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Hooks on Politics

tax cuts

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

The deal hasn’t been finalized quite yet, but here’s what we know so far: The two chambers have agreed on a 25 percent cut to the franchise tax. The huge property tax deal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bet nearly all of his chips on this session is dead, and in return for its death the House has agreed to a fixed increase in the property tax homestead exemption—from $15,000 to $25,000—which is smaller than Patrick’s original proposal.

The deal lets Patrick save face after abandoning his all-or-nothing approach to his property tax plan. But some of the key provisions that Patrick’s conservative backers most wanted, like tying the homestead exemption to median home values, are gone.

Did he, in the vulgar language of the Capitol, “win”? That depends on what you think the game was. If Patrick’s goal was to provide any kind or flavor of property tax “relief,” he succeeded. But the stakes here were always higher for Patrick than they were for the House.

Privately, many in the lower chamber didn’t really believe in a future for their plan, except as a negotiating tool to curb Patrick’s ambitions. When you take into account the different goals for the two chambers, it is harder to say who came out on top. The House won franchise tax cuts that the business lobby liked more than those offered by the Senate. By offering a larger overall tax cut plan than Patrick did, the House deprived Patrick of the political ammunition of claiming the House was standing in between you and cutting your property taxes. It’s very difficult for legislators to stand against property tax cuts, which are essentially political heroin, and yet they found an effective way to do so.

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

If you think Patrick’s original plan stunk, you should be grateful to the House for somehow convincing him to abandon what was his biggest priority, one he kept doubling down on. And in the course of the standoff, the size of the offered tax plan, which at one point had almost reached $5 billion, has shrunk down to $3.8 billion. That’s a sizeable chunk of change the state will need in the 2017 session, or the next special session, when it’s likely to need it very badly.

But there’s still an opportunity cost to going along with even the small property tax cut. In the draft of the budget released by the conference committee Wednesday afternoon, a package of additional money that the House had attempted to allocate to public education had been scaled back from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. It cannot be said enough that Texas has not returned to the same level of investment in public services, particularly education, that it had before the last recession.

These are supposed to be flush times, when we store up our surplus and make prudent investments before the next winter. That’s fiscal conservatism. Instead, we’re ensuring that when hard times come again—as they inevitably will—the cuts we’ll have to make will cut even deeper. It’s a fundamentally reckless way to run the state.

texas tea party

The 2014 election cycle was the most rousing success the conservative wing of the Republican party has ever had in Texas, and the 84th Legislature is that election’s child. How do the people who made that victory happen feel about their session?

They are not pleased:

As sine die approaches, we recall the hours spent knocking on doors and making calls for candidates who promised government reforms that would make Texas a national leader in limited government and a true champion of liberty.

We remember every single rhetorical flourish that promised Texas would have a secure border, restored Second Amendment Rights, a ban on sanctuary cities, lasting property tax relief, an end to the franchise tax, an end to tolling, protections for life and traditional Texas values, and educational freedom through school choice. It’s beginning to look as if some of those campaign promises are “all hat and no cattle.”

With the condition our country is in, we’re in no mood for any stalling, slow walking, or backtracking from Texas leaders. We need Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick to make good on their campaign promises.

That’s from a letter signed by some 28 members of state’s tea party cognoscenti, to the extent such a thing exists. Several of them serve on the lite guv’s Grassroots Advisory Board—those are the guys who called Abbott’s pre-K plan, now passed by both chambers, “godless” and “socialistic.”

They charge that Abbott, Patrick and Straus are on the cusp of “failure,” and the session has been a waste. These people have always loathed Straus, and Abbott was never really one of them, though some of the signers here have been slow to realize that. But it’s significant that Patrick is being charged with crimes against the revolution here too. After all, some of these people have been empanelled as his “advisors.”

Ok, so what would they like to happen? Keep in mind—there’s 10 days left in the session. Pretty much everything that’s not already on the path to final passage is doomed.

Greg Abbott
Gage Skidmore
Gov. Greg Abbott

Secure the border […] End social service magnets (including in-state tuition breaks) for illegal aliens; ban sanctuary cities; mandate employment verification such as E-verify, and impose penalties for violators

Advance & protect the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death

Restore Second Amendment rights

Protect religious liberty – the right to resist violation of personal conscience

Protect religious freedom of clergy, pastors, and churches Protect Texas from a federal redefinition of marriage-HB 4105/SB 673

Prohibit the use of foreign laws, which do not guarantee our fundamental constitutional rights, from being used in Texas courts (ALAC)

Protect and harden the Texas electric grid—a life, security and economic issue

Provide educational freedom and choice for all parents and students

Advance fiscal responsibility through constitutional spending limits, budget transparency, debt and tax reform

Reform state transportation policy to end dependence on debt and tolling

Advance private property rights with eminent domain and annexation reforms

Sounds easy enough, right? Yes, some of the bills they single out literally cannot be passed, and some issues were effectively shut down months ago—the anti-LGBT House Bill 4105 is and has been dead. But now that the fire has been lit under them, Abbott, Patrick and Straus will get moving quickly to protect the electrical grid from electromagnetic pulse weapons, one presumes. This session has swung, with metronomic regularity, from quiet bleakness to high comedy. This is a fine entry in the latter category as the last days roll by.

It’s funny, but these aren’t just cranks. They have real influence in the Republican primary. When Capitol observers wondered about the feasibility of a Patrick primary challenge to Abbott in 2018, these are the people who were supposed to have been his footsoldiers—very good people to have in a fight. Maybe they still are. They’ll certainly take to Patrick more than the alternative.

But it’s a sign that he hasn’t done as good a job of managing expectations among his core supporters as he might have. It’s an interesting political problem: How do you satisfy a political base that literally cannot be satisfied?

Well, maybe they can: But it takes a special kind of leader. Recently, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party delivered a flag signed by their members to an exceptional kind of guy who needs their support and prayers as he fights to pass the many bills he’s advanced on behalf of conservative values this session: Jonathan Stickland.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriage in February.

 

There was a lot of posturing Friday about the death of House Bill 4105, a fairly bizarre anti-gay marriage bill from state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) that fell victim to a major House procedural deadline Thursday night.

