Rep. Ken King discusses politics vs. policy in Austin, and the looming special session

When we sat down with Ken King last month to talk about the just-adjourned 85th Legislature, it was pretty clear that his third legislative session as District 88 State Representative had been a rough one. Rep. King expressed his frustration with the political posturing of both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Daniel Patrick, and with the sharp divisions between the House and Senate.

Combined, those toxic forces set the stage for the impending special session called by Abbott, which begins next Tuesday, July 18.

As he prepared to head back to Austin for what promises to be a shorter, but likely contentious, 30-day session, Rep. King sized up the situation: Both Abbott and Patrick are running for office, and most likely, it will be the same one. “I expect Patrick to run for governor,” he said. “I think part of Abbott’s calling this special session is about posturing because they’re going to have a race.”

Gov. Abbott issued the special-session call on June 6, announcing an ambitious 19-item agenda he expects legislators to address—including a “bathroom bill,” property tax reform, and school finance.

At the top of the agenda, however, is sunset legislation that—left unpassed—would result in the closing of five state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board. That legislation was held hostage during the regular session in a power play by Lt. Gov. Patrick and the Senate, which essentially forced Gov. Abbott to call the special session.

“First and foremost,” King said, “we’re going to take care of the Sunset Bill—which should have already been done—to stop these agencies from falling off a cliff.”

As for the rest of the governor’s agenda, King said he is “somewhat offended”—particularly by the call for school finance legislation.

“I shouted from the rooftops for 140 days about school finance, particularly ASATR,” he said. “I got no support from the governor’s office, no support from the Senate. And now, all of a sudden, school finance is a special-session item?”

“My prediction is what’s going to be special is facility funding for charter schools, and vouchers,” King said. “Unless a whole bunch of people flip their votes, neither one of those things is going to pass the House.”

Several items on the special session call were already addressed in the House and sent to the Senate. “They didn’t like our versions and just killed them,” King said. “My hope is that [Speaker of the House Joe] Strauss will just say, ‘No, we’ve already done this. We’re not taking this up. We’re not wasting taxpayer dollars….’”

As for the bathroom bill, Rep. King said, the House passed its own version, and the Senate said it didn’t go far enough. “I don’t know why the governor would put that on the call,” he said, “other than he has to prove he can be as far right as Dan Patrick.”

King, who prides himself on serving those who elected him, said he has heard no demand from his constituents for a bathroom bill. “When I talk to school officials and business leaders, they hate that bill,” he said. “They’re going to lose revenue.”

He called the bathroom bill “a solution in search of a problem,” saying that the premise of the proposed bill is you go to the bathroom with the equipment your birth certificate identifies you with. “The proponents [of this legislation] say we have men showering in locker rooms with our daughters,” King said, “but what it would actually do is ensure we have men dressed like women going to bathrooms with your sons.”

“When I talk to school people, they say, ‘We’ve dealt with kids that are different for 100 years, and we’ve never had a problem.’ Until this became a political football…nobody had ever mentioned it.”

“When we start basing policy decisions on politics and pandering to certain groups, the state of Texas loses. I don’t know who is going to be the official checker of equipment. And unfunded mandates? C’mon.”

“It’s disappointing to me that we’ll burn up all this political capital on buzzword, campaign-type legislation, but we leave the people’s business undone.”

King was equally dismissive of property tax reform legislation, which would require local governments to get approval if their proposed tax rate was expected to increase their overall revenues by 5 percent or more. Current law allows voters to petition for an election if revenues are expected to increase 8 percent or more.

The proposal, he said, has actually unified county judges throughout his district—and many other public officials—in opposition. “Every one of them has called me and said, ‘Don’t do it.’”

“I think if you don’t like the property taxes where you live,” he said, “you have every right—in fact you have an obligation, to vote the people out of office who set your tax rate.”

“Once again, do we want local control, or not? I do,” King continued. “At the end of the day, if I don’t like what my taxes are, we have an appraisal review process. You’ve got your day in court.”

“I don’t know why Dan Patrick needs to impose his will on Hemphill County,” he concluded. “Most people just say, ‘Leave us alone.’”

King was disappointed that many of his and others’ bills were the victim of Austin’s deep political divisions today. “I saw a lot of good policy die this session,” he said, adding, however, “I feel like I was in a position to stop a lot of bad politics from becoming policy.”

“Politics is part of the business,” he said. “But when people win, is when policy beats politics. When good policy happens, the people win. It’s the people’s government. When policy loses and politics win, nobody wins in this state, except the guy who’s running for the next office.”

“I think we got into a policy versus politics session, and we have a governor and lieutenant governor who are coming up on an election cycle, and that’s where we’re at,” he concluded.

 

State Senator Kel Seliger
State Senator Kel Seliger

A collegial grace note

It is well-worth noting that, in a legislative session hardly noted for statesmanship, Rep. King offered a distinctive grace note when referring to two of his fellow lawmakers.

“I’ve always liked and respected Sen. Kel Seliger,” he said, “but never more so than I do now.”
Sen. Seliger bucked school vouchers and the bathroom bill—both of which are among Lt. Gov. Daniel Patrick’s top priorities. “Kel said vouchers are bad for his district. He said the bathroom bill was ridiculous, and bad for his district. He wouldn’t vote for that stuff,” King said.

As a result, Seliger’s success in carrying legislation was affected. “Kel was punished for not carrying water for the lieutenant governor,” King said. “Other senators decided they would suck it up and do it. Our senator said no.”

“Kel is a smart, thoughtful senator, and he tried to do the right thing,” he said. “But the more he did, the less his voice was allowed to be heard. And that’s a fact.”

Rep. King was equally complimentary when he spoke of Strauss. “The speaker, his management style is 180 degrees from Dan Patrick,” he said. “I had multiple senators tell me, when you’re trying to negotiate a bill, ‘I can’t give you an answer. I have to go ask [the lieutenant governor].’”

“I don’t ever have to ask Joe Strauss if I can pass a bill, or what can be in the bill,” King said. “The difference in the House and Senate is, Strauss will tell you, ‘Vote your district.’ No matter what I do, I vote my district. The Senate? It’s the lieutenant governor’s way, or no way.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Record’s coverage of the special session of Texas 85th Legislature will continue in next week’s edition with more on our conversation with State Rep. Ken King, and thoughts on the school funding issue from CISD Supt. Kyle Lynch.

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