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Abbott's Pick-Up Sticks Play Politics with Special Session

Outnumbered Democrats are valiantly trying to remind them that there’s a future coming that the state is woefully unprepared to meet.

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, the American poet and hero killed in World War I, we might begin a look at the upcoming special session of the Texas Legislature by rudely rewriting a bit of Kilmer’s most famous poem:

Laws are made by fools like thee

But only God can make a tree.

Only the governor can set agenda items for a special session — and Gov. Greg Abbott has used that power to demand the Legislature, in special summer session, cut down local ordinances that protect Texas’ heritage trees.

The rest of Abbott’s special session agenda looks like a pile of children’s pick-up sticks thrown at the feet of lawmakers. There are 20 items — and just like in the game, legislators will try to pick up each one without disturbing an already uneasy legislative balance.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Out from Capitol shadows, Gov. Abbott looms large with special session.

Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick don’t get along with House Speaker Joe Straus, whose House members almost came to blows at the end of the regular session. Tea party Republicans are gunning for traditional conservative Republicans.

Outnumbered Democrats are valiantly trying to remind them that there’s a future coming that the state is woefully unprepared to meet. They’ll argue to make priorities of real, urgent concerns such as education and health care.

It’d be refreshing if the Republican-led state government dealt with matters of concern to the rest of us. Some of the agenda items are serious. School finance reform is one, but few give that subject much of a chance for action. It’s a big stick — and Patrick doesn’t seem willing to pick it up.

Abbott’s effort to clear-cut local tree ordinances tells you all you need to know about his priorities. See, in 2011 Abbott was told by the city of Austin that he had to protect two heritage pecan trees in his yard while he demolished his big home to build a bigger one. Only one of the trees survived, along with Abbott’s anger. He wants to take a bite out of Austin’s bark.

Abbott shouts “Timber!” — and more than 50 Texas cities with tree ordinances face a legislative effort to gut their local laws. It’s only one piece of the overall assault on local government. Now, Abbott and the GOP are beating up local voters without the courtesy to at least do it in the shade.

For instance, some cities took a common-sense approach to ride hailing by requiring companies like Uber and Lyft to sufficiently screen drivers to protect passengers’ safety. Abbott and lawmakers erased their good efforts with a toothless state law that puts Uber before you.

Abbott, Patrick and others also want to tie the hands of local government with a gimmicky “property tax reform” scheme that won’t do much to lower property taxes. The taxes rise because values rise — and because cutbacks in state funding force local governments to spend more for our roads, schools and hospitals. The plan is more roadblock than reform.

The Legislature might be required to at least pick up a stick it dropped during its 2017 regular session: It failed to reauthorize some agencies, like the one that grants licenses to practice medicine. Abbott wants that done before other issues are addressed.

Otherwise, it’s back to unserious stuff, like Patrick’s notorious “bathroom bill.” It’s aimed at demonizing transgender folks — and a solution in search of a problem about who can use which restrooms. Patrick’s potty party is enough to make us envy the proverbial bear in the woods, assuming Abbott’s war on trees leaves us any woods.

It hardly needs saying that Abbott wants the Legislature to continue its ongoing crusade against women’s access to health care, a multiyear effort that has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in maternal mortality. Pantomiming concern about the latter, Abbott asked that a study continue on those unnecessary deaths.

And, at a time of stagnating wages for middle-class workers, Abbott also wants to undo local incentives for construction businesses that pay workers livable wages. Wage suppression ranks right up there with voter suppression in GOP priorities.

Much of Abbott’s agenda reads like the product of a GOP direct mail consultant’s creative session. It has more to do with pleasing extremists on the right than it does addressing the real needs of Texans. Who knew pick-up sticks could be a dangerous game?