There’s a lot of talk about Texas’ Big Three — Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and new Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen. Considered the three most powerful politicians in Austin, and all conservative Republicans, they made headlines when they declared in January that they would be working as a team to reform property taxes and the school finance system.
Although less well-known, Republican State Senator Kel Seliger may just be the next most powerful person in Texas. Seliger represents Senate District 31, encompassing a wide swath of West Texas including 37 counties and the cities of Midland, Odessa, and Amarillo.
But Seliger’s power isn’t the result of brilliant political strategy or maneuvering. Rather, he’s powerful by chance, which is often the case in politics. In November, when Republican Senators Konni Burton and Don Huffines lost their seats to Democrats Beverly Powell and Nathan Johnson respectively, Seliger’s influence skyrocketed. Conversely, if Republicans had held those seats, Seliger would be largely irrelevant this session.
In the Texas Senate, once a bill has been passed out of its assigned committee, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, decides which bills will come to the floor for a vote by the entire body. But there’s one catch — 60 percent (19) of the 31 Senators must agree with Patrick that the bill should receive a vote. When Republicans lost two members and gained one (Sen. Pete Flores) in November, they dropped from holding 20 to 19 seats. In other words, all 19 Republican Senators must agree with Patrick that a bill should receive a vote. One defection from Republican ranks can cause a bill to die on the vine, never receiving an on-the-record vote. Legislators often use this tactic to avoid voting on a controversial bill.
According to the non-partisan index compiled by Dr. Mark Jones of Rice University, Seliger consistently ranks as the most liberal Republican in the Senate. This ideological stance naturally distances him from conservative firebrand Dan Patrick, and a public rift in January may have killed any remaining chance of political cooperation.
When Patrick announced Senate committee chairs in January, he removed Seliger from his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee and instead gave him the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee. The move made sense, at least on paper, as Seliger represents a heavily rural and agricultural district. Rumors swirled around the capitol, however, that Seliger was insulted by the move and preferred his position as Chairman of Higher Ed. His wife, after all, serves as President of the Texas Exes, the alumni association for the University of Texas at Austin.
When questioned on a radio program about the move, Seliger remarked, “I have a recommendation for (female spokesperson for Patrick) and her lips and my back end.” Patrick gave Seliger 48 hours to apologize. When he did not, Patrick stripped Seliger of his Agriculture Committee chairmanship.
Although he chairs no committees, given the current makeup of the Senate, Seliger still has plenty of sway. In fact, Seliger has already flexed his muscles, declaring he will not support Senate Bill 2 (SB2), the property tax reform bill championed by the Big Three, which would require voter approval for any property tax increase greater than 2.5 percent. SB2 passed out of committee February 11, but still has not been presented for a vote.
Seliger was the only Republican to vote against a similar bill during the last session and the special session, but with 20 Republicans in the Senate at that time, his “no” vote didn’t guarantee obstruction.
In November 2018, Seliger won reelection to the Senate after surviving a three-way primary challenge. Here’s a look at Seliger’s top donors over the last four years leading up to that election:
As we enter the last half of this legislative session and things heat up at the Capitol, it will be interesting to watch how Seliger handles his influence. Bills must pass in both the House and the Senate and be signed by Abbott to become law. Given the current balance of power in the Senate, Seliger is in position to single-handedly torpedo any legislation. Given his ideological leanings and his clash with Patrick, he may do just that.
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