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‘Internal Rot’: Infighting Among Leadership Exposes Rifts in Texas GOP

The optimism heading into this year’s legislative session in the GOP was quite high.

The state’s top Republican leaders had all won reelection by healthy margins. The Legislature had a record breaking surplus. And lawmakers agreed that Texans would see steep discounts to their property taxes.

By the end of the session, Attorney General Ken Paxton was impeached. A $17 billion property tax cut package was dead. And the so-called big three — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan — were engaging in a rare public political fight with no end in sight.

The infighting has exposed deep cracks in the veneer of the Republican-dominated leadership of Texas politics. Political experts told The Dallas Morning News that the notable flare up is a symptom of one-party rule.

“When one party rules the governing structure for a long time, you begin to see internal rot,” said The University of Texas-Austin’s Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project.

Disagreements over how to implement a proposed property tax cut have led to the clash with Patrick on one side and Abbott on the other. Each has competing plans to do so.

Abbott favors a broad-based approach that spreads the relief across all property owners. Patrick, meanwhile, has a similar plan, but wants about 30% of the cut dedicated toward relief for just homeowners.

Phelan and the House passed Abbott’s plan less than 24 hours after the governor demanded both chambers stay in Austin until property tax relief was addressed. Patrick and the Senate passed a plan similar to what they favored when the regular session came to a close.

In the aftermath, both Abbott and Patrick have taken to social media to air their differences. The back-and-forth has been frequent and fierce as Abbott has promoted the fact that his plan is supported by dozens of business groups while Patrick continued to sell his plan Friday as the best tax cut for homeowners.

With the House adjourned, there might not be any further negotiations between the two chambers for now. Patrick has shown no signs that he is willing to budge, and Abbott on Friday said at an event at a conservative think tank in Austin that he would call lawmakers back to Austin as many times as necessary to pass his plan.

And while their policy squabble continues, the impending impeachment trial of Paxton looms.

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at SMU, said the current state Texas GOP reminded him of a high-speed pile up. He called Paxton’s impeachment “an absolutely unprecedented eruption” in the GOP that is only compounded by Phelan allying with Abbott against Patrick’s tax plan.

While Patrick appears to be isolated, Jillson said he maintains the advantage. Patrick has thrown more punches at Abbott, including questioning the governor’s understanding of the legislative process over Abbott’s demand to pass a tax plan “solely” to his liking.

“Abbott has more at stake here as things exist today,” Jillson said. “Patrick can afford for issues to go undecided, whereas Abbott is more likely to be held accountable for work that doesn’t get done.”

Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor, views the showdown the same way.

“Neither Phelan nor Abbott is going to be able to provide Texans with property tax relief without Lt. Gov. Patrick’s support, and the lieutenant governor is in a stronger position,” Jones said.

“His proposal benefits average Texans far more than does the Phelan-Abbott plan,” he added.

The University of Houston’s Brandon Rottinghaus said that ideological divides within the Texas GOP are not uncommon. But for one to emerge over tax policy was a “new dynamic.”

Abbott made property tax relief one of his emergency items for the Legislature this year and has spent a lot of political capital promoting that promise. His other major public campaign over his proposal to allow parents to use taxpayer money for private school tuition also failed.

“The governor’s drawn a line and he expects the party to get behind him on it, and if they don’t, then he’s going to be very vocal about it,” Rottinghaus said. “It sounds like that’s what we’re seeing right now.”

Both Rottinghaus and Jones said Abbott and Patrick are usually in closer alignment. Internal GOP fights generally center on the conflicts between the more conservative Senate and the House, where many hardline Republican proposals die.

It was no different this year with Patrick ending the session lamenting the deaths of Senate bills that included a mandate for the Ten Commandments to be in public school classrooms, a ban on Chinese citizens owning types of property in Texas, and ending countywide polling places.

But the tax policy fight has brought Phelan and Abbott together and left Patrick isolated

“They effectively gave the Senate and the lieutenant governor a take-it-or-leave-it decision on their proposal,” Jones said.

Source: The Dallas Morning News