Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) sent a strong message to the House of Representatives Wednesday saying if two of his priority bills don't pass, he will do all he can to force a special session.
"We are now 13 days away from the regular session and some key deadlines are looming," Patrick told reporters Wednesday.
The deadline is leading to a battle of sorts between the House and Senate.
"From the very first day of the session I have been very clear on my agenda, the people's agenda," Patrick said. "First and foremost I pledged to keep the conservative promises I made to the people of Texas."
Patrick went on to tout the accomplishments of the Senate in it's efforts to pass bills related to all 30 of his top priorities.
"By anyone's standards the Senate has had maybe the finest session in history, particularly modern history," Patrick said. "Speed, efficiency, teamwork, civility and most importantly passing legislation important to the vast majority of Texas Republicans and, in almost every case, at least 50 percent or more of Democrats in Texas according to the UT poll when they reviewed my statement back in January."
And then, he fired shots at the House of Representatives by saying the leadership in that chamber has taken a "different approach."
Patrick added that he intended to keep the business of the two chambers quiet but is breaking his silence in response to something Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) did.
"Now my plan was going to continue this negotiation outside of the media," said Patrick, "but that has now changed because of the letter, the private letter, the Speaker sent to me that he released to all of you."
The "private letter" was actually sent on official State of Texas letterhead. Straus sent it to the Governor on Monday and gave KVUE News and other outlets a copy of it Tuesday. In the letter, Straus takes a much more humble approach than Patrick by recognizing the hard work of both chambers and thanking Patrick and the Senate for their work. He then asks the Lieutenant Governor to avoid a special session by taking action to pass the budget, which is the only action the legislature is constitutionally bound take, and Senate Bill 310, which is a sunset bill that will keep state agencies functioning.
"Well I agree with the Speaker, it would be good to avoid a special session," Patrick said, "but I do not agree that we can just pass the budget and a sunset bill can call it a day."
Why not? Because Patrick wants two bills that he deems priorities passed; Senate Bill 2 (SB2) and Senate Bill 6 (SB6).
SB2 will decrease how much cities and counties can increase property taxes without an election.
"Senate Bill 2, passed by the Senate, would bring about the largest property tax reform in Texas history. It would bring local government spending under control, give the voters an automatic election on government spending of anything over five percent and save the average homeowner in Texas $20,000...over the next 20 years or so," Patrick said.
But the bill has been met with a lot of opposition from city and county leaders who say the current rate they are allowed to raise taxes without an election, eight-percent, is still not enough to meet public safety needs and they fear they will have to make deep cuts if SB2 becomes law.
And while Patrick is calling on the House to take a vote on the bill, representatives have already been working on it and placed the bill on Thursday's calendar for a vote prior to Patrick's press conference.
SB6 is the Texas Privacy Act but is more commonly known as the bathroom bill. It will require people use the restroom, locker room and shower in accordance with the sex on their birth certificate in government buildings and public schools and universities.
"The people of Texas have spoken clearly on this issue," Patrick said. "Parents do not want to allow any local rules or regulations that would result in teenage boys showering with teenage girls in school. Women don't want men coming into the ladies room. This has never been about discrimination, it's about common sense, common decency and public safety."
Patrick added the watered-down House version of the bill, HB2899, that would instead prohibit cities, counties and schools from passing any ordinances or policies regarding restrooms would also be sufficient.
"The language from HB2899 by Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) that will address the issue is acceptable to me. It will put the state legislature in charge of bathroom policies." Patrick said.
But both bills have been widely criticized for being discriminatory against transgender Texans, especially children.
Straus has said publicly he isn't a fan of SB6 because business leaders have said it will hurt the Texas economy. The leaders of several organizations sent letters to multiple Texas cities warning they will pull their events out of Texas if a bathroom bill is passed.
"I am prepared to go to a special session on this issue," Patrick said.
And to strengthen his ultimatum, he's holding SB310 hostage.
"Before we move Senate Bill 310, I must see action by the House to pass several key bills that the majority of voters demand we pass," he said.
Patrick added he won't stop with one special session to get what he wants.
"The property tax relief and privacy do not pass in that special and they're blocked again, I will ask the governor to call us back again and again and again. People elect us to come here and get the job done. Not to pass a budget and go home."
