The 86th Legislature kicked off Tuesday with abundant talk of bipartisan unity and lofty goals to finally fix problems that have long bedeviled lawmakers.
Among the leaders who will be at the center of the action is Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is entering his third session after being re-elected in November.
Hours after the session started, the Texas Tribune met with Abbott at the Governor’s Mansion to talk about some of the most pressing issues ahead for the state, its evolving politics and the news of the day. Here are the highlights:
The session’s two big issues
Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and newly elected House Speaker Dennis Bonnen are all on the same page: Property tax reform and school finance are the highest on the Legislature’s to-do list this session. But a big question remains: How will the state pay for them?
Lawmakers got mostly positive fiscal news Monday, when Comptroller Glenn Hegar informed them they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds free to budget for public programs in 2020 and 2021. Hegar also announced that the State’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is on track to hit a record high balance of $15 billion.
Asked about specific ways to pay for property tax and school finance reform, Abbott continued to put the onus on lawmakers to find consensus. He did float one idea, however: diverting the oil and gas tax revenue flowing into the rainy day fund to “build a sustainable education fund.” Abbott compared it to when the State decided in 2014 to reroute some of that money to go toward transportation funding.
Still, Abbott said he was keeping an open mind and looking forward to seeing what funding strategies legislators rally around. There would be “no mandates” or “drawing the line” on his part, he added.
“The leaders of the House and the Senate and the governor’s office – we’re going to come to an agreement about at least the direction we need to go in, what the primary aspects of the plan will look like and then we will fill in the details as we go along,” Abbott said.
The session started Tuesday on the 18th day of a federal government shutdown spurred by President Donald Trump’s demands for money for a border wall. But the issue appeared out of the spotlight at the Capitol, as lawmakers talked up more bread-and-butter issues throughout the opening day.
Abbott was nonetheless emphatic while discussing border security, saying he continues to hear from Texans, including those along the border, who want more beefed-up measures. He did not say whether that means Texas should increase the $800 million a year that the State is currently spending on border security.
As for the shutdown, Abbott blamed congressional inaction on immigration for driving presidents from both parties to take dramatic measures to deal with problems at the border. He said he was waiting to see the resolution of the shutdown before passing judgment on whether it was worth it, holding out hope that it could force Congress to get its act together on immigration reform.
“If it takes a shutdown for a little while to achieve something the country’s been grappling with for three decades, that would be terrific,” Abbott said.
Relationship with the Texas House
The last time the Legislature met – a special session in the summer of 2017 – it ended with finger-pointing over who was to blame for Abbott’s full agenda not reaching the finish line. Much of the tension centered on the House and its leader, Joe Straus, who retired and was succeeded Tuesday by Bonnen (R-Angleton).
Over the past two sessions, Abbott grew familiar with Bonnen, a Straus lieutenant, as they spent long hours together on high-stakes negotiations over things like property tax reform. Asked if he believed it would be easier to work with Bonnen than Straus, Abbott declined to draw a comparison but said Bonnen is “going to be very straightforward.”
As part of the fallout from the 2017 special session, Abbott got involved in House primaries, endorsing against three incumbents from his own party, two of whom won anyway. Asked if he planned to continue wading into such primaries after this session, the governor did not say.
“My only thought is this session,” Abbott said, arguing that the pressure from constituents should be enough for lawmakers to make progress on big issues this time. “If anyone … stands in the way of property tax reform, school finance reform, and teacher pay, they will be met with hostile voters back home.”
Last month, the University of Texas at Austin finished its investigation of State Sen. Charles Schwertner, concluding there wasn’t evidence to prove the Georgetown Republican, accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to a graduate student, had violated university policy and the federal gender equity law Title IX. Still, there remain unanswered questions about the situation, and Schwertner last week relinquished his chairmanship of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Abbott said he only knows what he has read in the media about the scandal and that in addition to the end of the UT investigation, Schwertner has “said adamantly and repeatedly that he didn’t do it.”
“And so I have no information to the contrary,” Abbott said, “and so either others are going to have to investigate this or I guess it’s over. I don’t know.”
Does Abbott have confidence in Schwertner’s ability to serve in light of the drama?
“Sure, sure,” Abbott said, quickly noting that it is more important for Schwertner to have the confidence of his constituents, who re-elected him by a wide margin in November.
Abbott easily won a second term in November, defeating his Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, by 13 percentage points. However, it was smaller than the more than 20-point margin by which he beat his 2014 rival, Wendy Davis, and came despite Valdez not running nearly as robust of a campaign.
Abbott brushed off any concerns about the 2018 spread, saying that if “you’re quibbling about winning by more than double digits, you’re focused on the wrong priorities.” Still, he acknowledged the party in power in Washington, D.C., historically faces headwinds in midterms, and said his campaign anticipated the challenge this time.
In addition to winning by a smaller margin, Abbott fell short of his goal of increasing his share of the Hispanic vote. Exit polls show he got 42 percent of the Hispanic vote in November, short of the 44 percent he received in 2014.
He speculated that his 2018 opponent’s Hispanic surname – Valdez – may have factored into the drop-off but said he did not know for sure.
“I can’t say what it is, but I can tell you this: If either I or Republicans in general continue to win more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, we’ll be winning races for a long time,” Abbott said. “We’re on the right path.”
The 2020 presidential race is already front and center in Texas, where two Democrats – Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke – are in the mix as likely and potential candidates, respectively, to take on Trump. Abbott, who has been less outspoken in his support for Trump than some other top Texas Republicans, said it was a “no-brainer” to back the president for another term against “any of these liberal Democrats” and that he did not see Trump facing a serious primary challenge.
As for why Texans should re-elect Trump, Abbott drew a distinction regarding the polarizing presidency.
“People will disagree with the rhetoric. They support the results that he’s delivered,” Abbott said, lauding Trump for “saving the Constitution” with his two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court while overseeing a strong economy, deregulation and tax cuts.