Bell, who was one of the reps to cut that famous anti-gay wedding cake a couple months back, aimed to establish another last line of defense against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. His bill, which was co-authored by so many GOP reps that they alone would have guaranteed passage, would have turned the current gay marriage ban to a super-duper superban.

It was a very dumb bill from the start, and mismanaged by its supporters even by the low standards of the Texas Legislature. It was filed very late—literally on the last day a bill could be filed, March 13—and then it sat around. By the time it was eligible to come to the House floor, it was so far back on the calendar that it became easy for Democrats to talk and talk and talk—a tactic known as “chubbing,” for some probably ungodly reason—until the midnight Thursday deadline for considering yet-unpassed House bills.

Immediately, the posturing began. Democrats celebrated the death of 4105 as a triumph of legislative cunning and tenacity. Conservatives bashed House leadership while simultaneously claiming the bill’s existence was evidence they were “#StillWinning,” even if the bill got hara-kiri’ed. On Friday, the overwhelming majority of the House GOP caucus pledged their undying support of traditional marriage in a flowery letter. They wanted the bill to have passed so bad, they said.

It makes perfect sense for the Democrats to claim total victory here, especially since they will have few other chances this session. Gay marriage and gay rights are a huge issue for the party, though it’s hard to predict the practical consequences of Bell’s bill given that the Supreme Court soon might effectively sweep away the relevant statutes. And Democrats certainly were a major reason why the bill died: Chubbing isn’t as tough as filibustering, but they did smart work over the last week to slow the process just enough.

But if they hit a home run here, it’s because they got an easy pitch. Most House GOPers, whatever their other faults, still know a stupid bill when they see one. There’s a general level of acknowledgement in many quarters—even among some social conservatives—that the increasingly Sisyphean struggle against gay marriage is a lost cause, and a distraction from causes the godly folk really care about, like abortion. (Importantly, the business lobby, the Legislature’s one true Almighty Power, is tired of these shenanigans.)

In other words, if House Republicans wanted this to pass, it would have. There’s so much House leadership can do to a bill when it really cares.

But conservatives who want to pin this on House Speaker Joe Straus are ignoring their own glaring failures here. The bill was filed when the session was nearly half-over. Bell’s original gay marriage bill, HB 623, went nowhere, then was dropped and re-emerged, weakened, as 4105.

If anti-gay ringleaders like Jonathan Saenz wanted to maximize their leverage over reluctant pols, there were many other things they could have done, starting by using the more sympathetic Senate. They could enlist Sen. Brian Birdwell or Sen. Donna Campbell to carry a companion to Bell’s bill. Now the framing is different, and you have a lifeboat if Bell’s bill tanks. Instead, they launched a hastily folded paper airplane into anti-aircraft fire. Well done, fellas.

Ah, but Saenz would tell you, we’re still winning. Look at all those names that signed up to coauthor the bill. Look at the letter today, signed by 93 of the House’s 98 Republicans. Does he believe it, or is he putting on a good face? Saenz is, for whatever else he is, not dumb. It would be wise to suspect the latter.

That letter, though. Here’s a sampling of the prose:

Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to experience since our admission as the 28th state within these United States of America.

We, therefore, affirm the preservation of the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife, and pledge to uphold and defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

This is a bit like forgetting to water your friend’s plants when she’s out of town, only to send an essay upon her return emphasizing the importance that you place in the concept of plants, and the value of keeping them alive.

None of this is to say that other anti-gay amendments or bills won’t pass in the coming weeks, or that a majority of Republicans in the Legislature are secretly pro-gay marriage. Far from it. If a vote occurs on some of the provisions of HB 4105, offered as amendments to other bills, they could easily pass. But the events of the last few days are evidence of the writing on the wall for Saenz & company.

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Texas House of Representatives
The Texas House in session on April 4, 2013.

 

This has been a fairly demoralizing few weeks for even those with low expectations for state government. Events point to a significant way in which the polarization of Texas state government is making it more like its dread enemy, Congress.

In recent years across the political spectrum, in Texas and nationally, we’ve seen the time between the end of one election and the beginning of the next shorten—constant political agitation powered in part by the scrutiny brought by new media, and the increasing demand for ideological purity, have dissolved the distance between governing and campaigning.

The 84th Texas Legislature is best understood as one part of a never-ending, ouroboros-like primary. The 2014 election brought us statewide elected officials who don’t know how to stop campaigning: They’ve never been forced to do otherwise. That’s true up and down the statewide ticket, from Gov. Greg Abbott to Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, but it’s manifested itself particularly in the Legislature this year. As a result, and partially because of the role of a number of outside instigators, the political atmosphere around the Capitol this session has been less conducive to governing and more conducive to showmanship and brinksmanship.

Start with Abbott, who must rue the fact that the story of his Jade Helm 15 letter is now entering its third week, and seems to continue ricocheting around national and international media like a stray bullet. It is the most widely covered thing Abbott has done as governor, if not in his entire career as a public servant.

On one hand, some members of the media have made too much of Abbott’s letter. It has few, if any, practical negative consequences.

But the wording of the letter—and the failure of Abbott’s team to comprehend how it would read to outsiders—is small evidence that the governor’s office hasn’t fully adapted to governing. He amplified nutters when he easily could have ignored them. A major responsibility of the governor of any state, one would think, would be to avoid embarrassing his constituents. Are these mistakes because of inexperience, or because he fears a future primary challenge?

Whatever it is, there’s little room to credit him with good faith here: Abbott has a long history of these pontifications. He loves to position himself as the protector of the vulnerable and frightened. When international election observers came to the United States to observe the 2012 presidential election, he threatened them with arrest, cheering conservative groups and earning a similar kind of backlash as the Jade Helm letter. Three years later, he’s using the same playbook.

When it comes to governing, though, Abbott has been less sure of himself. He’s at least partially responsible for the logjam between the House and Senate, thanks to his failure to articulate his positions, a gap the lobby has been only too willing to fill. His failure to speak clearly isn’t about policy confusion—one assumes his team has a preference—but about an unwillingness to take political risks by alienating one chamber or another. But those moments are precisely what governing is about.

Then there’s Dan Patrick, Abbott’s 2014 classmate. One of his first acts with the gavel was to polarize the Senate by killing the two-thirds rule. No longer would Democrats have very much of a say in anything, a change they said would make the upper chamber more like D.C. Still, many of the biggest items on Patrick’s wish list are unattainable to him. Instead, Patrick has developed a novel style of governance, which one could describe as the Senate of Forms.

