Conventional wisdom in the Texas Capitol is that politicians, particularly Republicans, must decide if they are with voters or the business community. Allegedly one cannot advocate on behalf of both.
A more honest explanation of the battle within the Republican party comes down to whether politicians want to side with voters and business owners who believe in free markets, or bureaucrats and crony capitalists who use government to ward off competition.
Governor Greg Abbott, despite holding the most influential state-level office in the nation, and despite sitting on more campaign cash than anyone else, must still choose between these two sides: Will Gov. Abbott advocate for free market reforms to help all Texans, or will he push for policies to protect wealthy business owners who make hefty donations to his campaign account?
Some of Gov. Abbott’s biggest contributors are among the most ardent supporters of the status-quo, either directly or indirectly through third-party organizations. Examples include T. Dan Friedkin and Gulf States Toyota PAC which worked to defeat the “Tesla bill” this session, John Nau, III and his unbending resistance to changing liquor distributing laws, and G. Brint Ryan and his support for the Texas Association of Business‘ anti-free market agenda.
Their efforts are often focused on resisting change in the political or business climate of the state. Their motivation? They might believe Texas is the best place to do business in the world, and thus they’d like to keep it that way. Or, on the other hand, they might believe that changes in the political or business climate could hurt their bottom line by allowing more competition in their respective markets.
Regardless of their motivations for being involved politically, Gov. Abbott was widely viewed in the Capitol as thumbing his nose at some of these big donors earlier this year when he strongly pushed for sanctuary cities legislation. During the 85th legislative session, the sanctuary cities legislation, along with the Texas Privacy Act (often referred to as the Bathroom Bill), were vehemently opposed by the status-quo faction of the Republican party under the guise of protecting Texas’ business climate.
While the Texas Privacy Act didn’t pass, Gov. Abbott added it to the “call” — the list of issues he wants addressed — during the upcoming special session in July. Unlike the Texas Privacy Act, the bill prohibiting sanctuary cities did become law, partly because Gov. Abbott so strongly supported it. Why would Gov. Abbott support these issues when some of his biggest donors, including the crony capitalist Texas Association of Business, clearly didn’t want them?
Maybe he felt threatened from the right side of his party? Maybe he thought Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick would challenge him in the 2018 primary if he didn’t support these conservative issues? Or maybe he truly believed in them and felt he had a bold mandate from President Trump?
Whatever his reasoning, many in the Capitol Crowd argued that during the 85th session Gov. Abbott turned his back on his more establishment, status-quo minded supporters. And he did so once again by not only calling a special session, but by adding the Texas Privacy Act to the list of priorities.
Here’s the catch:
There’s nothing to stop the Texas House (openly upset about having to return for a special session) from gaveling in, passing only those items they absolutely must to keep the government running, and then gaveling out. Doing so would force Gov. Abbott to decide whether or not to call legislators back again for a second special session. Would he be willing to do that? The answer depends on how much he truly wants reforms like the Texas Privacy Act to pass.
Did he simply put conservative reforms on the “call” for the special session in order to shore up his right flank from attacks, or does he actually want to sign these bills into law?
Gov. Abbott is still a relative unknown due to how hands-off he’s been thus far as governor. It is possible he’s publicly saying he wants these bills to pass, while signaling behind the scenes to Texas House members and to his wealthy donors that he won’t call them back for a second special session? Alternatively, he also could very well want every item he put on the special session “call” to pass. At this point we simply don’t know.
What we do know is the Texas House will likely test Gov. Abbott by refusing to pass reforms like the Texas Privacy Act. How he reacts will be key.
The bottom line:
Gov. Abbott likes to talk about how Texas is great for business – that he’s in the business of making Texas a great place to start and run a company. The upcoming special session will give voters a good idea about which side he’s really on – free markets or crony capitalists. Transparency Texas will be watching, and so should you.
Our Capitol Crowd series outlines and highlights the politicians, advocacy groups, and donors that have the biggest impact during the 140-day legislative session. Check back throughout the session for updates.