The Big Three

3 key players will shape the direction of the 2019 legislative session

Republicans will continue to control all the levers of power at the Capitol but with new dynamics at play. The Texas House will elect a new leader -- Rep. Dennis Bonnen -- and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott begin second terms, riding smaller margins to victory than they enjoyed four years ago.

Gov. Greg Abbott, on the heels of re-election, might need to take a more hands-on approach to achieve his twin priorities of restricting local property tax hikes and reforming the public school finance system. (NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Greg Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott, who won a second term in November, is the most popular politician in the state and he enters his third legislative session in a more commanding position than the first two because of his greater experience and comfort in the job and because of the changed political climate.

Despite his popularity, Abbott is not as pronounced and accessible a political personality as any of his three most immediate predecessors — Rick Perry, George W. Bush or Ann Richards — and there has been a tendency to underestimate him in the Capitol.

But the stage is set for the governor to place a more personal stamp on the 2019 session. He has clearly laid out his priorities — reining in property taxes and changing the ways Texas schools are financed — and made clear that as fraught as those issues have been, failure is not an option. The stakes are high and will require the governor to be more hands-on early on.

The 2018 election results may also work to Abbott’s advantage. Abbott won big against what amounted to token Democratic opposition in what was otherwise a chastening election for Republicans. The party lost ground in the House and Senate and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was re-elected by a surprisingly narrow margin, foreshadowing a session that may be more attuned to getting results than playing to the base.

The retirement of Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and ascension of Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, as speaker offers a fresh start in what had become a dysfunctional relationship among the Big Three.

Abbott’s handling of the session may take on national import if history takes a turn that leaves the Republican Party looking for a late replacement for President Donald Trump in 2020, in which case, a very conservative Texas governor with a steady temperament and great personal story could be the ticket.


State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is the presumed next speaker of the Texas House. (Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman)

Dennis Bonnen

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, entered the speaker's race late last year with a head start — about 40 Republican members pushed for him to enter the contest. Within two weeks of becoming a candidate, Bonnen amassed support from 109 of 150 members, vanquishing six contenders in the process. He is expected to be elected speaker on Tuesday.

Bonnen was speaker pro tempore, meaning he presided over the chamber when the speaker was absent, and he also has served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was first elected in 1996, when he was 24.

Members from both parties say Bonnen is well-versed in the legislative process, smart on the issues and doesn't mince words. Most members have said they value that last trait, which they expect will come in handy if the House finds itself at odds with the Senate or Abbott.

Some, though, think the upcoming session will go much more smoothly than past ones because there isn't the bone of contention from conservative Republicans who had to serve under a speaker in Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, most of them didn't have a hand in installing.

Bonnen has declined to talk policy specifics, but he has said public school finance would be the top priority of House members. Bonnen also has said that Democrats would hold leadership posts and that he supports removing from the Capitol a Confederate plaque that historians say is inaccurate and that many members say should be taken down but that state leaders have not removed.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, re-elected in November, will preside over a less conservative Senate than during his first term. (JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Dan Patrick

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will preside over a changed Texas Senate during the 2019 session.

Two staunch Republican allies, Sens. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and Don Huffines, R-Dallas, were defeated by Democrats in November, although those losses were somewhat countered by the surprise special election victory of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, in a Democratic district, and by the arrival of Pat Fallon, formerly a Republican House member from Prosper, a strong conservative who defeated moderate GOP Sen. Craig Estes in the primary.

Another new face among Senate Republicans is Angela Paxton, wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who campaigned as a staunch conservative to replace Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who moved on to Congress.

Bottom line: Patrick enters the 2019 session with 19 GOP senators and 12 Democrats, one fewer Republican than in the previous session. While that’s a healthy GOP majority, it’s the bare minimum needed to move legislation without Democratic help. Bills must have support from 19 senators to get a floor vote, so Patrick will have to keep more moderate senators in the fold — something to watch on the more-divisive issues.

Much attention also will be paid to Patrick’s relationship with Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the presumptive House speaker. Patrick repeatedly butted heads with Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, the outgoing House speaker, including a standoff over property tax relief and transgender-friendly bathroom policies in 2017 that required a special session to untangle.

Like Patrick, Bonnen is plain spoken and unafraid of confrontations, but both Republicans have promised to strive for unity, agreeing “to sit down together to discuss the business of Texas and meet and talk as often as practical,” Patrick said in November.