He pledged to deliver “next level” conservatism to the Lege, but his tenure as lite guv seems to have been consumed primarily by the promotion of bills and policies that are doomed to failure and were perhaps never really even intended to pass. Patrick spent the first two months of the session holding press conferences about his policy agenda, piling those on top of a mountain of promises he’d already made as a candidate, as if he were a newly elected president. It’s a strange way to run the Senate, one that seems tailored solely to help Patrick with his next primary.

Take the effort to repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows some of the state’s undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. This was one of the things that Patrick talked most about on the campaign trail: He vowed that its repeal would be one of his first, if not his first, acts. But it was dead from the very beginning of the session, mostly because of his fellow Republicans.

But the shadow puppetry Patrick requires to justify himself to his base demanded that his Senate allies drag the zombie bill through committee hearings. So state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) terrified an uncountable number of people with the prospect that they, their friends or family, could one day soon no longer afford college. They came to Austin in great numbers to pour their hearts out to the Senate. They couldn’t know the bill was dead, a weird ploy in a long-running conservative shadow war.

When Patrick’s voucher bill, which we know now was also essentially dead from the start, was heard in committee, Patrick came down himself to testify for it—and take a selfie. This is not, traditionally, how the second-most powerful man in the state exercises his influence. It was a show, designed to demonstrate that he cared. People who know how to use power do not normally need to show their hand in this way.

But Patrick’s most important contribution this session has been a tax plan and associated budget gimmicks that make no sense and have almost no value. His proposed tax package gives little to taxpayers and hurts the state. When Patrick next runs for office, few voters will remember the small and temporary tax break he won them. The only importance it holds is that if it passes, Patrick can say that he cut property taxes, and if others oppose him in doing so, he can say that they kept property taxes high.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
In this, he’s fighting House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies. The campaign against Straus is one of the longest-running grudge matches in the state, and the lieutenant governor is its new champion. They don’t often talk about policy, and when they do, it doesn’t always go well. To be sure, Straus has found his own pugilists to return fire, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) chief among them. But if the two chambers fail to come to an agreement on important issues in the coming weeks, remember that it’s not about policy. It’s the campaign. And if they do come to an agreement, it will be an agreement shaped by dueling egos, not principle.

Finally, there are the legislators themselves. There’s been a general lack of communication between members of the two chambers all session. Budding primary challenges and attack sites began rolling on basically as soon as the Legislature convened. Pretty much everyone, no matter the party or chamber or faction, is unhappy with the way the session has gone so far. Some legislators and staffers say the feeling in the Lege is worse even than it was in 2011, when the Lege had to contend with an apocalyptic budget shortfall.

There could be no better symbol of the ways Austin’s political culture has deteriorated than the news that a sneak of weasels calling themselves the American Phoenix Foundation—conservative activists who at the very least, have a number of mutual friends with the consultants who back Senate right-wingers like Burton, Hall, and Huffines—have been going around the Texas Capitol making secret recordings of legislators as they go about their business.

They claim to have some 800 hours of recordings, excerpts of which Breitbart Texas says it will release after the session. They’ve been walking around the halls of the Capitol, and around Austin, with cameras, hoping to entrap legislators. They’ve harassed reporters. Once their cover was blown, they’ve taken to using their presence to intimidate capitol-goers, offering false bravado in verbal form. They seem to use fake names, and their website lists a fake address. They’re creeps.

It’s the ultimate manifestation of the permanent campaign. The recordings themselves, and the recorders themselves, are almost certainly less impressive than they let on. But even if they caught nothing important, their presence deteriorates relations and trust between legislators further.

The perception will be that one team—the team that the Senate’s right-wing is on—is spying on the other team. And as Ross Ramsey pointed out in the Texas Tribune, the decision to hold whatever the cameras caught until after the session will leave some legislators who might waver on key votes thinking, “What do they have on me?”

So with a few weeks to go in the session, we find ourselves with game-playing leaders, a carnival sideshow in the halls and unhappy legislators who, by and large, trust each other about as far as you can see in The Cloak Room. It’s possible that by Abbott and Patrick’s second session in 2017, all involved will have gained a little maturity and wisdom. But then, we’ll be even closer to the next statewide primary. It’s not an especially promising recipe for the future.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen - tax cuts

How much does Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) hate Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tax cut plan? Let him count the ways.

There’s his argument that Patrick’s proposed small break in school property taxes would be quickly swallowed up by higher appraisal rates, as a similar tax cut was in 2006. There’s his argument that’s it’s not really a tax cut at all, because the state can’t cut local property taxes. There’s his wonderment at the idea that the state giving local governments money to make up for their decreased tax revenues can really be called a “cut.” There’s his argument that, because the state can’t control local spending in the future, Patrick’s plan would result in more spending at the local level and more spending at the state level or, in his words, “spending $2 to get $1.”

Then there’s his political critique of Patrick. On Tuesday and Wednesday, at a meeting of the committee he chairs, House Ways & Means, and at a Texas Tribune event, he called Patrick, in essence, a fool. Bonnen, a Lege veteran, charged Patrick with making “some errors in his exuberance.” He laughed at the idea that Patrick offered his plan to boost local school districts. He suggested Patrick hadn’t done much “punching the numbers.”

We’re entering the last stages of one of the strangest and most consequential standoffs of the session: The fight over whether the crummy tax plan originating in the Senate or the crummy tax plan originating in the House should pass. The former would reduce property tax growth and cut business taxes, and the latter would cut sales taxes and business taxes.

Bonnen’s talk this week—along with op-eds he wrote for major Texas newspapers—are his way of laying down the law. He’s demonstrating, exhaustively, that property tax cuts will not pass the House this session—if there was any doubt about it before. (There shouldn’t have been, but some on the Senate side have been a bit slow on the uptake lately.)

In committee Tuesday, he emphasized something else: If the tax impasse results in a special session, the Legislature should be ashamed.

“I think there’s absolutely no excuse and we should all be embarrassed if we’re in a special session,” he said. “There’s no reason.”

