Abbott, Patrick, Phelan race to negotiate priority issues as deadlines loom

Seeking to avoid a special session, the state leaders discuss school choice, property taxes and grid reform.

Abbott, Patrick, Phelan race to negotiate priority issues as deadlines loom
Photo by Kyle Glenn / Unsplash

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
May 22, 2023

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dade Phelan met Friday about wrapping up on time, and they joined Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday for another meeting on the topic. The meetings — rare between the three leaders these days — came several days after Abbott threatened to call a special session over lack of progress on his top priority, school choice.

On Monday, however, at least one of the leaders was working to lower the temperature and offer cautious optimism.

“We’re working together to make sure we get it all done on time,” Phelan said in a Monday tweet revealing the meeting of the so-called “Big Three.” “One week left of [the Legislature]. Stay tuned.”

Abbott didn’t respond to a request for comment on the meeting, but he was in good mood on Twitter later in the day.

“The day just keeps getting better,” Abbott wrote, responding to the news that the chambers were advancing a priority bill related to pandemic mandates.

The main topics in Monday's meeting were three of the larger pending issues of the regular session: property tax relief, power grid reform and education, including Abbott’s crusade for “school choice.” That is according to a person who was briefed on the meeting who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

There are still a lot of unknowns. With the session ending May 29, the leaders were trying to navigate fast-approaching deadlines to at least get their priority bills to conference committees. Those are teams of House and Senate negotiators that hash out their differences. If they can reach a compromise, it still has to be approved by each chamber.

School choice remains perhaps the thorniest issue. On Monday morning, the Senate launched a last-ditch effort to rescue a proposal on the topic that fell victim to a House deadline over the weekend, but its chances of reaching the governor’s desk are still not assured.

Both the Friday and Monday meetings were unusual. Patrick and Phelan have long had an acrimonious relationship, and it has only been further strained this session by a monthslong impasse over the best way to deliver property tax relief. And as for the full trio, they long ago stopped having what were once regular weekly breakfasts, with Abbott opting to talk with Patrick and Phelan one on one.

On Friday, Patrick and Phelan made a point of showing they were working together, with Phelan entering the Senate chamber and coming up to the dais to shake Patrick’s hand. Patrick said they had a “very good meeting, working on a lot of things, working together.”

“Absolutely,” Phelan replied. “100%.”

Asked by The Texas Tribune afterward if he talked with Patrick about the possibility of a special session, Phelan responded that they “talked about how to not have one.”

Big 3 leaders, 3 big issues

The prospect of a special session grew earlier this month when Abbott threatened to veto a school-choice bill after it had been watered down in the House, promising to call special sessions if lawmakers failed to restore the legislation to something closer to its original form.

Abbott’s veto threat doomed the watered-down bill, and the lower chamber’s Public Education Committee declined to bring it up for a vote by a Saturday deadline to do so. But on Monday morning, the Senate Education Committee made a legislative Hail Mary pass, quickly amending and passing a House bill to include a school voucher-like program.

The Senate’s overhaul of House Bill 100 would set up state-funded education savings accounts through which parents would get $8,000 per student per year to pay for costs related to private education. The program would be open to most of Texas’ 5.5 million students.

While the full Senate is expected to approve HB 100 in the coming days, the House author would likely reject the changes and send it to a conference committee. Those negotiators would have to strike a deal that both pleases Abbott and can pass a floor vote in a House, which has long shown stubborn resistance to the concept.

As for the other issues at play — property tax relief and grid reform — the chambers have made progress but are still working toward final deals.

On property taxes, Phelan has long championed tightening appraisal caps, while Patrick has insisted on increasing the homestead exemption. The House’s latest stab at the legislation holds firm on lowering the appraisal cap but, in a bid to court Senate support, adds a homestead exemption hike that is even higher than the one the upper chamber has proposed. The Senate has not said yet whether it agrees with that.

On Monday, the House was set to consider the lieutenant governor’s priority bills to increase grid reliability by spurring more natural-gas capacity.

The deadlines are not slowing down. Tuesday is the last day for the House to tentatively approve Senate bills. The final major deadline is Sunday, when both chambers have to decide whether to accept conference committee reports.

Renzo Downey contributed reporting.

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