the situation by the end of the 2017 sessions, when relations between Abbott and then-Speaker Joe Straus had clearly soured

This session, Abbott has found common cause with the House leader in ways subtle and not-so-subtle. In addition to the teacher pay raise issue, after Patrick floated the possibility of a special session in March, Abbott and Bonnen were swift to issue statements dismissing such speculation as unnecessary. And more recently, it was Abbott and Bonnen who appeared more resolute about getting through the sales tax swap as Patrick emphasized it was just one idea on the table at the time.

Still, the Big Three have continued to project a unified image, certainly more so than last session. They are continuing to have breakfast together Wednesday mornings, a practice that Abbott, Patrick and Straus had abandoned at this point during the contentious 2017 regular session.

While Abbott may be more involved at the Capitol this session, he has not much changed how he navigates the debate outside the building. Like during last session, he has kept most of his public statements about major issues vague and rarely makes himself available to the Capitol press corps.

If he has stepped up his public persona anywhere during session, it has been on Twitter, where he has several times tweeted late into the night responding— at times forcefully — to followers pressing him on the session’s two biggest issues.

“It's been a privilege to answer your questions about education funding and property taxes the past hour,” Abbott tweeted last Sunday afternoon after eight tweets mixing it up with his followers on property taxes. “I have to go back to work now. Big day & week ahead.”

One question that lingers over the final weeks of the session is how helpful Abbott will be in protecting lawmakers who could face difficult re-election campaigns, fueled in part on their votes for his priority items. It is a question that some Republican lawmakers still view through the lens of the 2016 primaries, when they thought Abbott did not do enough to back their re-election bids after they voted for his pre-K initiative, which had drawn criticism from the right.

For now, lawmakers are heartened by what they are hearing from Abbott about political support following the session.

“We’re obviously dealing with some things we can take some political hits for, but the governor has been there and reassured us personally in caucus meetings and even smaller group meetings that he’s with us,” said state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “Having the standard bearer for the party with you … that’s very, very powerfully politically for us.”

It is unclear whether Abbott will go the route that he went after the 2017 sessions, when he endorsed challengers to sitting lawmakers who had crossed him. While Abbott did not rule that out in a Tribune interview at the start of this session, Bonnen has since said he has advised Abbott against it and does not anticipate that he will repeat the strategy next year.

Dave Carney, Abbott’s top political strategist, said the governor has been emphasizing the same message of support to members since the start of the session.

“We are hyper-focused on directing our operation to be as helpful as possible to the members who are up for re-election, who have competitive races and who have been supportive of the governor’s agenda,” Carney said.

Emma Platoff and Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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