But while Bonnen is shutting a door, he’s opening a window. In typical Lege style, he’s offered a compromise plan that’s even more ill-conceived than the two plans already on the table. His idea would be to do a tax cut package of a similar size to the two being discussed—about $4.5 billion—but make it all business tax cuts. In other words, individual Texas taxpayers wouldn’t see any tax relief at all, at least not directly. (There’s another plan being circulated now that would include a tiny amount of property tax relief as well, but the problem there is much the same.)

Dick Lavine, of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, endorsed Patrick’s plan over the House plan in committee last night, because, while he thought both were bad, more money would go to individuals with the Senate plan. (Businesses that make lots of purchases are the primary beneficiaries of the sales tax cut, and big businesses especially so.)

Bonnen’s compromise, Lavine told the Observer after his testimony, is even worse in this regard. The state would shed a huge amount of tax revenue exclusively for the benefit of businesses. And because a substantial portion of franchise taxes are paid by out-of-state shareholders, the benefit wouldn’t even all stay in Texas to be reinvested here.

So to sum up, the two chambers are having an ego contest over two poorly constructed and faulty tax cut packages. Privately, most reps don’t really care about the House plan, and most senators don’t care about the Senate plan. Neither is enthusiastic about the policy particulars involved. But because neither wants to let the other “win,” we’re headed toward either a pointless special session in which both sides still can’t “win,” or a third option, Bonnen’s proposed compromise, that’s even worse. Take pride, ladies and gentlemen, in your 84th Legislature.

Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.

Update: Congratulations, San Antonio—It’s a runoff!

As most predicted, the four-way electoral brawl to become mayor of the Alamo City has shrunk to two members. Leticia Van de Putte took 30.4 percent of the vote, followed by current mayor Ivy Taylor, who took 28.4 percent. Edged out are the runoff are Mike Villarreal, with 26 percent, and Tommy Adkisson, who took just 9.7 percent.

Though Taylor seems to have kept pace with Van de Putte through the first round of voting, she’s the underdog in the runoff. It’s much more likely that Villarreal and Adkisson voters will find a home with Van de Putte camp than Taylor.

It’s a major turnabout for Van de Putte, who got trounced in the 2014 lieutenant governor contest and resigned her seat just a few months ago. As the mayor of San Antonio, Van de Putte would again be a visible and important part of the state Democratic party hierarchy.

But in a victory-ish speech in which she appeared with her family, Van de Putte acknowledged that there’s a “lot of work left to do.” She’d need to win the support of Villarreal and Adkisson supporters after a campaign in which Van de Putte and former state Rep. Villarreal were frequently at each other’s throats. In her speech, Van de Putte called Adkisson “a dear friend” but said only that Villarreal had run “a tough campaign.” She thanked them both for their “tenacity.”

In talking to reporters afterward, she was more effusive. Adkisson had “the heart of a warrior,” she said, and Villarreal ran “an amazing campaign. Relentless, energetic, focused. I’ve got to take my hat off to him.” She said she’d be aggressive about courting both of them and their supporters.

When asked for the primary difference between herself and Taylor, VDP touted her experience in the Legislature. “If there was a major issue, I was usually in the center of it,” she said, adding that she has “the ability to work with people with very different political positions.”

Taylor, the de facto GOP candidate in the non-partisan race, faces an uphill climb. But in her speech Saturday night, she touted the passage of a ballot measure giving City Council members and the mayor a salary for the first time in the city’s history—before, they were paid a small stipend per meeting.

Another ballot measure that passed would require a vote before a streetcar or light rail system is built—a proxy vote of sorts on former Mayor Julian Castro’s plan to build a streetcar system, killed by Ivy Taylor just hours after Castro left for D.C.

Original story: On Saturday, voters in San Antonio will go to the polls to elect a new mayor—the beginning of the end of a seemingly endless series of cascading elections triggered by the departure of former Mayor Julian Castro last year to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The result probably won’t be determined tonight—with four major candidates, a runoff is almost inevitable—but tonight’s vote count isn’t just important for the residents of San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city. Much like the upcoming mayoral election in Houston, slated for November, the election in San Antonio provides an opportunity to take stock of Democratic politics in the state as we head toward 2016.

The contenders are a diverse bunch. There’s former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, last year’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Most observers feel VDP, as she’s known, is assured a spot in the runoff.

As one of the party’s standard-bearers in 2014—and for her role in Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster—VDP has had an almost mythic status among the state’s liberals. As Dan Patrick’s opponent, she was an underdog. An excellent retail politician, she roamed the state with not enough money and not enough free airtime to counter her opponent and went down hard with the rest of the ticket.

But in the mayor’s race, she holds the opposite position. With a huge financial advantage and the status of the presumptive favorite, she’s been able to bludgeon her opponents—particularly former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is attempting to fight his way to a spot in the runoff. Van de Putte dumped oodles of leftover money from her statewide race into the fund for her mayoral run, leaving some observers to wonder if that was her plan all along. And despite that, she’s struggled, firing most of her campaign staff in February and bringing in hired gun Christian Archer to lead a turnaround.

Lately, Van de Putte has gone for Villarreal’s jugular, using remarkably strong language to decry Villarreal as a many-faced “backroom dealmaker” and “corporate crony” who is bought and paid for by monied interests that would destroy San Antonio. It makes the language Van de Putte used against Patrick last year look like mash notes.

Villarreal and VDP have some history—the latter opposed the former when he ran for VDP’s old house district in 1999. But the level of vitriol between the two now has been pretty remarkable. And it’s somewhat surprising to lege-watchers, who remembered Villarreal as a decent guy and policy-minded rep. who was pretty well respected by his Democratic colleagues, Van de Putte included.

But the more likely candidate for the second slot in the runoff is current San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, appointed to the job by the City Council after Castro’s departure. A socially conservative African-American woman who was born in Brooklyn, Taylor has made her mark on the city during her brief tenure—she helped cancel one of Castro’s prestige projects, a proposed streetcar system. She earned some opprobrium for calling the effort to protect the city’s LGBT communities with a non-discrimination ordinance a “waste of time.”

Of the four major contenders, she’s essentially the de facto GOP candidate—she can count among her supporters men like Red McCombs, a perennial top-dollar Republican donor. She stands to benefit from GOP votes while the Democratic vote is fractioned. In a low-turnout scenario—San Antonio has seen more than its fair share of special elections lately, and the city’s voters might just be fatigued—Taylor could outperform.

