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Tension over property taxes produces rare public clash between Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott

By Patrick Svitek and Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

Tension over property taxes produces rare public clash between Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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When the Texas Legislature ended its regular session Monday without a deal on property taxes, it was unsurprising to see the House and Senate openly feuding with each other.

The Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has long dogged House leadership as too moderate and too slow to act on his chamber’s priorities.

What came next, however, was far more unusual: Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session on cutting property taxes and asked lawmakers to focus exclusively on one method of relief. The House quickly obliged, but the Senate defied Abbott by passing a broader bill. And when Abbott issued a statement clearly siding with the House, Patrick erupted.

In a statement, Patrick said Abbott “seems misinformed about the roles of the executive and legislative branches of government.”

“Governor Abbott has finally shown his cards,” Patrick said, accusing Abbott of favoring tax cuts for corporations over homeowners. “This is not what homeowners expected when they voted for him.”

It was mild criticism by the standards of Texas’ often dramatic intraparty politics. But for Patrick, it counted as a rare — if not singular — public rebuke of a governor he has long sought to appear allied with.

And it came hours after Patrick brazenly telegraphed that the Senate would disregard Abbott’s call for property tax legislation.

“Look, do you think the governor’s gonna veto a homestead exemption?” Patrick said at a morning discussion in Austin.

Since they first took their respective offices in 2015, Abbott and Patrick have forged a cordial but sometimes uneasy alliance. They are not close friends, but they have built a working relationship that has kept them at the top of state leadership for eight years and counting.

Jason Villalba, a Republican who served in the state House for the first four years of the Abbott-Patrick era, called the sudden conflict between the two leaders a “clash of the titans.”

“They’ve had disagreements, they were gentlemanly about those disagreements through several cycles, but this is the first time that I saw where the disagreements spilled over into the public,” said Villalba, who now runs the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation.

Patrick, Villalba added, is one of the strongest lieutenant governors since Bob Bullock and is used to getting his way.

“For the governor to go against that,” Villalba said, “it really stuck in his craw.”

All sides doubled down Wednesday. House Republicans openly celebrated Abbott’s backing of their approach. Patrick fired off paragraphs-long tweets that continued to question Abbott’s commitment to maximum property tax relief. And Abbott’s office kept touting his — and the House’s — strategy, while seeming to push back against criticism that Abbott finally took a public stand on the issue after months of ambiguity.

“The Governor campaigned on this solution and remained actively involved in the tax discussions throughout the regular legislative session,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. “When the legislature failed to reach an agreement on a property tax plan in the regular session, Governor Abbott immediately called a special session to address this top priority. Less than 24 hours later, the Texas House passed his plan.”

Greg Sindelar, the CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said Wednesday that he is optimistic that Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan can find a compromise on property taxes, though it may take more than one special session. Sindelar was among those who signed a letter Tuesday backing Abbott’s approach to property taxes in the first special session.

“Everyone knows we have to get this done, and the lieutenant governor and the speaker and the governor, I think they will make it happen,” Sindelar said during a TPPF panel discussion in Austin. “The end of session is a very tense time, but at the end of the day, I think they all know and recognize that we want to deliver for Texans. And so I have very high hopes and expectations that we’ll get there. It just might take another special [session] — or two.”

“We agree 96, 97 percent of the time”

Abbott and Patrick were both first elected to their current positions in 2015, headlining a new wave of more conservative Republicans entering statewide office. It quickly became clear that Patrick, a rabble-rousing former state senator, would move aggressively to set the conservative agenda in Texas, with Abbott, a more deliberative former judge and legislative novice, forced to keep up.

One of their first cold wars came in 2017, when Patrick successfully pushed Abbott to call a special session over a “bathroom bill” that failed amid House opposition in the regular session. Abbott loaded the special session call up with 19 other items, but lawmakers ended up approving only half the agenda, with limits on transgender-friendly bathrooms again failing.

Heading into the next election cycle, speculation that Patrick wanted to challenge Abbott for governor grew so much that the lieutenant governor held a news conference to swat it down. He said he would “not ever” run against Abbott.

“We agree 96, 97 percent of the time — I can’t even name the 3 percent we don’t,” Patrick told reporters.

