This time two years ago, the stage was already set for a political rumble.
Months before the 85th legislative session even began in January 2017, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had started laying out a hefty list of priorities, perhaps most notably the “bathroom bill,” a measure that would have restricted the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans.
“We know it’s going to be a tough fight,” Patrick said at a news conference days before the Legislature gaveled in for the first time.
He was right about the fight. The battle lines were drawn: Republican House Speaker Joe Straus had already dismissed the bill, saying it wasn’t a priority, and LGBT advocates and Democrats were already gearing up to take the issue to the mat. The fight would drag on through the summer, helping prompt a special session and headlining a stalemate between the upper and lower chambers.
This year, with hours to go before the 86th Legislature convenes in Austin, the Capitol is quieter. Patrick hasn’t yet laid out a formal list of legislative priorities, and since winning re-election in November, the outspoken conservative leader has stayed relatively under the radar.
The emergence of a new House speaker — likely state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, who’s known for his hardline tactics and outspoken style — all but guarantees a different dynamic between the state’s top three political leaders. Patrick and Bonnen have clashed publicly in the past. But since Bonnen announced he had the votes to lead the House, they’ve signaled nothing but cooperation.
Against the backdrop of new leadership, Texas Republicans are also grappling with how to position themselves after a 2018 midterm election cycle that some interpreted as a rebuke of conservative social policies. Republicans still hold majorities in both chambers — but Democrats made significant inroads in November, securing their biggest bloc in the Texas House in a decade.
In the lead-up to the biennial 140-day session, there has been little talk of divisive social issues at all, such as a bathroom bill equivalent or the anti-“sanctuary city” legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott championed in the runup to 2017. Instead, leaders of both chambers and parties have largely coalesced behind two bread-and-butter policy issues: property taxes and school finance.
“This is going to be more of a blocking and tackling session. This is more of a basics session,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who led Senate efforts on property tax reform last session and said the outgoing House speaker was the proposal’s “number one opponent.” “What I’m looking to do is pass legislation that really affects folks in ways that they can measure it. And we need measurable tax relief.”
“Number one, number two and number three”
What little state leaders have said so far about session priorities has focused on school finance and property taxes. Patrick and Abbott highlighted the issues on the campaign trail last fall. And asked last month what he hopes to focus on this session, Bonnen was explicit.
“The top three things is — number one, number two and number three — is school finance and property tax reform. Those are the top three issues for me,” Bonnen told reporters after an event in Tyler last month.
But agreeing on the problems hardly means finding solutions will be easy. In 2017, proposals on both issues suffered due to stalemates between the two chambers. On school finance, the House proposed vastly more money for the system than did the Senate; the lower chamber ultimately accepted a Senate bill that one House Republican remarked “came back almost $1.5 billion skinny.”
The chambers also struggled to compromise on property tax proposals, as tensions flared between Patrick, Straus and Bonnen, a top lieutenant of the speaker at the time who shepherded the House’s measure through the chamber.
Bonnen was at the center of that drama in 2017. So far this year, leaders seem confident that there will be no drama. Patrick wrote in a Dec. 31 email to supporters that after the disappointments of last session, he is “even more determined to pass legislation to reform and reduce property taxes in 2019.”
“With new leadership in the Texas House, I am confident we can get that done,” he wrote.
Patrick and Bonnen have made a public show of good faith and cooperation. And a seemingly improved inter-chamber dynamic has many lawmakers optimistic about a more productive session for priority issues like schools and taxes.
Asked about their priorities, many lawmakers also say they’re hoping to tackle school safety measures and disaster recovery. State leaders have also named teacher pay a priority.
And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, from liberal Democrats to the hardline Texas House Freedom Caucus, have expressed optimism about Bonnen’s leadership. Members of both factions were among the 100-plus House members who backed his bid for speaker — due, at least in part, to impression that the likely new speaker will allow every member to have a voice in the legislative process.
Some Republicans are hopeful that Bonnen will allow floor votes on the types of controversial measures that Straus blocked. And some Democrats believe Bonnen’s no-nonsense approach will mean they can spend less time fighting “bathroom bill”-like proposals. That broad coalition is likely to be on full display next week: A number of House members from every political faction are set to deliver nominating speeches for Bonnen’s speaker bid.
The apparent lack of appetite for aggressive conservative social policy follows an election in which Democrats made notable legislative gains, and several Republican statewide officials won by narrower-than-usual margins. In the House, Democrats picked off a dozen Republican-held seats; in the Senate, Patrick now holds a razor-thin supermajority, meaning one rogue Republican could jeopardize his agenda on partisan votes.
The new balance of power — and the expectation of a strong new leader on the House side — has even outspoken politicians holding their tongues for now, observers suggested.
“It’s likely to be a session that’s got a lower temperature than the last one for a couple of reasons,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Republicans are worried that their coalition is unraveling, and focusing on social issues is becoming less of a solid electoral strategy. Their mindset is changing.”
At the same time, he added, “Democrats are willing to flex their newfound political muscle.”
State Sen. José R. Rodríguez, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, said “voters sent a clear message this last election.”
“In my view, the Legislature does its best work when we have more balance and the needs of all Texans are taken into account when setting our budget and policy priorities rather than focusing on partisan issues,” he said. “It's my hope that with a more bipartisan legislature, we will be able to address the real challenges Texas families face.”
“Still to be determined”
But even if lawmakers agree on what issues to tackle, they hardly agree on how best to do so. As bills begin to get dissected in committee hearings and on the floor, discussions even on consensus priorities like school funding and property tax reform are likely to trigger fault lines.
Both chambers are set to welcome significant groups of freshmen this year. The Senate will see six new members, and the House has almost 30 first timers busy completing administrative paperwork, moving into offices and securing parking spots before the first day of session. On top of that, new House leadership has prompted a flurry of staff hires and other transitions before the House formally elects a new speaker on Tuesday.
Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist, said the dynamic has not yet been set between new members and veteran lawmakers in both chambers, which leaves a lot of questions still on the table.
“What they want to do and how they want to go about it is still to be determined,” he said.