In one recent state senate special election in San Antonio, the more conservative Democratic candidate, Jose Menendez, won out over progressive Trey Martinez Fischer, thanks in part to a flood of votes from Republicans on Menendez’s behalf. If Taylor does well tomorrow, expect more head-scratching about Democratic turnout problems.

There’s also Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, but few expect him to win a runoff spot at this point.

Jonathan Stickland
Rep. Jonathan Stickland speaking at the 2015 Lincoln Day Dinner for the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

When news came on Thursday that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) had been physically ejected from a meeting of the House Committee on Transportation by its chairman, state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), over what the latter alleges was a bizarre and pointless plan to falsify witness lists in support of one of Stickland’s bills, it was totally unsurprising to Stickland’s many fans at the Capitol. And yet the tale was also totally delightful—like a cool mountain breeze, or the sun on a warm winter day.

In a session replete with clown shows—Kory Watkins’ annexation of state Rep. Poncho Nevarez’s office seems so distant now that it feels as part of a lost childhood, like a Madeleine cake—Stickland has delivered over and over again, one of the state’s most unbeatable and unproductive generators of tomfoolery. He’s underappreciated, though. Thanks to the intense resentment he’s garnered from his fellow legislators and lege-watchers, people aren’t giving him enough credit as a wholly unique practitioner of Lege performance art.

To that end, and to lend a sort of scientific respectability to the admittedly unscientific art of Stickland-watching, I propose a new metric to be introduced in the evaluation of his near-constant gaffes and schemes: the Stickland Number. We can find the Stickland Number by dividing the volume of Stickland’s shenanigans, judged on a scale from 1 to 10, by the extent to which the shenanigans helped Stickland advance his policy priorities, as judged on the same scale, like so:

(Stickland’s shenanigans / Stickland’s impact)

Here’s just a few of the many wonderful things Stickland has done for the benefit of the Austin press corps during the last four months:

—Jonathan Stickland: Winter is Coming

The session started off pretty slow for Stickland, actually. Yes, he was the Legislature’s only real friend of the open carry wackos who freaked everyone out in January. He spoke at their rallies. He raged against committee assignments when they appeared to threaten his bill, and he was accused of baiting the loonies threatening Nevarez.

Not much came of it, but it’s still a crucial part of Stickland’s origin story for the 84th, like when Bruce Wayne’s parents got shot. “We’re told we need to respect the process,” Stickland told the Houston Chronicle, “but I can’t respect the process if it doesn’t allow all legislation to be heard.” Foreshadowing!

Shenanigans: Mild. 2.
Stickland’s impact: His bill was dead anyway. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland, Proud Ex-Baby

Stickland recovered from early setbacks with a great plan to make a stand: He took a sign from Texas Right to Life and posted it outside his House office.

News and pictures of the sign eventually appeared in national news outlets, giving some Americans their first taste of Stickland. Lucky them. But before long, Stickland’s nemesis, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Ft. Worth), came round to take down the sign—or, as Stickland has it, his sign was “ripped down and thrown in my staffer’s face.” The walls of the Capitol, Geren said, are not there to be decorated like some teenager’s bedroom. Geren, the head of House Administration, denied charges that he had aggressively intimidated Stickland’s staff. “If Stickland wants to act like a child, that’s fair, but I did not rip it down,” he said. But Stickland was having none of it, he told the Austin American-Statesman:

“I think the Kumbaya is about to be over,” Stickland said. “It’s time to start telling the voters where we stand. I think people are beginning to get anxious.” […] “We are about to start cutting each other to shreds,” he said.

Shenanigans: Stickland won some nice press with this. “Cutting each other to shreds?” 6.
Stickland’s impact: Nothing was accomplished. 1.
Stickland Number: 6.

—Jonathan Stickland’s Night of the Long Knives
Shortly after signgate, the House met to consider its budget. Stickland was ready for battle. Past is prelude. He’d finally shiv House leadership, and they’d come to understand their mistake, in time. He warned the Dallas Morning News of the trouble to come:

“A lot of people are frustrated that their legislation isn’t moving. They’re going to try to put their bills on the budget,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who filed several amendments on illegal immigration. “It’ll be a bloody day on the House floor,” he said.

While the night was long, no blood came. Most votes were not even close. Stickland gave up, or he was outmaneuvered. One exception: at 2 in the morning, Stickland took to the back mic to make one of the more important and principled stands against big government we’ve seen thus far this session. He wanted to cut the budget for the feral hog abatement program.

Government, he said, couldn’t solve our problems—not even the hog problem. Long live hog, said Stickland. Feral hogs are a collective, like the Borg. But Stickland wanted us to fight them as individuals. Foolish. Only seven reps voted with Stickland, meaning the hog blood, at least, will continue to flow.

Shenanigans: Stickland gave up. 2.
Stickland’s impact: Same number of dead hogs as before. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland is No Cheap Date, Charlie 

After the budget fight, Stickland begin using a new tactic. This would be much more effective. The House has something called a Local and Consent calendar, through which uncontroversial bills can be passed quickly. Stickland’s plan was to slow it down for no real reason and ask a lot of questions whenever he saw a potentially problematic bill, then let it pass anyway, something that would surely win him many friends in a chamber where most people are counting down the seconds till they can go back to The Cloak Room. Could anything drag Stickland away from the back mic? Our long-suffering superhero’s archenemy had a plan:

CHARLIE GEREN used OATMEAL COOKIE! It’s not very effective

Shenanigans: Should Geren stop bullying Stickland? Probably. Should Stickland step to the mic less? Also probably. 4.
Stickland’s impact: All involved lost precious minutes of our lives, like sands slipping through the hourglass, as we march relentlessly toward the grave. 1.
Stickland Number: 4.

—Jonathan Stickland Gets Respect

When an open carry bill finally came up for a vote in the House, Stickland was incensed. The bill required a license to carry a gun in public. He had planned for months to offer an amendment to nuke the gun license.

But House leadership wouldn’t recognize his amendment, claiming it wasn’t germane to the bill, a procedural requirement. Was it really, or were the guys in charge kicking Stickland in the shins? Stickland took to the mic to protest.

