How Gov. Abbott alienated the Legislature this session

In an attempt to challenge his reputation as a policy lightweight, Abbott has struggled to handle the Legislature’s big personalities.

By Glorie G. Martinez & Wells DunbarJuly 10, 2023 4:20 pm,

How to Lose Friends and Alienate the Legislature,” is a new article from Texas Monthly about Gov. Greg Abbott and his effort to, as the article puts it, turnaround his reputation of being policy lightweight among certain people who are politics-watchers. 

Texas Monthly contributor Christopher Hooks wrote the article and he joined the Standard to talk about Abbott’s new approach this legislative session. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: You sort of took a self-help approach here, with “How to Lose Friends and Alienate the Legislature,” five easy steps that you say Gov. Abbott has taken this year. Can you give us a broad overview here? What were you going for?

Christopher Hooks: Well, Greg Abbott has been governor since 2015, but he has struggled in all that time to create the perception in Austin that he is good at dealing with the Legislature. He did not come from a background where he dealt a lot with the Legislature or had a lot of experience getting priorities through. He was the attorney general and a judge before that. 

One key issue for Abbott has been school vouchers. He pushed for that really hard during this session. Tell us a little bit about how successful or unsuccessful that was. 

Unusually, this session Greg Abbott had something that he really wanted the Legislature to do, which was pass a school voucher plan.

That’s historically been a hard sell for Republicans in the House, especially rural Republicans, who support public schools in their district. They have not been willing to help the governor out with that. But this session, he invested a lot of his own credibility in getting a school voucher plan passed, and he did that largely by threatening people. 

He did not reach out and create the personal connections in the Legislature that would have allowed him to get this package through. He held rallies in members’ districts, he hectored lawmakers. While that was happening, a lot of other important business that the Legislature had to pass – namely this debate over property tax relief – went by the wayside. 

The result was at the end of the legislative session, they hadn’t passed a property tax plan. They hadn’t passed the school voucher plan that Greg Abbott wanted. So, Greg Abbott has had to call them back for two special sessions now to get the basic work done that they needed to do in the regular session. 

He’s threatening more special sessions, of course. There’s also the attorney general’s impeachment trial looming in the Senate. I’m curious, though – is Gov. Abbott’s approach really what you’re critiquing here? 

Yes. I mean, in the last quarter century, Texas has had two governors. One of them was Rick Perry, who came from a legislative background and was very good at building personal relationships in the Legislature and communicating what he wanted to get done, and making sure that stuff did get done. 

Greg Abbott comes from a different background, and he has really struggled with this. I think he’s really bristled at the perception that he is not very good at this. This session he decided to go in a different direction and try to get something big done that he could put his name on. The result is that the Legislature is pretty screwed up right now, and a lot of Capitol observers have a hard time seeing how this stuff gets resolved. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was effectively saying to the governor at the end of the regular session, “stay in your lane.” And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick runs the Senate. It’s not like Abbott is getting a whole lot of help from his colleagues on the Republican side in the Legislature. 

No, he’s not. He’s gone out of the way to alienate friends that he has had.

It’s true that he has some difficult personalities to manage in the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Patrick is strong-willed and has his own priorities. But historically, the governor of Texas has played a role in mediating between those personalities and in trying to find compromises where they exist.

Instead, he’s told the Senate and the House what they need to do, and they’ve been happy to remind him at every available opportunity that he doesn’t get to say that. 

You wrote about how Gov. Abbott could use the upcoming Republican primary as a means to leverage his influence. What might that look like? 

Well, you can already see it starting. The House Republicans who blocked his school voucher plan in the regular session have been getting more and more heat in the last couple of months. There’s a small number of Republicans that he would need to target and beat in a primary in order to maybe get a school voucher plan of some kind passed next session. I am skeptical that it will work. 

The reason these rural Republicans are protective of their public schools in many cases is that there aren’t private schools in their district. There’s not a clamor among voters to get school vouchers passed, because there aren’t available options for them. In the past, voters in these districts have rewarded their representatives for standing by public schools. Greg Abbott would have a lot to overcome to make that not the case.

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