The Breakfast, and the Legislature’s Leadership Gap

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

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 9:09 pm CST
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