OPINION

Ramsey: Trying to make amends in a case of man bites dog

ROSS RAMSEY

Greg Abbott is trying to ease his way out of a treacherous political mistake.

Earlier this year, the governor of Texas vetoed legislation that would protect dogs.

Ross Ramsey

State lawmakers knew what they were doing when, during the regular legislative session earlier this year, they passed Senate Bill 474, which said, in part: “An owner may not leave a dog outside and unattended by use of a restraint unless the owner provides the dog access to: adequate shelter; an area that allows the dog to avoid standing water and any other substance that could cause harm to the health of a dog that is subjected to prolonged exposure to the substance, including feces or urine; shade from direct sunlight; and potable water.”

Seems reasonable, if you like animals.

But the governor, himself a proud dog owner (Pancake and Peaches, if you’re curious), thought that legislation was an infringement of the rights of dog’s best friend, who presumably should be allowed to tie dogs to any old thing and leave them outside.

The governor didn’t say it that way. In the signed veto message attached to the bill, he wrote: “Texans love their dogs, so it is no surprise that our statutes already protect them by outlawing true animal cruelty. Yet Senate Bill 474 would compel every dog owner, on pain of criminal penalties, to monitor things like the tailoring of the dog’s collar, the time the dog spends in the bed of a truck, and the ratio of tether-to-dog length, as measured from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail. Texas is no place for this kind of micro-managing and over-criminalization.”

The governor’s veto is a political opponent’s dream. Any meathead who has even seen a political advertisement could write this one.

Camera starts with a shot of a yard with a post, with a chain hooked to the post and to the collar on a sorrowful dog.

Announcer: This is Skippy. Skippy’s owner went shopping and forgot to leave water next to this circle of dirt where Skippy spends most of his time.

Camera zooms in on the dog.

Announcer: Skippy is hot. Skippy is thirsty.

Camera zooms in on Skippy’s face.

Announcer: Some people think this is a terrible way to treat a dog or any other animal. The Texas Legislature agrees. Republicans and Democrats alike supported a bill this year that would punish people who do this to their dogs.

Announcer: Greg Abbott vetoed it.

Camera shows Skippy turning his head in confusion.

Maybe you’d handle the advertising differently, but for anyone running a campaign against Greg Abbott, it would be malpractice not to talk about protecting dogs.

And the governor, or someone working for the governor, has apparently figured that out. He added the issue to the agenda of the third special session of the Legislature, the one that’s mainly about redrawing new political maps and spending $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. He’s trying to clean up his mess.

Abbott also included a couple of hot political issues that didn’t pass in earlier special sessions. One would require that transgender student athletes play on sports teams based on their gender assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. Another would restrict local government vaccine mandates.

Those are serious issues that have stalled after pitched debates both in the Legislature and among the voters lawmakers try to represent. Two more were intentionally left for this third special session. If lawmakers don’t draw new political maps, they risk letting judges do it for them. And spending $16 billion in federal pandemic relief is on everyone’s list of things to do.

Only one of the five issues is new to the governor’s to-do list. The dog bill passed during the regular session that ended in May, and the governor vetoed it in June.

He didn’t include it on his list of priorities in the first or second special session — gatherings where restrictive election and anti-abortion legislation topped the governor’s agenda.

But it’s there now, added to the to-dos in the dry language of gubernatorial pronouncements: “Legislation similar to Senate Bill 474 as passed by the 87th Legislature, Regular Session, but that addresses the concerns expressed in the governor’s veto statement.”

Somebody must’ve barked.

Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this article originally appeared.