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Tensions rise between Texas’ top leaders as legislative session rolls toward finish line

AUSTIN–Texas’ three top state leaders don’t want to eat with each other.

In a break from tradition, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan have scrapped the weekly, face-to-face meetings they used to have during previous sessions.

The breakfast gatherings date back to at least when George W. Bush was governor. The meals were designed to give the leaders a forum to seek common ground on issues that divided them.

Often called the Big 3, Abbott, Patrick and Phelan haven’t met as a group this session, according to numerous sources close to them.

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“Instead of dining together, they’re all going to the buffet by themselves,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist who has followed Texas politics for years.

The departure from the weekly meetings is indicative of the frayed relationship among the trio, particularly Patrick and Phelan. Each leader has his own priorities and political turf to protect, a unique situation that makes compromising on key issues such as property tax relief and school choice more difficult.

With only weeks before the end of the session, the divide between could mean that not all of the GOP agenda passes through the Legislature and becomes law.

Rottinghaus called the friction between the Big 3 a “fundamental problem of personality, not so much in politics.” Not only could it result in critical legislation dying or being delayed, but it’s likely that Abbott will call a special session, if he doesn’t get the bills he wants.

“If they can’t agree on a course of action, then it’s impossible to find consensus down the road,” Rottinghaus said. “The deadlines are really tight. The horizon is really short, and everyone’s looking at the exits.”

At the Texas Capitol, the “Big 3” leaders — governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — set the tone. In the past, sometimes, two have paired off against the third in acrimony over big issues. The new speaker this year is expected to be Beaumont GOP Rep. Dade Phelan, center, shown in 2019 photo speaking with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, at a Houston bill-signing ceremony involving Gov. Greg Abbott, right.(Elizabeth Conley / AP)

Patrick has solid control of the Senate, where he has quickly rammed through his agenda that is often at odds with the priorities of Phelan.

Abbott, who is waiting for bills to sign into law, has his own priorities, which he needs to bolster his political position as the 2024 presidential contest looms.

“In Texas it’s always the question: is the speaker in charge? Is the lieutenant governor in charge? Is the governor in charge?” said GOP political consultant Vinny Minchillo, who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “It’s important that Abbott is able to look like he is in charge and running the show.”

Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist and Republican political consultant, said the friction among Texas’ top leaders is often overblown.

“All three of the figures who stand for the big three have their agendas, have their point of view and in each instance it’s quite different,” he said. “You’re never going to find perfect alignment. You’re only going to find people working together on and off, depending on when their alliances and affinities merge.”

Miller acknowledged that the property tax relief fight is more significant than fights over other issues, given what’s been promised to residents.

“There are other lesser lights to deal with, but property taxes is the one I feel has the bright lights,” he said.

In many ways Abbott’s agenda is in concert with Patrick, who wants much of the same things, including property tax relief and school choice.

But much of Patrick’s 30-bill agenda is at loggerheads with the priorities of Phelan. The speaker didn’t include school choice as one of his priorities, which put him in conflict with Abbott and Patrick.

The Senate already passed nearly all of Patrick’s priorities, and he’s now goading Phelan to pass companion legislation that ratifies the will of the Senate.

He’s taken to calling Phelan “California Dade,” while Phelan, who lives in Beaumont, has taken it in stride by tweeting snap shots of him, abs and all, surfing on the Texas coast. Patrick responded with a tweet of his own by defending his property tax relief plan, but conceding Phelan has better abs.

Meanwhile, most of the disagreement between Patrick and Abbott is over dueling property tax proposals.

Abbott, who was elected to his third term, promised substantial property tax relief as lawmakers wallowed in a near $33 billion surplus.

Patrick wants increased tax breaks for homeowners and seniors on their school district tax bills, as well as on some business taxes. Phelan’s tax plan includes lowering property appraisal caps and packing all the House’s tax relief money into school tax rate reductions.