While SB2 and SB6 are Patrick's main focus, he said there are other pieces of legislation he will recommend for a special session including pro life bills, voter ID, bills related to veterans, providing tax breaks for families of first responders who are killed in the line of duty, school finance and school choice with Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
ESAs, also called school vouchers, have been another point of contention pitting the Senate against the House. While a bill that would allow parents to divert money the state spends to educate each student from public schools to a savings account that can be used to pay private school tuition, the idea died in the House. Several lawmakers who represent rural districts say those vouchers would harm their schools, that are already underfunded.
To push the issue, the Senate has added an ESA amendment to the House approved bill that will reform the school finance system, HB21 by Dan Huberty (R-Houston).
"I've offered the House that we pass HB21, the Huberty bill, with our language on it," Patrick said.
He added Senators were working at the Capitol until midnight on their amendment to the bill.
"It will put an additional half a billion dollars into schools, that includes $200 million for ASATR [Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction], $ 200 million new dollars for the Foundation Schools Program, $100 million for fast growth school districts and for the first time charter school facility funding," siad Patrick. "The bill will include ESAs for children with disabilities."
Patrick admitted that at the time of the press conference, most representatives hadn't seen the amendment, but he was confident they would support it.
"I simply do not believe there's a Texas legislator who would vote against a half a billion dollars for public schools."
"I've also agreed on another key issue that if the house will pass HB21 as I've laid out, we will push back the official start date for A through F until 2019 from 2018. We'll make 2018 another test year."
A through F is the unpopular school and district rating system that the House voted this session to heavily amend, turning into an entirely new rating system.
"Here's the bottom line, I want to avoid a special session but I'm prepared to go into one if the House does not pass a strong version of Senate Bill 2 property tax relief, desperately wanted by the people of this state, and if the House does not pass SB6 or amend another bill with the language concerning Texas privacy," Patrick said.
Patrick went on to say that SB310 is in the hands of the Senate and while it is late in the session, he believes the Senate can get it passed, though he noted they have just 48 hours to do it. He also said the Senate did pass some of the bills that were identified by the House as priorities.
"This is not a personal battle between the Speaker and myself, it's not about a battle between the House and the Senate or quite frankly even between parties because most of these bills have bipartisan support. It's about doing the work the voters sent us to do," Patrick said.
He thanked the Senators for their work, the reporters from their attendance and then walked out of the room without taking any questions.
Straus, on the other hand, was happy to answer a few questions about the Lieutenant Governor's remarks.
"I think the response was to a letter that I sent him on Monday that was respectful, positive and meant to build consensus, and he came out and had a few comments to make of his own today," Straus said. "But I think what I said to him on Monday that the House and Senate should show each other the courtesy of working on each other's priorities, that's the way we wind up successful sessions and that's the way we're gonna wind up in this one too."
As for the threats of a special session, Straus said that won't be well received.
"My experience in the House is, that the House doesn't take to threats terribly well," Straus said.
It was his chamber that gave Patrick a major bill to hold hostage. The self-named Freedom Caucus, made up of conservative Republicans in the House, used technical tactics to kill the House version of the sunset bill (SB310), leaving it in the hands of the Senate.
"I think it was unfortunate that they blocked our getting to the sunset bill which gave the, which did give the Lieutenant Governor the ability to make a threat and demand."
Straus also said the House has passed a number of Senate priority bills and Patrick should work to do the same.
"We are working on priorities that I know are important to the Lieutenant Governor and we expect the same courtesy to be shown to priorities of the House; public education, child protective services reforms, mental health reforms that are important and we shouldn't forget our retired teachers either," he said.
And Straus said while both chambers have priorities, no chamber is greater than the other.
"We don't do anything one chamber or the other. We either agree to do something or we don't do it. And so I'm still on the path of trying to work together, being respectful of one another, not threatening each other," said Straus. "So I''m still on the path of trying to work together, being respectful of one another, not threatening each other and working through these issues."
Ultimately, it's Govwenor Greg Abbott (R) who has the authority to call a special session.
His Press Secretary John Wittman gave KVUE News the following statement on his position of calling a special session:
“The Governor made clear yesterday that property tax reform and maintaining privacy in restrooms and locker rooms are legislative priorities that must be passed, and he believes both items can be achieved before the end of the regular session. The governor is grateful that the House has set the property tax bill to be heard on the floor tomorrow, and is making progress on privacy legislation. The governor will continue working with the House and Senate to conclude another successful legislative session.”
The regular session of the 85th Texas Legislative Session is May 29th.