Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, increasingly desperate to pass legislation aimed at reforming the state’s property tax system, told a group of senators late Thursday night that if he can’t get the votes to win passage of the bill, on Monday he is simply going to change a decades-long Senate practice in order to guarantee himself a victory. Patrick issued the warning to Senate Democrats Thursday night, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussion.
To take up debate on legislation, three-fifths of the Senate, or nineteen senators, must vote to move forward. Patrick warned he would suspend this so-called three-fifths rule, a move known around the Capitol as the “nuclear option” because it would upend decades of tradition in the upper chamber, a body that has long esteemed itself for decorum and consensus-building. Patrick’s apparent decision, supported by Republican leadership, to suspend the tradition on Senate Bill 2 would mean that only a simple majority—sixteen votes—would be necessary to pass the property tax bill.
The move has Democratic senators scrambling to fashion a response and has some Republicans concerned about the precedent that the move could set. Senators said they intend to work throughout the weekend to fashion a bill acceptable to both parties and thereby avoid the nuclear option.
“It underscores the seriousness of the situation,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist and Capitol watcher who could not think of another instance in which this legislative maneuver has been used.
The Trib goes into some more detail.
Traditionally, the upper chamber starts the session by passing what’s called a “blocker bill” — a bill that sits ahead of any other priorities on the Senate’s ordered agenda so that bringing up anything other measure ahead of it requires a three-fifths vote, or 19 senators in support if all 31 are on the floor. Passing that bill would allow Patrick to bring a measure to the floor with a simple majority of senators, just 16.
The “blocker bill” tradition dates back at least to the 1950s.
It wouldn’t be the first time Patrick upended tradition to grease the skids in the chamber he’s led since 2015. That year, in his first term as lieutenant governor, Patrick lowered the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths, allowing the chamber’s Republicans to bring legislation to the floor without support from any Democrats.
Senate Bill 2, along with an identical House Bill 2, was filed in January after the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House declared a united front in addressing property tax reform this session. But since then, facing opposition from local officials who argue the 2.5 percent election trigger is too low to accommodate their budgeting needs, it stalled in the Senate, passing the upper chamber’s property tax committee in February but not coming to the floor for a vote.
Meanwhile, in the House, the once-identical bill was overhauled in committee to carve out school districts, a change that has drawn criticism from some of the lower chamber’s more conservative members.
The House, which seems to have been moving the measure at a faster clip, was scheduled to debate the property tax bill on Thursday, but recessed that morning amid rumors that the Senate would instead bring up its version first. After a day of private negotiations, neither chamber brought up the proposal.
You may note the interesting math involved in Dan’s dilemma.
Senate rules say a bill can only be debated on the floor if three-fifths of senators, or 19 of the 31 members, agree to hear it. Republicans hold exactly the number of seats needed to meet this threshold.
But at least one, Amarillo Sen. Kel Seliger, has expressed his opposition to the tax bill, citing a preference for local control and concern that the 2.5 percent cap would hurt local government services. Without this support, Patrick cannot bring it up for debate unless he suspends the rules and instead allows a simple majority of senators to bring the bill up for debate.
In an interview with The News on Friday, Seliger criticized Patrick’s plan.
“The nuclear option would be a mistake,” Seliger said. “It’s obviously the desperate option.”
Seliger said he was still opposed to Senate Bill 2. Even if rural areas were exempted and public safety costs carved out, he still has serious problems with the proposal. When asked what tax proposal he would back, Seliger mentioned legislation he’s filed that “is not just designed, I think, to handicap those units of local government.”
Senate Republicans reached no agreements or compromises Thursday, Seliger said, adding Patrick was not interested in straying far from his legislation by “discussing any substantive changes or amendments to SB2.”
Seliger also criticized Patrick for saying he was frustrated one Republican could hold up the process.
“They’re inappropriate,” Seliger said of the comments. “Negotiations and things like that, when they’re held in the media, I don’t think are very productive. Our system is designed so people can work together in a non-partisan fashion, and I’m not sure what those comments do for collegiality and cooperation and the Senate.
I’m not going to offer a principled defense of the three-fifths rule, or its deceased predecessor the two-thirds rule, which had largely become an irritant to be pushed aside rather than an actual rule before it was finally modified to better accommodate the number of Republicans in the Senate. It’s anti-majoritarian, and as Democrats and progressives are arguing against the morass of anti-majoritarian policies and laws in our federal government as fundamentally anti-democratic, I’m not going to carve out a special-pleading exception at the state level. There are plenty of other anti-majoritarian objects in our state government right now, most notably gerrymandering and voter suppression, that deserve our uncompromised opposition. This is not to say that I won’t derive some Nelson Muntz level of schadenfreude at Dan Patrick having to act like a bully who’s been exposed as a weakling, because we all deserve every opportunity we get to deride Dan Patrick. But when the day comes that Democrats achieve a majority in the State Senate, I’ll raise a glass in Patrick’s direction when Dems use that majority to pass the bills they want to pass, without getting tripped up by old traditions.