Prazan on Politics: The Man in the Middle

Editorial Cartoon by Clayton Bowen

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In front of 181 lawmakers, families and the live stream-viewing public, Gov. Abbott came out for his first State of the State address. Afterward, piles of media and lawmakers gathered in the back room for the ever-so-crucial, “So… what did you think?” The Republicans loved it. The Democrats didn’t hate it. Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis and Austin Rep. Donna Howard seemed happy his emergency topics (early ed, higher ed research, transportation funding, border security and ethics reform) were not divisive campaign issues. Now it’s time to govern.

Howard said she was glad, “He focused on issues that affected Texans’ everyday lives.” Abbott gave the Democrat three shout-outs during his speech. He never uttered the name of his predecessor of 14 years, Rick Perry.

While Rep. Stickland was disappointed “open carry” wasn’t an emergency item, he was happy that the governor mentioned it.

Abbott’s speech was unifying, as it should be. He’ll have to work with these people for a long time and needs to start out on the good side. On the heels of “the most powerful governor in Texas history,” he has to balance a big personality in the Senate with a Speaker who is hated by some but undoubtedly knows what he’s doing. Any word from the governor could throw major support for one issue or the other. His emergency items gave the beginning of the session its focus. He’ll have to negotiate his ideas with the will of the House and the Senate.

The will of the Senate

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his media team know their way around a press conference. Early this session, the senators set the tone. Major transportation funding and second amendment bills are already on their way to floor votes. Last week Patrick said, he and the governor are so close on some issues, “You couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”

That seems true for tax relief, border security, transportation funding, budget gimmicks, and firearm bills but not for others. While Patrick will “put his shoulder behind” giving state money to private schools so parents have more school choice, Abbott wants to give more money ($1,500) to public schools that implement his programs and wants to give millions of dollars to make sure teachers have more training. His budget has $164 million going to technology at underperforming schools.

He also urges lawmakers to spend money on higher education research. Patrick backers, like Empower Texans, aren’t exactly fond of the current higher ed system and is straight-up angry with two of Abbott’s recent University of Texas systems regent appointees.

The will of the House

The 150 members of the house are divided into three sections: Democrats, Republicans, and the Tea Party. They rarely get along when it comes to tough choices. House Speaker Joe Straus (R- San Antonio) has the task of managing priorities that comes with each person. Every member but 19 very conservative members voted for him again as speaker. He has a reputation for letting members vote their districts and not doing much media. When asked to predict what will happen, he often says it will be up to “the will of the House.”

While Lt. Governor Dan Patrick will put his shoulder behind school choice, the Straus led House looks to build upon public school reforms from 2013, when they dropped the number of standardized tests from 15 to five. Education guru Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, seems to have hope of finally creating a school finance system that won’t get tied up in court. Wouldn’t that be nice… Currently 600 school districts are suing the State over our current, property tax-based system. Last session, a big House majority voted to never have any state dollars go to private schools, practically spitting in the face of school choice-ers. Abbott’s first two emergency items (more money for state Pre-K and public higher education research) has to make the House happy.

For the border, the House is vastly different from the Senate. Patrick and other senators laid out a manpower-heavy, $815 million budget for border security. The House has half that. In interviews, House members have come close to saying that number is ridiculous. The House’s plan calls for money-saving, technology-infused camera technology to monitor the border. House Appropriations Chair John Otto has hinted in interviews that this is the – cough, cough – more fiscally conservative thing to do. Abbott’s plan calls for $735 million.

At the beginning of his policy blueprint, Abbott lays out plans that could make Texas’s historically weak governor more powerful. His first recommendation in his book is to amend the Texas Constitution so the governor can have a line-item reduction veto on the state budget. So if he likes the idea but doesn’t think it should get that much money, he can change it.

Surrounded by the mass of egos that is the Texas Capitol, Abbott is tasked with leading our state into the post-Rick Perry period. You can see a direct line between Abbott’s blueprint and many ideas forming the chambers (HB 4 looks a lot like Abbott’s Pre-K plan). While he says he’s adamant about cutting taxes and border security, his emergency items are a pivot away from campaigning and a move to governing — a move most people want.

He’ll negotiate his goals into the broader bill-making process. So far, it looks like the Senate will line up and throw very conservative bills to the House, where they will get moderated or muddled down. Either way, Abbott has to sign off and approve everything that will happen.

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