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House Passes “Wrong Tree Bill”

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When Governor Abbott called legislators back to the Capitol, he laid out 20 items he wanted addressed. No other subjects are supposed to be addressed besides those on his official call.

One of those items was the “tree bill,” a bill to prevent municipalities from regulating tree removal on private property. The governor believes this is a sacred private property issue.

After legislators filed their bills, Abbott chose which ones he would accept.

Apparently, according to an exchange between Reps. Matt Rinaldi and Dade Phelan, the governor was very specific about which “tree bills” he wanted.

On Friday, the House took up HB 7 by Rep. Phelan. The bill would give tax credits to individuals who are penalized by their city governments for removing trees, IF they plant another tree on the property.

Abbott had wanted another bill, HB 70 by Paul Workman, which would have prohibited cities from issuing those penalties at all.

During the regular session, Phelan’s bill was passed and vetoed by Abbott.

Rinaldi took to the back microphone to question Phelan, asking, “is this the bill in conversation the governor has referred to as the wrong tree bill?”

Phelan responded, “that is his opinion, yes sir.”

Before the special session began, the twelve-member Freedom Caucus, of which Rinaldi is a member, immediately came out in support of the governor’s agenda. So it wasn’t surprising that the only NO votes on Friday were Freedom Caucus members (plus Reps. Hefner and Workman) because they saw it as direct defiance of Abbott.

Strangely though, Freedom Caucus Reps. Schaefer, Krause, Shaheen, Zedler, and Leach all voted for the bill. Leach could even be heard on the microphone telling Rinaldi that he was “wrong” for opposing it.

In a statement on Facebook, Rep. Matt Krause explained his vote departure from the Freedom Caucus:

“This is the bill the governor vetoed. Many of us were prepared to vote no for that reason and that it was not as strong as Workman’s bill. But, we were told by the Governor’s office that they wanted us to vote for the bill in order to get it over to the Senate where it could be strengthened. So, it was actually the Governor’s office asking us to support it – which some of us did. Those that did not had perfectly good reasons for doing so as well.”

As pretty much everyone knows by now, there is a major power struggle taking place in the Capitol, with conservative House members calling publicly for years for the replacement of Speaker Joe Straus. They got major backup this year when Lt. Governor Dan Patrick basically declared war on him as well.

Abbott’s call for a special session to address many of the issues that were killed by the House provided Patrick and the Freedom Caucus ammunition to pressure Straus to move to the right, or potentially face another challenge for his powerful chair.

So, if the governor indeed changed his mind on the tree bill, it could be a signal that he is prepared to compromise with Speaker Joe Straus on other issues as well. If that happens, it absolves Straus and company of the guilt of killing the governor’s agenda. This would be a major setback in conservatives’ ongoing war with the Speaker.

But then again, maybe the governor is just saving his energy for a bigger fight. Time will tell.

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