He railed against House leadership in a 10-minute angry tirade, asking state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), manning the House dais, why he had been railroaded all session long. In one beautiful moment, he was asked by Bonnen to bring his objections to the front of the House, to discuss them with the parliamentarian. His answer: “How has that worked out for me so far?”

But at one particularly climactic moment in his speech—essentially, Stickland saying, “No, YOU’RE out of order!”—the tide turned in Stickland’s favor. Cheering and applause could suddenly be heard in the House. It was like a movie.

But it wasn’t from the legislators. It was from elementary school kids in the gallery, during a Capitol tour. With presumably no idea what the fight was about, they found themselves moved solely by Stickland’s passion. Finally, somebody who speaks his language.

Shenanigans: Stickland at his most cinematic. 5.
Stickland’s impact: Children are our future, but they can’t vote. Also, amendment killed. 1.
Stickland Number: 5.

—Jonathan Stickland and the Battle of Pickett’s Charge

Things came to a head on Thursday. Has our heat-packing hero met his match?

As with any good bout, the battle began with one pugilist messing with the other’s head. When Stickland tried to derail a Pickett bill giving Federal Reserve security officers limited law enforcement powers in Texas, which was set to sail through the Local & Consent calendar—yes, he’s still doing that—Pickett came prepared. He walked to the back mic to give Stickland a large-font printout of his bill with two carefully drawn stick figures—one labeled “good guy” and one labeled “bad guy”-to illustrate the intent of the bill.

Inappropriate? Maybe. But that was nothing compared to what happened later in Pickett’s committee. Pickett and another rep slowly came to the realization that a lot of the people who signed up as witnesses to support one of Stickland’s bills, a ban on city red-light cameras, weren’t actually at the Capitol or even in Austin. That means someone had to sign them up—a potentially illegal act. (All witnesses who testify or register positions on bills have to sign up personally and swear an oath the information they provide is correct.)

When Stickland came to the mic to introduce his bill, Pickett began calling the fake witnesses on the phone, revealing that they couldn’t have signed themselves up to testify on the bill. And then, sputtering fury commenced. Pickett and Stickland began arguing. And Pickett had Stickland physically ejected from the meeting by House security. You can watch one video of the ejection here. (The meeting was taped officially, but that hasn’t been released yet.)

This is the quintessential Stickland Event: A tremendous amount of preparation and planning and noise and fury for no reward at all, even if the thing had worked. The number of witnesses had no material bearing on whether the bill would ultimately be passed. And because of the false sign-ins, a House ethics body is now investigating, with potentially serious consequences for those involved. (Stickland denies he knew anything about it.)

Shenanigans: Be more chill, man. 9.
Stickland’s impact: Bill dead, as it probably was already. Did Stickland or his staff expose him or his supporters to perjury charges? 1.
Stickland Number: 9.

I, for one, am excited to see what the next month holds.

Don Huffines
Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

The Senate should eat its spinach, declared Gov. Greg Abbott, the Legislature’s kind-hearted but distant paterfamilias. Among the moderate and nutritious items he laid out as priorities for his first legislative session as governor, one would be good for the whole family: ethics reform.

Did you know that legislators do not much like being told how they can and cannot make money? On Tuesday, one of the Legislature’s signature ethics bills, Senate Bill 19, stepped on to the Senate floor a ghost of its former self, having been pilloried in committee. But once debate began, it was overhauled against the author’s wishes. Greatly strengthened in some ways and weakened in others, it eventually passed by a unanimous vote.

But could the debate—full of weird and acrimonious invective between senators, and involving the passage of a large number of amendments, including one which mandates drug testing for those who hope to become elected officials—threaten the bill’s future?

SB 19’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), called his bill the “most significant ethics reform package of a generation” on Tuesday, as if it had already passed. His fellow senators seemed more doubtful. They made significant changes to Taylor’s bill, which seeks to make the ways lawmakers make money more transparent and to prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave public service.

Their efforts to tweak the bill culminated in an unusual last-minute gutting of a key provision of Taylor’s bill against his wishes, making the events of Tuesday one of the stranger Senate floor debates of the session.

Abbott had wanted any ethics reform package to prohibit legislators and other elected state officials who practice law from earning referral fees—payments for referring a case to another lawyer. Taylor presented the provision as an urgent part of his ethics overhaul, prompted by the case of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was recently arrested and charged with making millions of dollars in a kickback scheme utilizing referral fees to mask what amounted to bribes, among other improprieties. “Referral fees are ripe for corruption,” Taylor said.

But several senators, lawyers themselves, opposed this provision—asking why other professions that deal with referral fees, such as realtors, weren’t included in the bill.

“I don’t think you know the full impact that this bill has on practicing [lawyers who are] legislators,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said. “You’re putting most practicing lawyers out of business.”

And state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a towering 43-year-veteran of the lege who personifies old-school wheeler-dealer politics as well as anybody currently in office, found himself aghast that Taylor would cast aspersions on state legislators’ keen ethical senses. When state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment to prevent elected officials from hiring each other—ultimately killed, 6 to 25—Whitmire erupted at both Huffines and Taylor.

The whole bill was borne out of petty political grievances, Whitmire said, charging that Taylor still wanted to give former state Sen. Wendy Davis grief after last year’s election. And Huffines’ amendment seemed tailored to the case of his one-time primary opponent, former state Sen. John Carona, whose company once counted state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on the payroll.

Why would Taylor and Huffines have a vendetta against two lawmakers who are well retired from the lege? Huffines seemed mystified by this assertion. When Whitmire suggested he felt he had a “score to settle,” Huffines replied: “The score was settled when I won.”

But Whitmire was angrier at the aspersions cast on the Senate as a whole. “I think you’ve done a horrible disservice to this outstanding body,” Whitmire said, speaking of the way in which Taylor laid out the bill. Wasn’t he implying, with his attempt to create new ethical guidelines for elected officials, that “we are all crooks?”

“Would you put a face on this for all of us?” Whitmire asked. If Taylor was aware of wrongdoing, “you need to name us.” And then, he added, “run over to the DA’s office.” Otherwise, he said, any suggestion of impropriety at the lege was, in effect, “incriminating outstanding, honest people.”

