The Dallas Morning News
Priorities split House, Senate
Lists of favored bills overlap but nonetheless reveal two sides of the GOP
AUSTIN — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan’s justcompleted lists of priority bills illustrate not only how the two wings of the Texas GOP remain at fierce odds but also how the two chambers treat members of the Democratic minority differently.
Phelan, R-beaumont, has endorsed a new state border protection unit and tough-on-crime bills. But he hasn’t followed Patrick in prioritizing school voucher-type legislation or bills on several culture war topics.
Even though Patrick and Phelan are primarily focused on success for their respective chambers, each has declared priorities that also would give Gov. Greg Abbott accomplishments to hawk if he were to decide to launch a presidential campaign this year.
If Abbott opts for a White House bid, he probably would be competing in a populist, staunchly conservative cauldron with former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, said Rita Kirk, professor of corporate communication and public affairs at Southern Methodist University.
“Texas and Florida not only control large delegate numbers for the conventions but sizable electoral votes as well,” she said.
“It’s as if these two states are rolling out an agenda that will make it difficult for any but the most far-right candidates to succeed,” Kirk said. “Though not as outspoken as Desantis, Abbott is clearly positioned to claim Texas bragging rights about advancing the conservative agenda.”
While many Abbott intimates doubt he’ ll run, his political adviser Dave Carney has not ruled out such a bid, explaining that the three-term governor will weigh his options after the session ends in May.
When it comes to passing bills, Patrick and Phelan are the Legislature’s two most potent Republicans. And late last week, almost a month after Patrick released his top 30 bills, Phelan finished unveiling the final
portions of his priority list. It includes 29 bills.
Two different parties
“The mile-high view of the priority bills underscores the two different Republican parties that coexist in Texas, one on the center-right and one on the right,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
He was referring to how Patrick’s priority list covers hot-button issues that Phelan’s doesn’t.
The Senate would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, restrict transgender college athletes to competing with the sex listed on their birth certificates, eliminate tenure at state universities, prohibit attendance by children at drag shows, prohibit local COVID-19 mandates and outlaw diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, efforts by state universities.
Included in the lists of both Patrick and Phelan are bills that would cut property taxes, keep sexually explicit books out of public school libraries and rein in district attorneys in Texas’ big metro counties whom the GOP deems “soft on crime.” The two chambers are prioritizing bills that would set mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes — the Senate, for offenses committed with a gun; the House, for illegal activities at the Texas-mexico border.
“The old joke was that the first thing the Legislature did when they met was to increase the penalties for everything,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. “This session it’s a reality. Crime is a potent political issue, and both chambers want to look responsive.”
In the bread and butter “governance” category are items on both chambers’ to-do lists that include establishing a new state court for business disputes and improving water infrastructure; school security in the wake of the gun massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary; and compensation for current and retired public school educators.
Culture war legislation
The lists “differ in terms of the priority they give to red meat culture war legislation — more by the Senate than House,” said Rice’s Jones. At the same time, Phelan took pains to include pet bills for big business, such as a replacement for the business-recruitment subsidy known as Chapter 313 and tying community colleges’ funding to their production of skilled workers. Patrick did not.
When it comes to border security, the two lists obscure long-standing political reality but signal feuding that’s likely to erupt between the two GOP-controlled chambers.
No member of the Legislature is more identifiable as a border hawk than Patrick, who soared from Houston radio talk show host to powerful lawmaker in large part by harping on worries over illegal immigration. Both the Senate’s introduced two-year state budget and the House’s include $4.6 billion to continue Abbott’s Operation Lone Star effort at the border.
Patrick’s priority list, however, didn’t include a borderrelated bill. Sensing an opening, Phelan pounced, and offered three bills, including House Bill 20 to establish a new Texas Border Protection Unit within the Department of Public Safety and let residents volunteer to assist its efforts.
Rice’s Jones sees a parallel to 2021, when staunchly conservative Tyler GOP Rep. Matt Schaefer authored a bill that shook up that session’s gunrights debates — permitless carry of handguns, with no training course or licenses required.
This year, Schaefer, who is chairman of the Texas Freedom Caucus, which has nettled GOP speakers in the past, is author of HB 20. In addition to forming the border unit, it would allow the governor to declare a migrant invasion and create a third-degree felony, “trespass while entering the state of Texas.”
Two years ago, Schaefer, aided by Phelan, forced Patrick and Abbott to reconsider and embrace the permitless-carry gun bill, which Abbott signed.
Friday night’s filing of HB 20 “follows the pattern” of the speaker’s “outflanking Patrick and the Senate on the right as a way to provide cover against accusations of being insufficiently conservative when the House kills other conservative priority bills this session,” Jones said.
Houston’s Rottinghaus added, “This might be the session where border security talk matches the blustery rhetoric. Republican leaders are giving Republican primary voters what they want — an aggressive session on border issues and a muscular defense of the border. Leaders are hoping this keeps the base happy but also courts crossover votes among Latinos along the border.”
In contrast to 2021, when he was first elected as the House’s presiding officer, Phelan this year has not just declared priorities early in the session with “shell bills,” House bills with low bill numbers but no detailed provisions. He waited until authors provided measures full of specifics before announcing them as his priorities.
And while all of Patrick’s 30 priority bills are authored by Republicans, six of Phelan’s 29 top measures are by Democrats.
“The House is more member-focused, and the Senate is more Dan Patrick-focused,” Rottinghaus said. “Speaker Phelan made it a priority to give members a say in the House agenda, even Democrats.”
Jones said that’s because Phelan’s speakership “rests on a foundation that includes some Democratic support while Patrick’s control of the Senate is essentially 100% Democrat-free.”
But Jones noted that House Democrats who engineered the 2021 walkouts designed to thwart passage of a GOPbacked election bill are not carrying any of the House’s priority measures. That half a dozen Democrats authored bills on the list is “reflective of the speaker favoring Democrats who are more cooperative than many of their peers.”
That’s especially true of Tracy King of Batesville, who is author of the chamber’s water bill; Houston’s Harold Dutton, who is carrying sweeteners designed to retain teachers in the classroom; Houston’s Senfronia Thompson, the lead on a bill to create a Mental Health and Brain Research Institute; and El Paso’s Joe Moody, who introduced a priority bill that would keep juvenile offenders closer to home.
“Democrats will be upset with the passage of HB 20,” the border unit bill, Jones said.
“But Phelan and his team will remind them that the passage of HB 20 is the price they have to pay to prevent the passage of other bills which both Democrats and many Republicans, including Team Phelan, consider to be too conservative.”