Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threw down the gauntlet Wednesday, threatening to keep lawmakers in Austin this summer for a special session unless the House passes legislation to regulate transgender Texans’ use of bathrooms and to reform property taxes.
Patrick issued the ultimatum during a press conference in which he identified Senate Bill 2, a property tax relief measure, and Senate Bill 6, better known as the “bathroom bill,” as must-pass measures if lawmakers want to avoid a special session. The Legislature is scheduled to end its 140-day regular session on May 29.
“If we must go to a special session, I will respectfully ask the governor to add both of these bills — plus other legislation he has voiced support for — in that special session call,” Patrick said. “If the bills don’t pass in the special and they’re blocked again, I will ask the governor to call us back again and again and again.”
While it’s up to Gov. Greg Abbott to call an extended legislative session, he held out hope that the bills could be passed routinely.
“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,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said.
House Speaker Joe Straus put out a statement noting that he hopes Patrick changes his mind. On Monday, Straus wrote to Patrick urging that the two chambers work together.
“Patrick’s threat to force a special session unless he gets everything his way is regrettable, and I hope that he reconsiders,” Straus said. “The best way to end this session is to reach consensus on as many issues as we can.
“Nobody is going to get everything they want. But we can come together on many issues and end this session knowing that we have positively addressed priorities that matter to Texas.”
Patrick’s battle cry escalated his war of words with Straus with end-of-session deadlines looming. The lieutenant governor is an outspoken advocate for a more conservative agenda, while the House speaker is portrayed as a more moderate voice.
In his statement, Straus noted that the House has worked to pass Senate priorities and pointed out that Senate Bill 2, the property tax reform bill, was set to be debated Thursday.
Patrick’s key source of leverage is the sunset safety net bill. All state agencies must undergo periodic “sunset” reviews by the Legislature or be forced to shut down if reforms aren’t passed.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus managed to block the House from passing its version of the “safety net” bill last week, leaving the Senate version as a critical measure.
Patrick said Wednesday that the Senate had less than 48 hours to pass its version but added that he “must see action in the House to pass several key” pieces of legislation before it would take action.
Patrick has been a vocal advocate for the so-called bathroom bill. He has said that Texans want legislation that keeps transgender people out of public restrooms that don’t match their birth gender. The Senate approved the measure in February, but it has languished in the House, where Straus has said it is not a priority and business groups worry that it could cost the state economy billions of dollars.
On property tax reform, the Senate bill requires rollback elections if tax rates hit a certain level, while the House version simply provides more transparency for taxpayers.
Straus said the House passed HB 21 to address rising local school taxes.
“The House made a sincere effort to start fixing our school finance system, but the Senate is trying to derail that effort at the 11th hour,” he said. “The Senate is demanding that we provide far fewer resources for schools than the House approved and that we begin to subsidize private education — a concept that the members of the House overwhelmingly rejected in early April.”
The House and Senate also have been at odds over the state budget. The House wants to take $2.5 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for $218 billion worth of priorities. But Patrick and other Senate leaders have resisted the urge to tap into the state’s savings account for continuing state expenses.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, didn’t appear ruffled by the lieutenant governor’s threat.
“If we have to come back in June, we have to come back in June,” Geren said.
State Sen. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, said he has “100 percent support” for Patrick’s suggestion of addressing these bills during a special session.
“The voters want tax relief, bathroom protections for children in public schools, proper education funding and more,” said Tinderholt, part of the House Freedom Caucus. Straus “has a purposely stalled these issues all session. The people of Texas deserve better.”
State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said she agrees with Straus that a special session can be avoided.
“To come back and hastily force through damaging bills such as the so-called bathroom bill will not be in the best interest of our constituents,” Collier said.
Even before Patrick’s ultimatum, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price on Tuesday expressed her displeasure with how things were going in Austin.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had already threatened a special session if things didn’t go his way on the House’s changes to the Senate version of the property tax bill. Local government officials have expressed concern that the bill would hamstring their ability to raise enough money to provide necessary services.
Price publicly fired back at Bonnen after he told the San Antonio Express-News he wanted to “shove it down their throats in a special session,” referring to elected officials who have testified against the bill.
That upset Price, who called Bonnen’s comments insulting. During a Fort Worth City Council work session, she said she doesn’t think Bonnen should head the conference committee on the bill.
“You don’t treat fellow elected officials like that,” Price said. “It was a shameful outburst, and comments from an elected official against other elected officials, we just can’t tolerate that.”
Staff writers Anna M. Tinsley and Sandra Baker contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune, The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle.