Spe­cial ses­sion widens GOP rifts

Ab­bott comes out swing­ing at Straus, ‘House cul­ture,’ with eye on pri­maries, 2019 ses­sion.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove jtilove@states­man.com

The day be­fore the sum­mer spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion be­gan, Gov. Greg Ab­bott warned law­mak­ers that he would be keep­ing an ea­gle eye on how each of them voted on his 20-item agenda.

“I’m go­ing to be es­tab­lish­ing a list,” Ab­bott said. “Who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a po­si­tion yet. No one gets to hide.”

The morn­ing af­ter the Leg­is­la­ture fin­ished its work, hav­ing en­acted only half of the gov­er­nor’s agenda and not his top pri­or­ity of prop­erty tax re­form, Ab­bott went on the air and made it clear who sat atop his naughty list — House Speaker Joe Straus — and ar­gued that the fu­ture of Texas de­pends on ei­ther chang­ing Straus or chang­ing speak­ers.

“If we are go­ing to en­sure that Texas re­mains the model for gov- er­nance in the United States of Amer­ica we must al­ways be pass­ing laws that con­strain spend­ing, that re­duce reg­u­la­tion. It’s those two pieces, along with cut­ting taxes, that at­tract and ex­pand the Texas eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment,” Ab­bott said Wed­nes­day on KYFO-AM in Lub­bock. “We’ve got to make sure we have the cur­rent speaker sup­port those prin­ci­ples or we’ve got to get the votes in the House to make sure we get those prin­ci­ples passed.”

It was a stun­ning dec­la­ra­tion in a state where Repub­li­cans ut­terly dom­i­nate state pol­i­tics. The gov­er­nor of Amer­ica’s big­gest red state seemed to be ini­ti­at­ing a GOP civil war. What’s more, Ab­bott was sug­gest­ing he would be in the trenches back­ing can­di­dates who might be dis­posed to re­plac­ing Straus as speaker, which any

cur­rent odds would con­sider a long shot.

“It’s a risky propo­si­tion be­cause you could lose,” Rice Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mark Jones said. “If he gets be­hind elect­ing anti Straus pri­mary chal­lengers and those peo­ple lose, then the em­peror has no clothes.”

“I am sur­prised that he wants to be­come in­volved in an in­tra­mu­ral House lead­er­ship is­sue,” said long­time Austin lob­by­ist Bill Miller, who rep­re­sents in­ter­ests across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. “Those races are deeply per­sonal, and no one en­ters the ring with­out get­ting bruised.”

For those who might think that Ab­bott was just blow­ing off some post-spe­cial ses­sion steam, Dave Carney, the gov­er­nor’s top po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, laid that idea to rest.

“I think it’s pretty clear the cul­ture of the House is cor­rupt, that it’s a non­trans­par­ent sys­tem that doesn’t even al­low these folks who say they are for these things to have an up or down vote on them,” Carney told the Amer­i­can-States­man. “I think there’s go­ing to be pri­maries, and there are go­ing to be peo­ple who sup­ported the gov­er­nor’s agenda. He’s go­ing to sup­port them. If vot­ers care about the prop­erty taxes and want­ing prop­erty tax re­form, then they have one way to fix it: vote for can­di­dates and in­cum­bents who are go­ing to vote for real prop­erty tax re­form. The same on these other is­sues.”

And, Carney said, pick­ing up on an Ab­bott peeve with the House, “They just can’t work a full day. They didn’t even have enough re­spect for the vot­ers to work a full 30 days.” The House gaveled out a fi­nal time Tues­day, a day be­fore the max­i­mum 30 days al­lowed for a spe­cial ses­sion. The Se­nate fin­ished its work a few hours later.

“We did get good things done dur­ing the spe­cial ses­sion. We just didn’t get enough done,” Carney said. “A sim­ple thing like the state bud­get stay­ing within the cost of liv­ing and pop­u­la­tion growth, a straight­for­ward for­mula that al­lows state govern­ment to grow at a con­trolled rate. That would have passed with 90 votes in the House, but be­cause of back­room machi­na­tions it died on a tech­ni­cal­ity, which should have been over­ruled.”

