Texas state capitol dome

Texas state capitol dome

May 27, 2019

The state’s top political leaders had promised that 2019 would be a “kumbaya” session. But there was plenty of reason for skepticism.

Coming off a punishing midterm election year, Texas Republicans knew they had to focus on the issues that had animated mainstream voters. If they didn’t overhaul the state’s arcane school finance system and clamp down on rising property taxes, they might not be back to try again.

But personalities had gotten in the way of these policy goals before, even in a state where the GOP holds every lever of power, with the last legislative sessions in 2017 ending on a particularly bitter note. And the leaders in place to secure those wins, despite the united front they took care to project, weren’t exactly known for their calm demeanors.

The new House speaker was Dennis Bonnen, a seasoned Republican leader with a reputation for being short tempered. Still at the helm of the upper chamber was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose unyielding socially conservative agenda helped propel the Legislature to stalemates in 2017. And many lawmakers wondered whether Gov. Greg Abbott, criticized as aloof in sessions past, would be more willing this year to weigh in on legislative disputes, guiding the House and Senate toward bills he’d be willing to sign.

At the Capitol, political observers took bets on when the public campfire singalong would end. As the Legislature marks its 140th and final day Monday, it still hasn’t.

The 86th Legislature was built on a different foundation. With a new speaker in the House and a more hands-on governor, the “Big Three” took a different path: keeping any simmering tensions behind the scenes and ultimately reaching compromises that would keep the relationships and priorities on the rails. Unity intact, they passed an overhaul that pours billions in new money into public schools, and achieved a property tax reform measure they’ve been pushing for years.

“We’re all three strong personalities — clearly, strong personalities,” Patrick acknowledged in an interview this weekend in his office. “This was a team effort. That’s what makes this session different. This wasn’t about personalities. No one stood up.”

“We all said, ‘If we’re gonna do this, we have to work together.’ And if we have our disagreements, we disagree privately,” he added.

“This is unprecedented!”

Perhaps the first threat to that united front came on a brisk morning in January. On the north steps of the Capitol, flanked by two bands and a great deal of pomp and circumstance, Patrick and Abbott had just been sworn in for their second terms leading state government. Patrick had pulled the new speaker up to the podium with him, too, boasting, “This is unprecedented!”

As he laid out his agenda for the session, Patrick made some news.

“I’m happy to say to you today that one hour ago, Sen. Jane Nelson just filed a bill, Senate Bill 3, to give every teacher in the state of Texas, all 350,000, an across-the-board $5,000 raise,” he said. “That raise will be paid for with $3.7 billion of new funding to education — first, to teachers.”

It was a grand promise, one that would pass the Senate unanimously roughly two months later. But to Abbott and Bonnen, sitting behind Patrick, the bill filed that day was a nearly $4 billion surprise, according to people familiar with their thinking.

Patrick had long been agitating for teacher raises. But the bill’s price tag — and its timing — had the potential to disrupt the session. The Big Three had agreed that school finance and property tax reform were the session’s top mandates — and they knew they had to avoid the public bickering that had stymied major policies in sessions past.

The gulf between the chambers would only widen from there. For weeks, the Republican chairmen of the two chambers’ education committees, Rep. Dan Huberty and Sen. Larry Taylor, said they planned to file identical education bills and announce them together at a joint press conference.

But when Huberty rolled out the House’s plan in March, flanked by a bipartisan group of House members, money for Patrick’s teacher raises was missing — as was Taylor. Nor did Huberty’s bill contain another Patrick priority: the outcomes-based funding he’d said was critical to improving student progress.

Asked at the press conference about the Senate’s proposal, Bonnen got testy.

"I don't know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise ... with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach" a school finance “plan,” Bonnen said.

"What we have is a plan," he continued. "I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas."

The kindling had piled up, and Bonnen dropped the spark. But Patrick stayed calm.

"The good news is that both the House and Senate remain focused on property tax reform, increasing teacher pay and school finance reform,” Sherry Sylvester, senior adviser to Patrick, said at the time. “We look forward to working with the House on these issues this session.”

