Governor Abbott's Slow Play in the Tax Debate, by the Numbers

Governor Abbott’s response to the competing tax proposals emerging from the two chambers of the Texas Legislature last week set off the predictable flurry of speculation in Capitol circles and among the Texas political press. In the wake of the inevitable and somewhat obvious “Whither Abbott?responses, the Governor has asserted in comments to the press last week that he is “involved in the process on a daily basis.” He reiterated that a reduction in the business margins tax would be required to avoid a veto, but shaded his previous call for property tax relief in his State of the State speech in the wake of a proposed sales tax reduction that is now the centerpiece of the House’s approach. He followed this with a self-described serving of "red meat" in his speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), showing that he is capable of dishing out conservative rhetoric just as capably as Ted Cruz or Rick Perry (as Jonathon Tilove opined in his own inimitable style in First Reading). Yet on the same day Abbott was shoring up his right flank, Dan Patrick's Grassroots Advisory Board dropped something unpleasant in the punchbowl with their letter characterizing the pre-K pilot program passed by the House and awaiting consideration in the Senate – a bill the Governor has lent high-visibility support – as the leading edge of Socialism and Godlessness. 

All of this to and fro between the center-right and the right wing of the Texas GOP makes Abbott’s slow play in the tax cut fracas seem utterly sensible, given his current situation.

However convincing his victory over Wendy Davis in 2014, Abbott remains a first-term governor presiding over his first legislative session, confronted with a legislature in which the two houses are divided along lines that seem to reflect major divisions within his party. He faces conditions of governing markedly different from recent sessions. The days of Rick Perry setting the tone (if not also the agenda), aided by his years of experience, strong support in the business community and the grassroots, and the pressure exerted on his behalf by activist groups like Empower Texans, are long gone. Instead, Texans are witnessing the reassertion of a more historically typical division of institutional power among a governor with real but constitutionally limited powers that require him to choose his spots; a lieutenant governor who, if he can manage his chamber and communicate his priorities effectively, has the ability to exert a lot of influence over the process; and a Speaker who is similarly positioned in his chamber, but not constrained by the need to be elected statewide and thus not nearly so inclined to need – or want – the spotlight.

Given this context, Abbott’s – shall we say evolving – position on taxes may reflect the simple fact that he’s not in the same position as Rick Perry. But his relative quiet in the early stages of the session and his careful play on in the tax conflict between the chambers also reflect the realities of the moment. Rather than look directly at the interpretations and arguments, lets look at 5 numbers that illustrate why Abbott’s position makes sense: 

39: The percentage of people who have no opinion on the margins tax. While the business margins tax is of the utmost importance to many of those populating the capitol on a daily basis, this is essentially inside baseball. the details of which required, and still require, some negotiating, but the ultimate agreement of which is never in doubt.  Abbott's one public veto threat (so far, at least) reminds everyone that he has that weapon, but in a context without a great deal of public controversy (however much different segments of the business sector are divided on it). This should be one of the easier tax matters for the House and Senate negotiators to reach agreement on, unlike the increasingly symbolic matters of the property and sales tax positions, which with every passing moment are becoming increasingly associated with the ideological positions of each chamber.

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Very satisfied8%
Somewhat satisfied21%
Somewhat dissatisfied18%
Very dissatisfied14%
Don't know/no opinion39%

61: The percentage of Republicans dissatisfied with property taxes, compared with only 35 percent of Texas GOPers who are dissatisfied with the sales tax. Property taxes are definitely the biggest source of dissatisfaction among registered voters in Texas, per the February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. This number counsels caution in simply siding with Texas big business and their preference for the sales tax cut over the property tax adjustment. So, it's a sensible strategy for Abbott to let the House and Senate try to drain the swamp before being forced to wade in.

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Property tax dissatisfaction48%49%61%
Motor fuels tax dissatisfaction36%36%43%
Sales tax dissatisfaction31%36%35%
Sin taxes dissatisfaction28%40%35%
Business margins tax dissatisfaction30%29%32%

+34, +43, and +25: The differences between Abbott's and Patrick's favorability ratings  – all heavily in Abbott's favor – among all Republicans, non-Tea Party Republicans, and Tea Party Republicans, respectively. Abbott is far more well-known and well-liked than Patrick, or for that matter, Straus (though this is a different comparison, see below). While this position could, theoretically, give Abbott the capital to go out and sell his preferred method of tax reduction, there's little apparent reason for him to do so given the inter-institutional and inter-party nature of the skirmish before him – especially when the ultimate outcome, no matter who prevails, will result in his ability to say that he cut taxes. Any involvement beyond what we've already witnessed would likely do little for Abbott...other than make him enemies in the House or Senate, call wider public attention to a largely inside-the-Capitol fight, or give voters with tax reduction preferences of their own a reason to dislike a very well-liked governor. In short, it make sense to stay above the fray as long as possible, given that Abbott can likely live with whichever outcome is eventually realized.  As the last month of the session approaches, of course, Abbott is likely to wish to avoid a messy special session, which would increase his incentives to apply public pressure as the end of the regular session gets closer.

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Very favorable4%9%47%
Somewhat favorable8%22%32%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable18%24%10%
Somewhat unfavorable16%9%4%
Very unfavorable44%14%1%
Don't know/no opinion11%22%6%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable3%41%51%
Somewhat favorable7%36%30%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable17%14%12%
Somewhat unfavorable17%3%3%
Very unfavorable47%1%4%
Don't know/no opinion10%5%2%

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Very favorable3%4%17%
Somewhat favorable6%12%28%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%30%23%
Somewhat unfavorable11%7%7%
Very unfavorable30%16%3%
Don't know/no opinion30%31%22%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable4%12%25%
Somewhat favorable7%22%31%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable18%32%19%
Somewhat unfavorable10%7%10%
Very unfavorable33%4%3%
Don't know/no opinion28%23%12%

$8,609,647.94: The difference in the total cash on hand of Texans for Greg Abbott compared with Texans for Dan Patrick according to the most recent filings. The speculation that Patrick has ambitions to be governor is rampant, and it seems unlikely that this possibility is lost on the Governor's team. Abbott's fundraising prowess was well-established long before he became governor, and is only enhanced by occupying the Mansion. His cash reserves relative to Patrick as a potential rival strengthens his position in the event things get openly antagonistic between he and the Lieutenant Governor. Patrick, for his part, has been trying to avoid creating distance between he and the Governor, even as he strives to raise his profile with frequent press conferences. But there is a structural tension here, and in the event of open competition, Abbott's cash-on-hand advantage is significant.

23.5: Speaker Straus' margin of victory in his 2014 primary election. Like Abbott, Speaker Straus has very little incentive to get too publicly involved in the trenches of this tax fight. He remains not terribly well-known outside of his district – which is how a smart speaker wants it. He won reelection in his district in 2014 despite being opposed in the primary by a voluble if not terribly effective challenger. Unless he wants to run statewide, getting involved in a very public fight with one or more better positioned and already well-known politicians of his own party doesn't make much sense for the San Antonio Republican. From Abbott's perspective, the Speaker is an unlikely statewide rival and negotiating partner with a lot of incentive to cooperate, especially given the open hostilities between two chambers whose natural rivalry now seems also to be channeling into increasingly open enmity between each's leadership.