Dan Patrick should swing for the fences
Despite his best intentions, Dan Patrick still has to play nice with the Speaker and Governor. He should change that and Democrats should help.
(this piece was originally published on Texas Plenty)
Last Friday, the Texas Tribune published an amazing piece of reporting on Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and his consolidation of power in Texas. Patrick Svitek and James Barragán did an excellent job and you really should read the piece in its entirety.
At a high level, it presents the latest ways in which Patrick has worked to consolidate both his personal power and the power of the Lieutenant Governor in Texas.
According to Svitek and Barragán, Patrick has:
- tried to get former Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry to challenge current Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott in his re-election race (ostensibly because Abbott did not walk in lock step with Patrick on a variety of issues),
- tried to get people close to former President Donald Trump to convince Trump to withdraw his endorsements of Attorney General Ken Paxton (because of Paxton's personal legal and ethical challenges) and Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller (because Miller sued the Texas State Senate over COVID-19 testing requirements during the 2021 Regular Session),
- persuaded Trump to attack (and threaten to primary) current Speaker of the Texas State House, Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), on Twitter, for not pushing one of Patrick's legislative priorities, the election audit bill,
- convinced long time State Senators Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) to abandon their re-election bids by either, in Seliger's case, redrawing his district to make it more favorable to Seliger's primary opponent (because Seliger disagreed with Patrick on local control) or, in Taylor's case, withholding his support in a contested primary (because, despite Taylor's support of Patrick, Taylor's opponent, Mayes Middleton, would be an even more stalwart ally),
- and lastly, punished one of his most loyal allies, State Senator Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) by removing him from his position as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce (for opposing Patrick's push to ensure that energy investors didn't make billions while average energy payers saw rate hikes after Winter Storm Uri)
That's an incredible amount of maneuvering behind the scenes and, again, I really encourage you to read the full piece over at the Texas Tribune.
But why is Patrick doing all of this?
Svitek and Barragán don't really get to that part in print, but Barragán does speculate a bit about half way through last weeks Texas Tribune podcast.
Barragán believes that Patrick really has a genuine belief in a socially conservative, business-skeptic, and populist vision for Texas. I agree with Barragán - Patrick is a true believer and I can respect that. The amount of change he's been able to make over the last 16 years is really incredible (especially the last session) and Democrats could learn a thing or two from him.
But fundamentally, the Texas State Constitution only gives Patrick so much power to pass his priorities.
I think Patrick should try and change that and Democrats should help him.
Patrick's problem - Abbott and Phelan
Throughout the Texas Tribune's story, two political themes are very clear:
- Patrick controls the Senate with an iron fist,
- and yet, Abbott and Phelan, the other two of the "Big 3", can still block him whenever they want to.
Whether it's replacing Committee chairs or loosening the Senate's version of the filibuster - not once, but twice, Patrick has made it clear that he's driving the Senate's agenda and he'll marshal the votes to pass his priorities. And sometimes, he'll even marshal the votes to pass bills Republicans don't want. When constitutional carry first appeared in the Senate last session, Patrick didn't think he had the votes - in part due to the opposition of law enforcement. But ultimately, he muscled it through.
The Senate is Patrickland. But the House and the Governorship aren't.
Despite all that Patrick has accomplished over the last 16 years, he's still flirting with getting rid of Abbott and trying to pressure Phelan. I'm sure Patrick finds it incredibly frustrating that the Speaker, and his Chairmen - including some Democrats - can (in his view) stymie his priorities whenever they don't want to upset some important interest, like big business (on energy repricing), cities and counties (on taxpayer funded lobbying) or public school districts (on school vouchers). Who knows what they'll say on his next priority - removing tenure at the University of Texas at Austin? Phelan and Abbott are both Longhorns after all.
Further, because the Legislature only meets once every two years for five months, the House can always run out the clock. Then Patrick has to make his case to Abbott because only the Governor can call a Special Session.
Ultimately, Patrick doesn't control the House or Governor's agenda and it's hard to see how he might get there. Abbott has $60 million in the bank and would've been a formidable Perry foe, but even if Perry had run and won, there's no guarantee he would have delivered for Patrick more than Abbott. And Phelan is elected by the members of the House - including some Democrats, unlike Patrick (or his allies) who are elected by Republicans. It's a structural question and that's why Patrick keeps having problems with the House regardless of who exactly is Speaker.
Well, I've got an answer for Patrick.
The People's Agenda
As I said, the fundamental problem is that Patrick doesn't control the House or Governor's agenda, so they can block his proposals. His only leverage is through public opinion, but even that is somewhat limited. The Regular Session ends nearly ten months before the next Republican Primary and 18 months ahead of the General Election. That's a lot of time for voters to forget about the specific disagreements that Patrick, Phelan and Abbott might have. Not to mention Abbott's term itself is four years.
What Patrick needs is a way to get his bills before the House and Governor for an up or down vote. He should embrace an idea I ran on back in 2018 that I named the People's Agenda.
Here's how it would work.
- Patrick would put together a proposal, say on retroactively repricing energy contracts. He would submit it to the Texas Legislative Council who would rewrite it into legislative/legal language - exactly like a normal Legislative bill.
- Patrick would then collect the signatures of registered voters from across Texas. I don't have particular numbers in mind, but two general rules should be met:
- First, the proposal should get the signatures of a certain percentage of registered Texas voters. Let's say for this example, 8% of the last gubernatorial turnout (Florida and California both set a threshold of 8% for their ballot measures). In 2018, 8,312,872 voters voted in the Texas gubernatorial race. So the statewide requirement would be 665,030 signatures.