Days later, before a midnight filing deadline, Taylor filed a shell version of his proposal. It contained few numbers and many holes. But there was enough in the bill to clearly distinguish it from what the House had pitched.

How, some wondered, would the two chambers bridge that divide? And to do it, would they need to go into overtime — as Patrick had hinted?

The “lynchpin”

Leadership had started closer together on property taxes. On the last day in January, the three leaders appeared shoulder to shoulder to unveil their plan for reforming the state’s property tax system and curbing property tax growth.

The proposal called for triggering automatic local elections when a local government’s property tax revenue grew more than 2.5% in a given year. The legislation, filed in identical form in both the House and Senate later that day, was a drastic departure from the current rollback rate of 8%, and even from the numbers the two chambers had gridlocked over in 2017 — a clear concession to the governor, who was the first to propose a figure that low.

Abbott, flanked by Patrick, Bonnen and the two lawmakers spearheading the measure in their respective chambers, called it “completely unprecedented” that state leaders were already so aligned on such a complicated issue. The three leaders, Bonnen said, were “already joined together” and would not be divided on the solution.

Yet opposition immediately mounted. Hours after that big rollout, Democrats and city officials declared that the measure would hamstring their budgets, eating into priorities like public safety. And just days later, even fellow Republicans began to cast doubt on the version of the bill that the Big Three had trumpeted; the House’s chief budget writer remarked in an interview that a 2.5% election trigger would place “a real stranglehold on our county officials, our city officials.”

Weeks passed, and the legislation that had the backing of the state’s top three leaders appeared stalled. The bill had languished so long on the Senate’s agenda, lacking enough support to be brought up for debate, that Patrick had to threaten to take the “nuclear option,” blowing past Senate tradition to bring it up. The House, in the meantime, pushed ahead with a version of the bill that looked quite different from the language they’d all rolled out together.

One Thursday, the House was set to take up the bill, but it didn’t. The Senate, rumored to pick up the measure instead, didn’t either. Which side of the Capitol would move first? Could the upper chamber muster the support to advance the bill at all?

Amid the confusion, Bonnen crossed the Capitol to confer with Patrick.

“He just came over and we had a chat unannounced,” Patrick recalled this week. The stakes, he said, were obvious: “We both knew if we didn’t pass Senate Bill 2, then it would be tough to pass House Bill 3. … Senate Bill 2 was the lynchpin.”

The Senate passed the bill that afternoon. Days later, the House approved its own version. When the bill went to conference committee, where House and Senate lawmakers worked to iron out their differences, Bonnen joked that there in fact wasn’t “much to conference about.”

“His comments are his own”

With the tax reform and school finance bills moving ahead apace, leaders still had a major problem: Their two priority bills did not deliver the “meaningful tax relief” they’d sold at the start of session. Searching for a revenue stream that would provide enough money to offer notable cuts in homeowners’ tax bills, the Big Three announced a plan to raise the state sales tax by 1 percentage point.

Democrats immediately condemned the regressive tax, whose burden would largely have been borne by lower-income Texans. And many conservative Republicans were skeptical of what they saw as a tax increase in any form.

With support floundering for the measure in both chambers, the Senate untethered the tax swap proposal from its sweeping school finance bill, demonstrating that the must-pass education priority could survive without the new revenue stream — and signaling that senators had little love for the swap idea in the first place. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Senate’s resident “tax man,” had already made his disdain for the proposal well-known, mouthing off about it at a Senate education committee hearing and earning, via tweet, the admonishment of his boss in the big chair.

Soon, the tax swap proposal was dead — but it wasn’t put to rest without some theatrics. In a memorable back-and-forth, House members blamed the Senate — and Bettencourt in particular — for putting the final nail in the coffin. Yet as lawmakers sniped back and forth, the leaders of both chambers kept their powder dry.

Direct attacks at Bettencourt could easily have provoked an interchamber fight. But Patrick instead worked to distance himself from one of his closest lieutenants, the man he’d tapped to run for his Senate seat when he first ran statewide.

“[Abbott, Bonnen and I] have agreed to consider a sales tax swap to buy down property taxes,” Patrick tweeted at the time. “[Bettencourt’s] comments in opposition to a sales tax are his own.”