But though Whitmire felt Taylor’s bill and Huffines’ amendment were classless, he found himself physically “sick to my stomach” thanks to Taylor’s linkage of the Empire State with the Lone Star State. It was highly inappropriate, he said, to put Texas legislators in the same league as “the slime of the New York Legislature.”

After a long late-afternoon delay, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) came up with a fix for the debate over lawyer referrals. Although the Texas Government Code already requires referrals to be reported on personal financial statements, she said, “that wasn’t routinely being done.” Her amendment will allow elected officials who are lawyers to continue accepting referral fees, but they will have to report those fees and provide details of the associated court cases.

But remarkably, the compromise wasn’t accepted by Taylor, who felt it was a critical part of his bill and moved to table it. That’s commonplace in the House, but almost never done in the Senate. Even more unusual—Taylor convincingly lost the motion to table, and was forced to swallow Huffman’s provision. Senate leadership, with both Democrats and Republicans on board, effectively railroaded Taylor.

Other successful amendments to the bill will require candidates to disclose the full total of their income from whatever source, including pensions and retirement plans, and to post their personal financial statements online.

And state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) took transparency to the next level with his amendment that would require state elected officials to take a drug test when they file for office and post the results of those tests online. The tests carry no penalty, so officials posting positive drug tests would only incur the wrath of public scrutiny.

The Senate passed the drug-test amendment, but not without some eye rolling. In response to Lucio’s amendment, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) suggested he should propose that elected officials also take an IQ test—and maybe test for alcohol abuse as well. Ultimately, mandatory drug tests for elected state officials are probably not even legal. In the 1997 case of Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court found that mandatory drug tests of elected officials are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment.

All in all, Tuesday’s debate was reminiscent of another Senate tango that took place a little over two years ago. Carona, the former Dallas senator who was replaced by Huffines, found himself trying to wrangle a huge payday lending regulatory effort through the upper chamber. It came to the Senate weak, the product of lengthy negotiations between reformers and the industry—but a miracle happened. Amendments kept getting added to the bill, including several by liberals like Davis and Ellis, strengthening it and its provisions.

But Carona knew what was happening. The bill was tanking. It had become so top-heavy, and so strong against the industry, that it was effectively being killed on the floor, with little chance of future passage. He began acquiescing to the amendments, defeated. He told the chamber: “I just want to go home and feed my cat.”

Taylor seemed to be in a similar mood Tuesday. SB 19 is now an ungainly collection of weak and strong provisions—a mess that House members will have to work to untangle, if they pass it at all. The Senate, apparently amending out of spite, even passed a special amendment to prevent legislators for being paid to serve on bank boards. (Taylor serves on a bank board.)

Is SB 19 on the road to passage? Maybe. Will it be anything close to what the governor wanted when he called for ethics reform? No, almost certainly not. Taylor, Patrick and Abbott insisted they were thrilled with the bill, but one has to wonder how Taylor is feeling about his education in Senate decorum. Maybe he should get a cat.

Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, photographed at Serranos restaurant in Austin after a Q&A luncheon with potential donors and supporters of his possible presidential primary run.

 

There’s one question Democrats face as they head into the 2016 presidential election. How should they feel about Hillary Clinton? The coalition Barack Obama built happily came out to vote in his two presidential elections, but turnout was pathetic in 2010 and 2014 when he wasn’t on the ticket. Clinton’s ability to inherit that coalition is debatable.

Some of the party’s faithful just want to maximize their chances of taking a third consecutive term, and they think the Clintons’ careful and calculated brand of center-left politics is the thing to do it. Others are antsy. They’ve seen the GOP’s far right drag their party to them with great success, and they want someone to subject Clinton to the same type of pressures. But they need a candidate. Elizabeth Warren has declined to run, and Martin O’Malley is a ball of ambition.

Enter U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Congress’ sole self-avowed socialist, who came through Texas at the beginning of April in the middle of a cross-country trip whose purpose, he said, was to judge the energies of the left and to raise money in anticipation of a possible primary run against Clinton. Sanders would be as unusual a candidate as we’ve seen in America for quite some time. He’s not quite a Dennis Kucinich or a Mike Gravel, but it’s not that he’s setting out to win either. His self-proclaimed models are people such as Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean, who ran and lost, but inspired future political activists.

Obama’s 2008 campaign, Sanders told the Observer at an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, “will go down in history as one of the great campaigns ever run.” But, he continued, “the day after the election, he said, ‘Thank you for electing me, but I think I can go on from here without you. I do not need the millions of people who were actively involved in my campaign.’” The kind of change the left wants, he said, is not possible without “mass organized activity” of the kind that has not existed in the country in some five decades—the kind Sanders experienced as a young man in the civil rights, anti-war and kibbutz movements.

As he talks, he has the feel of a radical giving it one last college try. But his reception in Austin was decidedly warm. In addition to small venues—he spoke to a union hall—he gave the keynote at one of the Travis County Democratic Party’s main annual fundraisers. Outside, his communications director, a silver-haired former Chicago newspaperman who dimly recalls his last trip to Texas some decades ago, marvels at the previous day’s turnout: He calls it a “field of dreams” moment.

Inside, Sanders, with a mishmash accent that’s part Brooklyn and part New England, speaks in front of a giant Texas flag. “The biggest problem this country faces,” he tells the crowd, “is that we don’t talk about our serious problems.” He gives a 20-minute lecture on rising economic inequality, student debt, Wall Street and America’s diminishing middle class. He’s treated to an unusual number of standing ovations for a speech so filled with numbers. It’s not exactly Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” but it’s a tune a lot of Democrats will feel pulled to sing along to.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

Many of us have been the target of bullying, but few of us have been lieutenant governor. Dan Patrick has the misfortune to be both at the same time. Who is bullying the second-most powerful elected official in the great state of Texas, you ask? His peers in state government, says Dan.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of The Breakfast, as characterized last week by Texas Monthly. At a regularly scheduled weekly breakfast between Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Joe Straus, things got heated: Patrick and Straus confronted each other over long-simmering resentments between the two chambers, and Abbott got up the nerve to ask Patrick about Patrick’s best friends calling Abbott’s pre-K plan godless welfare socialism. Patrick responded, in the only quote that left the room, that the two were “picking on me.”

The confrontation was the subject of feverish speculation through this weekend. Did the tale have substance? Was it fluff? Was Patrick not as weaselly, or the three as far apart, as the story has them?