In an interview with The Dallas Morning News last month, Patrick said he would not compromise with Phelan on the property tax proposals.

“I can’t compromise on something I know is not the right policy,” he said. “There are other things we can work with the House on, but this is one I would say is not one of those things because the math is the math.”

Phelan has defended the House plan but hasn’t ruled out a compromise.

Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-University Park and Ways and Means chairman, said recently that he hopes dialogue will get both sides across the finish line.

“Even though our plans are different, we are going to still have that conversation,” Meyer said. “We are still going to talk about homestead exemptions. We’ll still talk about different assets, facets of the plans, because this is our job and our commitment to our constituents is to get something done.”

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said last week that the divide between the Senate and House is not unfamiliar.

“This happens every single session, when it’s now mid to late April and people start questioning, ‘Can we land this plane at the end of May?’” he said. “We have plenty of time to land this plane on a whole host of issues–property tax, of course, being one of them.”

Goldman said a compromise on key issues is possible.

“We in the House, of course, differ from the Senate on what the final product looks like,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that our guys can’t negotiate with their guys and come up with a nice compromise to take to the people of Texas.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, clap during their inauguration ceremony in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)(Eric Gay / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Abbott has stayed away from the verbal jousting, but his aides have been in both chambers trying to make sure his emergency items get passed.

“In the past, there was a little more triangulation, where Abbott tried to occupy a middle position and remain above it all,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “This year, he’s been much more inclined to either openly support Patrick’s agenda or at least not oppose any of it directly.”

A spokesperson for Abbott didn’t comment directly on the end of the breakfast meetings but said the governor still has dialogue with Patrick and Phelan and meets regularly with them.

“Our offices are also talking every day to ensure we pass legislation pivotal for the future of Texas,” Abbott communications director Renae Eze said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Phelan declined comment and a spokesperson for Patrick didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The outcome of the session has political ramifications for all three.

Patrick casts himself as the ultimate warrior for the Texas conservative cause and wants to build on his past legislative accomplishments.

Phelan wants autonomy in the House, which he has to run with input from its 175 members, including Democrats.

However, the political stakes are higher for Abbott.

Though he’s a long shot in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes, his chief political strategist said the governor will survey the political scene after the session ends and make a decision about whether to mount a run for the White House.

Abbott could also be in the mix as a running mate for the GOP nominee for president. Meanwhile, he’s also eying a record fourth term as governor.

His chances for any of the above would be enhanced by a successful legislative session where he delivered a massive property tax cut, along with culture war issues like school choice and bills aimed at transgender residents.

One problem for Abbott is that a school choice proposal doesn’t have the votes to pass the Phelan-led House.

The Senate approved legislation would create “education savings accounts” of up to $8,000, which families could use to pay for private school tuition, books and other materials, such as uniforms.

But in passing a budget bill, House members tacked on an amendment that prohibited the use of state money for vouchers.

That vote occurred despite an aggressive road campaign by Abbott to push the concept of a voucher-like program. He’s traveled to Christian schools in cities across the state touting the plan.

That means one of the core provisions of Abbott’s agenda is in trouble. Some members are working with Abbott’s team on a proposal that would not be as pronounced as what passed the Senate but strong enough for the governor to declare victory.

The governor will likely call a special session on school choice if a bill isn’t passed by the end of the session. But that tactic won’t work if he can’t get Phelan’s House to agree with Patrick’s Senate on an approach.

Members could be having bad dreams about the three special sessions called by Abbott in 2021. But even those memories might not bring a compromise on a voucher-like plan, which is opposed by a coalition of rural and urban lawmakers.

Rottinghaus said what the state’s top leaders deliver from the session has ramifications on the reputation of the GOP since the party is in firm control of the state.

“If they don’t deliver, the Republican Party is weaker because of this disunity and not getting together on the big items that they promised,” he said. “It will make the party look like their leaders can’t deliver on their promises, so there are implications beyond each of the individual political futures.”

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