No More Mr. Nice Guy: Joe Straus Punches Back at Dan Patrick

House Speaker Joe Straus is the last man standing between Texas and Dan Patrick’s plans.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus  Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick courtesy Texas Senate/House Speaker Joe Straus by Patrick Michels

For at least the last few legislative sessions, there have been two real political factions in Texas: the House and the Senate. Particularly since the demolition of the two-thirds rule in 2015, the upper chamber caters directly to the wishes of Republican primary voters. It’s fallen to the House to represent just about everyone else. When May rolls around every session and bills start dying, the two factions generally come to hate each other, though they may not always make that hatred plain.

This year, that animus is coming earlier and louder than usual. The hostility is so great that it may make a mess of the session’s crucial last months, when a lot of horse-trading will have to happen to pass a budget. Last week, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick gave an interview to KFYO, a Lubbock radio station that closely identifies with the Texas GOP’s right flank, in which he offered unusually explicit criticism of House Speaker Joe Straus.

In the interview, Patrick says he holds a stronger mandate than Straus because he was elected statewide. “My audience is the people of Texas,” he said. “The same thing with Greg Abbott. The speaker has a different audience. He gets elected by a very small group of people in his district and then he gets elected in the House by the Democrats and some Republicans.”

Of course, that’s true. Though Straus was re-elected as speaker unanimously this year and by large margins since he was first elevated in 2009, Democrats are a major reason Straus has been able to hold on to the position. For that reason, many conservatives think he’s a fake Republican, and the Republican Party platform actually calls for making speaker of the House a statewide elected position. (Empower Texans, the state’s major anti-Straus group, sponsored the radio segment on which Patrick spoke.) But it’s unusual to hear Patrick himself edge toward that line of argument.

Patrick is frustrated with the House’s antipathy to his priorities, especially his school vouchers proposal, “sanctuary cities” legislation and the bathroom bill. It’s time, Patrick said, for Straus to take up the lieutenant governor’s agenda. It’s what conservatives in the House want, and Straus should listen to them. Straus is “out of touch with the voters,” and “if they start killing these bills, I may say something,” Patrick said.

Last session, Patrick tweaked Straus plenty. He was fond of repeatedly and pointedly touting the many fine Christians that were running state government. (Straus is Jewish, a major source of opposition to him from Christian conservatives.) But the infighting mostly happened behind closed doors, like the infamous Breakfast Summit blow-up. Plus, the Legislature had a huge budget surplus, which made things easier.

Now, lawmakers effectively have a significant budget shortfall that needs to be resolved. The House wants to fill it, in part, with money from the Rainy Day Fund. The Senate wants to plug the gap with accounting tricks — shifting dates on future payments to make the state appear to be more fiscally sound than it actually is. Last week, as the Senate’s budget was being heard in committee, Straus told the Capitol press corps that the Senate approach was tantamount to “cooking the books.” The Senate didn’t have the political courage to take a vote on the use of the Rainy Day Fund. “Counting money twice in order to balance a budget is not a good idea,” Straus said. “This is the Texas Legislature. We are not Enron.”

Straus has a reputation for being stoic and tight-lipped, unlike the excitable Patrick. For the speaker to compare Patrick’s finance committee to Arthur Andersen is remarkable, and even more so considering that it’s March, when you might expect there to be a little bit of comity.

Then, a few days after Patrick’s appearance, Straus went on the same Lubbock radio station, and responded to Patrick’s remarks from earlier in the week. “The lieutenant governor is absolutely correct,” he said. “He has a different audience. I mean, literally an audience. He was in your business. He’s an entertainer, a talk show guy. And a statewide elected official. I’m not.”

Unlike last session’s tax cut fight, there’s no obvious way for the House and Senate to compromise on budget fixes, and relations between the two seem to be deteriorating. If the two chambers find themselves locked into conflict on the budget, any number of other issues could become casualties. That includes Patrick’s key bills — property taxes, the bathroom bill, sanctuary cities, vouchers — but also more meaningful measures, among them the school finance reform efforts of the House, which Patrick already treats with a studied disinterest.

On Friday, in an interview with University of Texas political scientist Jim Henson, Straus was even clearer about the likely fate of some of Patrick’s top priorities. The bathroom bill was “manufactured and unnecessary,” and it was “astounding” that it had taken up so much time. The lite guv’s property tax measures missed the mark, because “the Legislature is very unlikely to reduce people’s property taxes unless we make progress in school finance reform.” The sanctuary city bill could pass, Straus said, but he also suggested that the House will significantly modify it. And, by the way, the Senate’s budget stinks.

What’s changed? There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that, for conservatives like Patrick, Barack Obama’s sudden absence means that Straus is the last remaining boogeyman, and it has become more enticing to openly combat him. Another factor may be the more or less complete disappearance of Greg Abbott into the wallpaper of the governor’s mansion: He pops up periodically to make sweeping-but-vague policy pronouncements, and apart from that, it’s unclear what he’s actually doing.

It could be, too, that Straus is feeling more politically secure, and he’s gotten more comfortable flexing a bit. Every attempt to unseat him since he took office has fallen far short. The governor is weak and Patrick’s reach into the speaker’s caucus is very limited. Though Patrick has a much greater ability to shape the narrative and agenda of the session, Straus arguably has the strongest position of the big three.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: Patrick and Straus are personally irritated with each other. Wouldn’t you be, if you were one of them? They have opposite personal and political styles, and neither can have any illusion about how the other feels. Straus is the last figure standing between Texas and Patrick’s plans. And Patrick is prone to grandiose, Trump-like misrepresentations of fact, which often seem calculated to reflect poorly on the House.

At the start of the session, Patrick repeatedly took credit for the “smart decision” to not bust the spending cap last session. But it had been in fact Patrick’s idea to bust it, and it was the House who was opposed to it. The constant showboating must be intensely grating for House leadership, and it’s hard to imagine how any amount of trust or respect can exist between the two men. That means rocky days ahead.

Correction: In the original version of the story, the Lubbock radio station was referred to as KYFO. The call letters for the station are KFYO. The story has been corrected and the Observer regrets the error.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 1:37 pm CST
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