To some extent, the full picture doesn’t matter: The Breakfast is a perfect #txlege meta-narrative. The highly unflattering story about Patrick had to be given to the media by multiple people with knowledge of the event—certainly from friends of House leadership, and probably from people in the governor’s camp, too—which is itself evidence that things are not going well between the three.

The weekly breakfasts have long been offered by one or another of its participants as evidence that things were going smoothly in the 84th—and that the governor, contrary to an increasingly popular perception around Austin, has a hand in how the Legislature is running. Eggs! Friendship! Fun!

But they’ve been extra-important this session because two of the Big Three are new. Patrick was a highly unknown quantity whose ability to play with others was in question when the session commenced in January. Abbott, who was attorney general before he took the top job, had no experience as a legislator. And would Straus and his team of streetfighters accept the new order?

With a little over a month to go in the session, we’re not much closer to getting a satisfactory resolution on these questions. There are some signs now that the causes of last Wednesday’s tension—the logjam in the House and Senate, and the drama over pre-K—are ebbing a bit. But other fights loom large on the horizon, and the underlying causes of this session’s dysfunction so far have not materially changed.

—Abbott’s out to lunch.

Unlike Rick Perry, who served in the Legislature for six years and had no reluctance about throwing his weight around as governor, no one really knew how Abbott was going to handle the Lege. He’s been making appearances at sporting events and music award shows far from Austin. A gap has opened up between the more moderate-minded guv and his right, giving oxygen to the persistent speculation in Austin that he should worry about a primary challenge in 2018.

When Patrick’s lieutenants—members of his so-called Grassroots Advisory Board—wrote a letter for the world to see that proclaimed one of Abbott’s most important policy priorities straight out of the pits of hell, he had to confront Patrick. Here’s how one person “familiar with the breakfast conservation” spun it to the Texas Tribune:

“I will say this for anyone who’s been wondering where Abbott has been,” said one. “He arrived today.”

This is too little, too late, isn’t it? It’s late April, and we’ve not long to go till Sine Die. The House and the Senate have gotten hopelessly crosswise on issues like their rival tax cut plans that will be very difficult to resolve without one side winning outright. Patrick can rightfully point to the governor’s past statements, like his seeming endorsement of property tax cuts in his State of the State address, as helping to create that confusion. (Patrick has repeatedly attempted to use Abbott’s past tax talk against him.)

Abbott’s priorities, from his university research initiative to the pre-K bills, have gotten batted around like a chew-toy. His ethics reform proposals have been hollowed out, and today one of the most important ethics bills this session was practically turned inside out by a hostile Senate. If the advisor here is suggesting he’s learned his lesson, he’s got a lot of ground to make up for.

—Patrick is still playing games.

Patrick burst into the Lege like Napoleon in a Whataburger drive-thru. He’d whip the place into shape. He set extraordinarily high expectations for himself, and many different sets of expectations as well. He could not possibly live up to them all. So the fight during the next month will be to preserve as much of his program as possible, against a speaker and governor he seems to view as undermining him.

Since Wednesday, Straus has referred a number of Senate bills to committee, and Patrick has done the same with some House bills. Significantly, Patrick referred House Bill 4, the pre-K bill that Abbott wants, to committee. So did the breakfast serve to break the tension? Are things working smoothly again now? Patrick soothingly told the Houston Chronicle he thought there was a less than 20 percent chance of a special session.

But is Patrick really backing down? At the breakfast, reports the Texas Tribune, Abbott emphasized that Patrick shouldn’t take his pre-K plan hostage: He “cautioned the lieutenant governor against holding that pre-K legislation hostage until the House acted on school choice or other bills dear to Patrick.”

The day after The Breakfast, Patrick called Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. She’s one of the most prominent tea party leaders in the state, and she’s on Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board—the one that kicked off the pre-K furor early last week. She described his call on her Facebook page. Here’s what she wrote:

From what I can tell, Dan is ok with the pre-k issue because it’s not full day, and it’s less money that it has been previously. Plus for some unknown reason Abbott is obsessed with it. But he believes it needs to be part of a full package deal of education issues.

In other words, Patrick continues to sell the tea party on his support of pre-K by using exactly the framework that Abbott sought to dissuade him from using. How much will he try to get in exchange for letting the guv’s wishlist through?

Patrick says he didn’t know about the pre-K letter that got him in hot water. But it plays into his hands, in a way. Anything he can do to widen the gap between Abbott and the GOP right is good for Patrick. Even if he doesn’t want Abbott’s job, the pressure might force Abbott to the right, too. And now that the distance between Patrick and the governor is clearly established, he might be blamed less by his base for having to pass bills written by the dreaded RINOs.

—The House wants to fight.

The Senate began moving on some smaller House bills last week, and the House began moving on an even smaller number of Senate bills. OK. There are real differences on important bills, but there always are. Much of the hold-up has been over which chamber gets to take credit for authoring bills, and that’s relatively easy to sort out—just divide them up.

But the biggest fight to come will be over tax cuts. Here, it’s very difficult to see a compromise without the other side yielding completely. But the two sides keep raising the stakes, which makes that option more and more unpalatable for the two jousters. Patrick’s team is digging in over his shoddily constructed plan to lower what Texans pay in property taxes by a small amount.

On Saturday, the House GOP caucus sent a message of its own: 90 of the 98 House Republicans signed a letter arguing for the House plan, which would cut sales taxes by an even tinier amount. The missive, unusual in the way that it’s addressed to the public, lays out in a fairly in-depth way why the authors think Patrick’s tax cut plan sucks. (You can read it here.)

The letter is wholly unnecessary—it’s just a way to poke the Senate in the eye. The House hadn’t even passed its tax cut plan yet. (It did on Tuesday, with Speaker Straus himself voting for some of the package’s provisions, a highly unusual gesture.) And the letter was signed by almost every member of the House’s far-right, who might have been expected to side with Patrick. When members of Straus’ leadership team speak—particularly state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)—viscous, oily disdain for Patrick seeps to the surface.

Was The Breakfast overhyped? Maybe. But the problems between the Big 3 aren’t just the product of personality quirks, to be worked out over muffins and coffee. They’re the product of ideology. That portends difficulties in the long term—mid-morning snacks or no.