Yet tensions persisted. Patrick became President Donald Trump’s top booster in Texas, while Abbott kept more distance. As Patrick sought to leverage his relationship with Trump to elect more Republican allies in 2022, he talked with former Gov. Rick Perry about running for governor, emphasizing that it was only in the event that Abbott retired. Abbott called Patrick’s bluff.

“I was always clear,” Abbott told The Texas Tribune at the time. “One hundred percent, I’m running.”

Then, heading into the latest legislative session, Patrick deemed his top priority to be fixing the power grid after the deadly 2021 collapse. That implicitly challenged Abbott’s earlier assertion that lawmakers had done everything they needed to do to fix the grid during the regular session in 2021.

After a long period of silence, Abbott got on board, and Patrick ended this regular session fully satisfied on that topic.

Going into the session, Patrick had been characteristically dismissive of any tension with Abbott on the power grid. But his candor broke through during a post-session news conference Tuesday in Austin.

“I think at the beginning of the session we were here,” Patrick said, holding his arms wide apart before narrowing them close together. “By the end of the session, we were here.”

House says take it or leave it

The state’s record $33 billion budget surplus provided lawmakers with the financing for politically popular proposals this legislative session. Abbott, Patrick and Phelan agreed that Texans deserve a massive property tax break.

Although this was a top priority in both chambers, the House and Senate drafted significantly different proposals, and their leaders showed an inability to compromise. Patrick repeatedly criticized Phelan’s approach, calling him “California Dade” for his plan’s resemblance to a property tax reform attempted in that state.

Abbott stayed publicly silent on the issue for months. On March 3, a Texas Tribune reporter asked him after an event in San Antonio which approach he preferred, and Abbott declined to say.

The “Big Three” left a meeting in the governor’s office on May 22 positively cheery, with Phelan hinting that there could be agreement on all major issues before the end of the session.

But after last-ditch bargaining failed on the final day of the session Monday, the governor decided on a more forceful approach. He immediately called the Legislature back for a special session focused solely on property taxes and border security. Lamenting the fact that the Legislature couldn’t get a property tax deal done in the regular session, he asked lawmakers to pass a bill that simply directed $12.3 billion to lower school district taxes, the largest portion of a property owner’s tax bill.

Phelan and the House acceded to that request, promptly passing a bill Tuesday to do just that. Patrick, however, defied the governor by shepherding through a bill that also included an expanded homestead exemption. The House declined to even consider it, declaring that the Senate bill was not germane to Abbott’s stated purpose for the special session. Instead, the House passed its measures and adjourned for the special session, essentially telling the Senate to accept the House version or pass, for now, on cutting property taxes.

Abbott was clear, saying the House bill was the only one he would sign into law. He also touted the endorsements of more than 30 homeowner, consumer and business groups for what he called “my plan.”

Patrick fired back in a statement that portrayed Abbott’s position as a betrayal of homeowners. “He chooses to give homeowners 50% less of a tax cut, nearly $700 a year, to give corporations more,” Patrick said.

An “astronomical” level of tension

Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said the tension between Abbott and Patrick is “astronomical.”

“In all my years watching and studying state politics, I don’t ever really recall anyone completely being frank with their opinions, at least not in that manner,” Cross said of Patrick. “If you go back to Lt. Gov. [William] Hobby, a moderate Democrat who served under a Republican governor, Bill Clements, there wasn’t anything near this type of public friction. Not even close. And they were polar opposites.”

Since the House adjourned after rejecting the Senate plan Tuesday, Patrick can either urge senators to pass the House plan or he can adjourn the Senate, too, without a deal — denying Abbott a victory he has sought and forcing the governor to call another special session. He hinted Wednesday afternoon he is leaning toward the latter.

“If the House thinks after abandoning the Capitol, and walking out on the Special Session, the Senate is going to pass their “take it or leave it” property tax bill without a homestead exemption, they are mistaken,” Patrick said on Twitter. “The Senate is still working. The House can return.”

The Senate next meets Friday.

Republican House members urged the upper chamber to do as they had and deliver what the governor has asked for.

“We look forward to seeing this bill passed in the Texas Senate on Friday,” tweeted Rockwall Rep. Justin Holland.

“The House signed and sealed the largest property tax cut in American history,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, added in a statement. “Now it’s up to the Senate to deliver it.”

Disclosure: Texas Public Policy Foundation and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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