“Vot­ers will have an op­por­tu­nity to know all this and eval­u­ate whether they are get­ting their money’s worth,” he said.

Po­ten­tial tar­gets

The gov­er­nor launched his re-elec­tion July 14, four days be­fore the day he set for the start of the spe­cial ses­sion.

The spe­cial ses­sion and Ab­bott’s cam­paign, com­plete with but­tons, to get the Leg­is­la­ture to go “20 for 20” in en­act­ing this agenda, gave his state-of-the-art re-elec­tion oper­a­tion some fo­cus and drive, even as Ab­bott waits to see whether the Texas Demo­cratic Party will mount more than a to­ken cam­paign against him.

In the mean­time, there are the GOP pri­maries in March and, Carney said, “We’re go­ing to lay out a pretty broad agenda for the 2019 ses­sion.”

Would that mean the gov­er­nor — who is better known for rais­ing money than for shar­ing it with other can­di­dates — might dip into what is now a $41 million, and grow­ing, cam­paign kitty to con­trib­ute to leg­isla­tive pri­mary cam­paigns, where they could have an out­size im­pact?

“The gov­er­nor has a vast arsenal at his dis­posal, and ev­ery­thing is on the ta­ble,” said Carney, who pre­vi­ously di­rected Rick Perry cam­paigns for gov­er­nor and Perry’s first run for pres­i­dent.

For Michael Quinn Sul­li­van, the con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist who for years has made Straus Pub­lic En­emy No. 1, and who at times has ex­pressed his frus­tra­tions with Ab­bott, to have the gov­er­nor putting the speaker atop his naughty list for the spe­cial ses­sion was like Christ­mas in Au­gust.

“He could put a cou­ple of million dol­lars into 20 races,” said Sul­li­van of Ab­bott.

“Plus, it’s his name,” Sul­li­van said. “Ab­bott is more pop­u­lar than any of these state reps are in their own dis­tricts be­cause he’s more known. State reps aren’t known.”

Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Luke Ma­cias, whose clients in­clude seven of the 12 mem­bers of the Texas House Free­dom Cau­cus — the most anti-Straus el­e­ment in the House — and will rep­re­sent some chal­lengers seek­ing to join the cau­cus in Austin in 2019, said, “I think what con­ser­va­tives are look­ing at Ab­bott for is, who he does en­dorse and who he doesn’t en­dorse.”

“Is he will­ing to come to the aid of con­ser­va­tive law- mak­ers who might be get­ting a chal­lenge to the left in their pri­maries and what does he do when es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­can rep­re­sen­ta­tives who re­fused to sup­port his agenda get chal­lenged from the right?” Ma­cias said.

Last year, Ab­bott en­dorsed and cut ads for two mem­bers of Team Straus — Reps. Doug Miller, R-New Braun­fels, and Wayne Smith, R-Bay­town — who were in pri­mary runoff elec­tions. Both lost, Miller to Kyle Bie­der­mann, by 10 per­cent­age points, and Smith to Briscoe Cain of Deer Park by 23 votes. Both Bie­der­mann and Cain are Ma­cias clients who joined the Free­dom Cau­cus.

Carney said that, in choos­ing which races to get in­volved in, a lot will de­pend on the qual­ity of can­di­dates who emerge.

Straus has been chal­lenged in the past three pri­maries and never re­ceived less than 60 per­cent of the vote. Straus lieu­tenants who could be tar­geted by Ab­bott in­clude:

■ Rep. By­ron Cook, R-Cor­si­cana, who, as chair­man of the House State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, has drawn more ire from the right than any­one but Straus, barely sur­vived a pri­mary chal­lenge in 2016.

■ Cal­en­dars Com­mit­tee Chair­man Todd Hunter, R-Cor­pus Christi, has never faced a pri­mary chal­lenger.

■ Rep. Char­lie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chair­man of the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee, beat back a pri­mary chal­lenge with 58 per­cent of the vote in 2016.

■ Rep. Lyle Lar­son, R-San An­to­nio, chair­man of the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee, who par­tic­u­larly irked Ab­bott with his ethics leg­is­la­tion dur­ing the reg­u­lar and spe­cial ses­sions, hasn’t had a pri­mary op­po­nent since he was first elected in 2010.

■ Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West Univer­sity Place, chair­woman of the Gen­eral In­ves­ti­gat­ing and Ethics Com­mit­tee, who, with Lar­son, was de­nounced by the gov­er­nor’s of­fice for “show­boat­ing” by try­ing to add ethics bills to the spe­cial ses­sion agenda, rep­re­sents a mod­er­ate dis­trict in which then-state Sen. Leti­cia Van de Putte, D-San An­to­nio, out­polled Dan Pa­trick for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor in 2014.

■ Rep. Dan Hu­berty, R-Hous­ton, chair­man of the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, won 78 per­cent of the vote in his 2016 pri­mary.

■ Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Zer­was, R-Rich­mond, was last in a pri­mary fight the first time he was elected in 2006. This time, he said Fri­day, “I’m not wor­ried about it, but I an­tic­i­pate it. If some­body comes along, we will mount a cam­paign and win the race.”

Zer­was had dis­par­aged the gov­er­nor’s ses­sion eve pledge to “score­card mem­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture” as “one of the most ju­ve­nile things I’ve ever heard come out of the gov­er­nor’s of­fice.”

“I don’t pro­pose to ad­vise the gov­er­nor on any­thing po­lit­i­cal,” Zer­was told the States­man. “But get­ting in races to ei­ther bat­tle or threaten mem­bers who I think have been good qual­ity mem­bers look­ing out for their con­stituents and rep­re­sent­ing what I think are good, sound con­ser­va­tive val­ues, is prob­a­bly not some­thing I would rec­om­mend.”

“It’s to­tally not pro­duc­tive,” Zer­was said.

Prop­erty tax stale­mate

The Univer­sity of Texas/ Texas Tribune poll con­ducted in June just af­ter the reg­u­lar ses­sion ended found sat­is­fac­tion among Repub­li­cans, and es­pe­cially among those who iden­tify with the tea party who form the ac­tive core of the Repub­li­can base, with what the Leg­is­la­ture had ac­com­plished, and no great out­cry for more.

But Ma­cias said that what Ab­bott is do­ing, be­gin­ning with a bar­rage of ra­dio and TV in­ter­views Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, is whet­ting con­ser­va­tive vot­ers’ ap­petite for more and giv­ing them the is­sues, the vo­cab­u­lary and the spe­cific votes to talk about with their lo­cal law­mak­ers.

“The last-day stale­mate on prop­erty taxes per­me­ated the en­tire ses­sion, and what we need right now is for these rep­re­sen­ta­tives to go home to their dis­tricts,” Ab­bott told KYFO’s Chad Hasty. “They need to do town halls. They need to talk to their con­stituents. They need to lis­ten to their con­stituents about the press­ing de­mand for prop­erty tax re­form.”

“They ei­ther need to come back and be pre­pared to sup­port the idea that I was sup­port­ing, which was the 4 per­cent roll­back, or they needed to come up with a better idea,” Ab­bott said. “The House did nei­ther, so right now there is non­move­ment on the desperate need for prop­erty tax re­lief.”

Like­wise, Ab­bott said Straus and the House had thwarted trans­gen­der bath­room leg­is­la­tion, a state spend­ing cap, a plan to spend state money to sup­port pri­vate school tu­ition, and ban­ning some union dues col­lec­tion through govern­ment pay­checks.

“All of these were re­forms that never even got called up on a vote on the House floor,” the gov­er­nor said. “At a min­i­mum, what is needed, what is de­served by the cit­i­zens of the state of Texas is to have their mem­bers cast an up or down vote on these is­sues so that those vot­ers, those cit­i­zens, our fel­low Tex­ans, get to de­cide if they want to re­tain or re­place these House mem­bers.”

Bath­room bill

The al­ways com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship among the Big Three — Ab­bott, Pa­trick and Straus — grew more com­pli­cated in the hot­house of the spe­cial ses­sion.

The prime po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tive for Ab­bott has al­ways been not to al­low any day­light on the right be­tween him­self and Pa­trick. But Ab­bott also wants to main­tain the re­spect, trust and do­na­tions from what were once called the Bush and busi­ness wings of the party who find Pa­trick, who came out of the po­lar­iz­ing world of talk ra­dio, too ide­o­log­i­cal, too drawn to so­cial is­sues and too facile at fo­ment­ing con­tro­versy.

In fact, Straus had done Ab­bott a solid by killing the bath­room bill, said Jones, the Rice po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist.

“I think the speaker did the gov­er­nor a fa­vor,” said Jones. “It’s not a bill the gov­er­nor wanted to sign.”

Jones said the leg­is­la­tion, while pop­u­lar with Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers, was a loser with the broader elec­torate, with younger An­g­los, whom the party needs to keep in the fold if it’s go­ing to ex­tend its era of hege­mony, and with pow­er­ful busi­ness in­ter­ests. A let­ter to Ab­bott mid-spe­cial ses­sion from Hous­ton busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives con­demn­ing any bath­room leg­is­la­tion was signed by, among oth­ers, John Nau, pres­i­dent of Sil­ver Ea­gle Dis­trib­u­tors and the trea­surer of Ab­bott’s re-elec­tion fi­nance com­mit­tee.

Zer­was said that “the muted voice” of busi­ness op­po­si­tion to the bath­room bill dur­ing the reg­u­lar ses­sion rang out “loud and clear dur­ing the spe­cial ses­sion when there weren’t a whole of other dis­trac­tions out there.”

Jones said he thought that Straus shouldn’t have ad­journed early with­out work­ing harder to strike a deal on prop­erty tax re­form be­tween the Se­nate’s 4 per­cent roll­back rate and the House’s 6 per­cent, a deal that would have likely led to Ab­bott pro­claim­ing the spe­cial ses­sion half full in­stead of half empty.

“I think the speaker is push­ing his luck a lit­tle bit,” said Jones. “It does speak poorly for the Repub­li­can Party. They couldn’t come to an agree­ment on that, and that means the chances for school fi­nance re­form are pretty dim.”

But Zer­was said it was the Se­nate that walked away from se­ri­ously ad­dress­ing school fi­nance, and that the House had al­ready gone a great dis­tance in ac­cept­ing any roll­back pro­vi­sion, and it was the Se­nate that re­fused to com­pro­mise.

Mean­while, most Tex­ans paid lit­tle at­ten­tion to the mid­sum­mer leg­isla­tive drama, and con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists in a num­ber of coun­ties, in­clud­ing Straus’ own Bexar County, have passed res­o­lu­tions call­ing on Straus to be re­placed as speaker.

At a Travis County GOP bar­be­cue fundraiser at an ex­otic game ranch in Creed­moor on the eve of spe­cial ses­sion, James Dickey — the former Travis County chair­man who had just re­cently been elected state party chair­man — said he had met with Straus about the 20-point spe­cial ses­sion agenda and told him, “Give us any seven or eight of those and we will cheer you for those seven or eight. Let other peo­ple scold you for what you wouldn’t do.”

Dickey con­tin­ued: “Next year, our con­ven­tion, the largest po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tion in the free world, will take place dur­ing the 300th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of San An­to­nio, dur­ing the 150th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Repub­li­can Party of Texas, a block from the Alamo, and the theme of that con­ven­tion is a line in the sand, and my com­ment to the speaker was, ‘Let’s show the line in the sand, let me make your in­tro video so that when you walk up there, our del­e­gates cheer for what you have done for us. That’s what we want.’”

Asked Fri­day whether he thought Straus had done enough to earn the cheers of del­e­gates in his home­town next year, Dickey replied, “I don’t know yet.”

RALPH BARRERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

The morn­ing af­ter the Leg­is­la­ture fin­ished its work, hav­ing en­acted only half of Gov. Greg Ab­bott’s agenda and not his top pri­or­ity of prop­erty tax re­form, Ab­bott made it clear who sat atop his naughty list — House Speaker Joe Straus — and ar­gued that the fu­ture of Texas de­pends on ei­ther chang­ing Straus or chang­ing speak­ers.

TAMIR KALIFA/ AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

House Speaker Joe Straus marks the start of the ses­sion July 18. The com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship among the gov­er­nor, Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and Straus grew more com­pli­cated dur­ing the ses­sion.

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