Beyond the social media wrist slap, Bettencourt was denied his expected post as chair of the conference committee on Senate Bill 2, a measure he authored.

With Bettencourt taking the blame, the harmony among the Big Three could sing on uninterrupted.

Patrick publicly lamented the tax swap’s death. In an interview a week later, Bonnen went out of his way to praise Patrick’s efforts — ultimately unsuccessful — to get the tax swap through the chamber.

“The lieutenant governor, to his credit, was supportive all the way,” the speaker told an Austin TV station.

“Couldn't be more pleased”

The Big Three have credited their success this session to increased communication. Bonnen recruited well-seasoned Capitol fixtures to lead his new operation. Abbott overhauled his staff, hiring a number of top aides with close ties to the Legislature, and appeared more on the floors of both chambers, chatting with lawmakers and occasionally giving hints as to what he’d be willing to sign. The three leaders had a series of joint public appearances, always projecting unity — a strategy Patrick insists would not have been possible under past leadership.

Weekly Big Three breakfasts — which abruptly stopped in 2017 as tensions rose — resumed and lasted until the end of session. They were all business — "very little chitchat," Patrick said. In the past, those meals had included the state’s comptroller; this year, it was just the three men and their chiefs of staff.

“This is the first time in five years that the three leaders of the state had breakfast in the month of May,” Bonnen said with a chuckle at a press conference earlier this month. “And we’ll have breakfast for the rest of the month of May.”

If those breakfasts witnessed fireworks over teacher pay or anything else, it never became public. Leaders acknowledged that they’d had private disagreements but were careful not to say too much, even after their priority bills had crossed the finish line.

“One time, Patrick didn’t like the bacon — wasn’t crispy enough,” joked Bonnen when asked Monday about the kind of disagreements the three had. “That’s the beauty of it; we’re not discussing what we disagreed on. … [That’s] why we’re in such a strong position together.”

By April, the House had added a more modest across-the-board teacher pay raise to its school finance pitch, and by early May, the two chambers were working side by side to pass a version of it. The reform bill pours $6.5 billion into public schools and allocates $5.1 billion to lower school district property taxes. The final version does not include the across-the-board raises Patrick originally championed; instead, it requires school districts to direct some of their new funding towards salary increases and benefits for teachers and other school personnel. But Patrick has said he couldn’t be happier with the result.

Both Patrick and Bonnen said they never doubted they’d get there — though Patrick did wonder if they’d get there on time.

“We were not going to leave here with $9 billion in the bank and not address school finance, property taxes and teacher pay,” Patrick said. “That I knew, and it was just what the final package [would] look like. And I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Bonnen agreed — and told reporters Monday that there “was absolutely, never, at any time, a reason or explanation” for why lawmakers couldn’t accomplish the tasks laid out before them.

“Never for a moment did I feel we wouldn’t — because I never saw a reason why we shouldn’t,” he said.

In the waning weeks of session, as Senate bills began to die in the House, Patrick was careful not to lay the blame at Bonnen’s feet — even when Patrick’s priorities died because Bonnen’s lieutenants didn’t place them on the House calendar. Patrick lost several of his bills that way: a sweeping effort to target “voter fraud,” a bill to make it more difficult for cities to take down Confederate monuments, a religious refusals bill allowing workers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their occupational licenses are at risk for workplace behavior — a measure LGBTQ advocates have called a “license to discriminate.” Patrick said he does not blame the speaker for the failure of those bills.

By mid-May, the priority bills were in conference committees, and the priorities seemed well on their way. Talk of needing a special session to get it all done had faded; optimism was in the air. As the session neared its end this month, the three appeared again side by side on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to declare that a deal had been struck on teacher pay and the session’s other thorny issues — and that their relationship was now stronger than ever because of it.

“I made some pretty bold promises to the people of Texas," Abbott said last week. "I said we will do what no one thought possible. We will finally fix school finance in Texas. And I'm proud to tell you today we are announcing that we have done exactly that."

“If we had not had a change in leadership,” Patrick insisted, “these things would not have happened.”

"To pass school finance and property tax bills, Texas’ legislative leaders had to choose cooperation over combativeness" was first published at by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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