03/26/19

A Closer Look: Kel Seliger, The Fourth Most Powerful Politician in Texas?

There’s a lot of talk about Texas’ Big Three — Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and new Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen. Considered the three most powerful politicians in Austin, and all conservative Republicans, they made headlines when they declared in January that they would be working as a team to reform property taxes and the school finance system.

Although less well-known, Republican State Senator Kel Seliger may just be the next most powerful person in Texas. Seliger represents Senate District 31, encompassing a wide swath of West Texas including 37 counties and the cities of Midland, Odessa, and Amarillo.

But Seliger’s power isn’t the result of brilliant political strategy or maneuvering. Rather, he’s powerful by chance, which is often the case in politics. In November, when Republican Senators Konni Burton and Don Huffines lost their seats to Democrats Beverly Powell and Nathan Johnson respectively, Seliger’s influence skyrocketed. Conversely, if Republicans had held those seats, Seliger would be largely irrelevant this session.

Here’s how it works:

In the Texas Senate, once a bill has been passed out of its assigned committee, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, decides which bills will come to the floor for a vote by the entire body. But there’s one catch —  60 percent (19) of the 31 Senators must agree with Patrick that the bill should receive a vote. When Republicans lost two members and gained one (Sen. Pete Flores) in November, they dropped from holding 20 to 19 seats. In other words, all 19 Republican Senators must agree with Patrick that a bill should receive a vote. One defection from Republican ranks can cause a bill to die on the vine, never receiving an on-the-record vote. Legislators often use this tactic to avoid voting on a controversial bill.

So why would Seliger break ranks?

According to the non-partisan index compiled by Dr. Mark Jones of Rice University, Seliger consistently ranks as the most liberal Republican in the Senate. This ideological stance naturally distances him from conservative firebrand Dan Patrick, and a public rift in January may have killed any remaining chance of political cooperation.

When Patrick announced Senate committee chairs in January, he removed Seliger from his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee and instead gave him the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee. The move made sense, at least on paper, as Seliger represents a heavily rural and agricultural district. Rumors swirled around the capitol, however, that Seliger was insulted by the move and preferred his position as Chairman of Higher Ed. His wife, after all, serves as President of the Texas Exes, the alumni association for the University of Texas at Austin.

When questioned on a radio program about the move, Seliger remarked, “I have a recommendation for (female spokesperson for Patrick) and her lips and my back end.” Patrick gave Seliger 48 hours to apologize. When he did not, Patrick stripped Seliger of his Agriculture Committee chairmanship.

Although he chairs no committees, given the current makeup of the Senate, Seliger still has plenty of sway. In fact, Seliger has already flexed his muscles, declaring he will not support Senate Bill 2 (SB2), the property tax reform bill championed by the Big Three, which would require voter approval for any property tax increase greater than 2.5 percent. SB2 passed out of committee February 11, but still has not been presented for a vote.

Seliger was the only Republican to vote against a similar bill during the last session and the special session, but with 20 Republicans in the Senate at that time, his “no” vote didn’t guarantee obstruction.

Who’s Supporting Seliger?

In November 2018, Seliger won reelection to the Senate after surviving a three-way primary challenge. Here’s a look at Seliger’s top donors over the last four years leading up to that election:

  1. Texas Association of Realtors PAC – $112,753.02 Strong support from the Realtors PAC comes as no surprise as they are known for throwing their substantial financial heft behind liberal Republicans and the occasional Democrat. Like Seliger, the Realtors are on record disagreeing with SB2 and calling for a higher property tax rate increase before voter approval is required.
  2. Charles Butt – $45,000 Mr. Butt, owner and Chairman of the H-E-B grocery chain, is known for his opposition to school voucher programs and his support for increased funding to public schools. Seliger was one of only two Republicans in the Texas Senate to vote against school vouchers in 2017.
  3. Associated Republicans of Texas – $43,263.25 According to their website, Associated Republicans of Texas PAC (ART) is committed to maintaining Republican majorities in the Texas legislature. Their financial support typically benefits more liberal Republicans. In addition to Mr. Seliger, ART has invested heavily in the campaigns of House Reps. Sarah Davis, Charlie Geren, and Steve Allison.
  4. Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC – $40,004.43 This PAC typically supports incumbents and more moderate Republicans. Their early support of Seliger helped him fend off primary challengers from the right.
  5. Javaid Anwar – $35,000 Mr. Anwar, CEO of Midland Energy, consistently ranks among the most prolific givers to Texas politicians. His largess tends to benefit incumbent Republican politicians whether they are more liberal or more conservative.
  6. Friends of the University PAC – $27,000 This PAC is the political giving arm of the University of Texas Austin. Their support for Seliger comes as no surprise given his position, until January, as  the Chairman of the Higher Education Committee in the Senate, and his personal connection to the University of Texas alumni association, Texas Exes.
  7. AT&T Inc, Texas PAC – $25,000 This corporate PAC supports statewide officeholders as well as Democrat and Republican incumbents. Like most corporate PACs, their giving tends to support those in power, rather than a particular ideology.
  8. Exelon Corporation PAC – $25,000 In Texas, Exelon is primarily involved in wind energy projects. Their political support flows to statewide politicians, liberal Republicans, and Democrats.
  9. Russell T. Kelley – $25,000 Mr. Kelley, one of Austin’s most prominent lobbyists, made more money representing taxpayer-funded clients than any other lobbyist during the last legislative session. Many of Mr. Kelley’s taxpayer-funded clients are adamantly opposed to SB2 and property tax reform.
  10. Texas Land Title Association PAC – $20,000 This special interest PAC supports incumbents as well as Democrats and Republicans from across the political spectrum.

Bottom Line:

As we enter the last half of this legislative session and things heat up at the Capitol, it will be interesting to watch how Seliger handles his influence. Bills must pass in both the House and the Senate and be signed by Abbott to become law. Given the current balance of power in the Senate, Seliger is in position to single-handedly torpedo any legislation. Given his ideological leanings and his clash with Patrick, he may do just that.

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