- Second, the proposal should get signatures from a geographically diverse section of Texas. So for this example, let's say 4% of the last gubernatorial turnout from each of at least 26 counties (or more than 10% of all Texas counties). For context, only five Texas counties have more than 1 million residents, an additional seven counties have more than 500,000 residents, and half of all Texas counties have fewer than 20,000 residents.
- After receiving these signatures, Patrick would submit the proposal and signatures to the Texas Secretary of State's office. They would validate the signatures. If the proposal met the above criteria, it would be placed on the next even year November General Election ballot for an up or down vote.
Now here's the best part: if Patrick's proposal gets majority statewide support, then it gets placed on a special docket, The People's Agenda, for a constitutionally required up or down vote (no amendments) by both the House and Senate on the final day before each chamber adjourns. If both chambers pass the bill, then the Governor is constitutionally required to either sign or veto the bill.
Under this process, Patrick could explicitly push his issues onto the House and Governor's agenda and force them to take a stand one way or another - which is exactly what true believers want from their squishy politicians adversaries. And if Abbott or any other members of the Legislature don't support his proposal, Patrick now has two new weapons to pressure them:
- the validated signatures of registered voters across the state who care about the exact issue he cares about, and
- a measure of support among actual voters for that exact legislative bill in each House and Senate District. It's hard to tell voters no when they've told you exactly what they want.
I'm a Democrat. I've been a delegate to Texas State Conventions in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 and the National Conventions in 2008 and 2012. I also ran for the Texas State House from District 129 in 2018 as a Democrat.
Why am I interested in helping Patrick?
Because sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows. Remember that electricity pricing fight that Patrick got into with Hancock, Abbott and Phelan? Democrats were on Patrick's side. So this wouldn't be the first time we worked together.
Right now Patrick is being stymied by Abbott and Phelan. But Democrats like State Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) and State Representative Joe Moody (D-El Paso) are often stymied by Patrick and Abbott. West and Moody support policies that are popular in Texas, even among significant numbers of Republicans, but blocked by Patrick.
For example, 60% of Texans and 45% of Texas Republicans believe in legalizing possession of at least small amounts of marijuana for any purpose. But not Dan Patrick.
61% of Texans and 36% of Texas Republicans believe in raising the minimum wage. But not Dan Patrick.
Today, Democrats have no leverage to get these issues heard, but with the People's Agenda, we would. In fact, any registered voter would be allowed to collect signatures for a People's Agenda proposal.
If you take this piece seriously, you would think that Abbott and Phelan would be the ones losing out here. Politics is zero-sum so if Patrick and the Democrats are winning, then someone must be losing, so is it Abbott and Phelan?
No. Because the pressure works the other way too. Just as Abbott and Phelan sometimes block Patrick, Patrick often blocks Abbott and Phelan. They too would benefit from a process that allows them to put more items on the agenda.
Ultimately, Patrick, the Democrats, Abbott, Phelan, or any other registered voter with a proposal are all channeling public opinion - remember, to be on the People's Agenda, proposals must be supported by a majority of Texas voters.
So the people win.
In this instance, politics isn't zero-sum. Patrick is going to get some items on the Peoples' Agenda and he'll probably win. But so will the Democrats, Abbott, Phelan, the Libertarian Party, your Uncle Steve, and Pastor Mary. Because each one of them has some ideas that are actually popular among Texans.
And that's the way it should be.
Let's go through a couple quick objections and responses:
- "What if [some policy] gets passed and I don't like it?" Yes. That's a possibility. Some change my happen that you're not happy with. But also, some change may happen that you desperately want that wouldn't have happened otherwise. That's the trade. Besides, you could always try to convince the Legislature to change it next session (like any other law).
- "Aren't propositions a massive headache in California?" Yes. I live here now. They can be a pretty big headache and can be captured by corporate/special interests. But one big reason they're so challenging is that ballot propositions circumvent the Legislature. So, for better or for worse, the California Legislature can't change or update these propositions when circumstances change. Under the People's Agenda, a Legislature could vote one way in 2023 and then, a new Legislature could vote the other way in 2025, as with any other law.
- "If the Legislature can vote down the propositions or undo them the next session, what's the point?" The point is that citizens should have more avenues for getting their issues heard by the Legislature, and more so, it should be really clear when the Legislature goes against public opinion.
- "The thresholds you've set are too low/high/don't take into account some other form of representation and/or we'd have too many/few propositions." I'm open to other numbers - propose some of your own. But they should a) be simple enough for everyone to understand and b) include both a measure of statewide popularity and a measure of geographic popularity.
- "Can we really trust the Texas Secretary of State to properly validate these signatures?" Yes, especially because they'll often be stuck between different Republicans, not just between Democrats and Republicans. That's more pressure to just call balls and strikes.
With all due respect to the Democrats running for Lieutenant Governor, Patrick is likely to win re-election this year. But according to the Texas Tribune, Patrick does not seem interested in running for re-election in 2026:
If reelected [in 2022], Patrick has said his third term would be his last. In an interview with the Tribune, he said that could possibly change, “but right now for me personally, for my family, it will be time.”
Remember, Patrick truly believes in the cause. So he's setting up the system to push his point of view even after he's gone.
With the People's Agenda, Patrick could continue to influence Austin long after he's out of office with just an endorsement (or dis-endorsement) on any proposals coming to Austin.
So Lieutenant Governor Patrick, if you're reading this - go chat with the Freedom Caucus and the House Democrats, there's a deal to be had here. I'd love to see it on the November 2023 ballot as a Texas Constitutional Amendment - especially since we've amended it over 500 times anyway!
As always, your feedback is greatly appreciated. You can email me at [email protected].