Public Opinion in Texas at the Intersection of the Agendas of President-Elect Trump and the 85th Legislature

Whether one takes President Trump literally or seriously (or both, or neither), the advent of unified government under the auspices of a Republican Congress and a Republican President (nominally, at least) will shift the context within which the 85th Texas Legislature meets to pass a budget and create laws and public policy for the state. After 8 years and four sessions of counting on having a Democratic president and his policies to use as default examples of bad policy and government failure on most every issue, the Republican leadership in Texas now finds the federal government, and their national party, led by a President who on many of the most salient issues to Texas Republicans took positions strikingly similar to those they have used to win a host of lesser offices in recent years. As Ross Ramsey writes in The Texas Tribune, it’s unlikely that Donald Trump and his newfound collaborators in Congress will have gotten around to much by the time the Texas Legislature has to act, but this doesn’t remove Trump’s promises or Texas voters’ expectations from the field of action in the legislature. In fact, in some areas, expectations without specifics might even enable them to spin their own version of what might be to come – a version of the same game the President-elect is playing daily as he rehashes, revises, and remakes the various, often contradictory promises of his campaign. From the border security to tax cuts, we look below at public opinion in areas where Trump’s agenda and some of the to-do’s being discussed for the Texas legislature intersect.

1. While recent weeks have seen President-Elect Trump backtrack on one of his most ambitious proposals – there may be some fencing, he has said – theoretically unified Republican government in Washington, D.C. is likely to affect how the the legislature greets border security-related issues in Austin, too. While Trump’s election has likely raised expectations of action among Texas Republicans, the pending question of who pays for those actions remains as yet unresolved. And we’re not really talking about Mexico.

The attitudes that prompted strong positive reactions to Donald Trump’s border wall, and all it represents, predated Trump in Texas, and are unlikely to abate with his election. During the last Legislative Session, the Legislature approved a large increase in border security funding at the state level, and recently, DPS has asked for still more. In June of 2015, 73 percent of Texas voters supported the increase in funds that the Legislature approved, including 91 percent of Republicans. Immigration and border security have remained the state issues rated most important between June 2015 and today, driven by Republican voters who have, in large part, sent the same team back to Austin in 2017. These voters were rather enthusiastic for Trump’s biggest proposals, including the border wall, and even his even more Constitutionally questionable approach towards Muslim immigration. 

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Strongly support47%
Somewhat support25%
Somewhat oppose12%
Strongly oppose10%
Don't know6%

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Strongly support24%42%67%
Somewhat support26%24%24%
Somewhat oppose21%11%5%
Strongly oppose21%8%2%
Don't know7%15%2%

Even if voters were taking him seriously rather than literally, per one of the dominant post-election memes, there’s no reason to expect Trump’s success to dampen this enthusiasm. Considering the combination of these attitudes toward immigrants and the border with a tight budget resulting from declining oil and gas revenues, a continuous desire to maintain a small government, and the requirement that the Legislature balance the budget, the question remains: will GOP Legislators be willing to record a vote to decrease border security funding as some have suggested it should? There are signs that some legislators are looking at both the change of government and signs that last sessions spending came with a dearth of both accountability standards and results. Extremely swift movement from Republicans in Congress at the behest of Trump would help the legislature keep the price tag small, but it seems unlikely that this could happen so fast as to not require public expressions of faith from Republicans who have invested much in a trust but verify approach to Washington, even when Republicans are in charge. Governor Abbott's recent pronouncements on the idea of “sanctuary campuses” and the early filing of anti-sanctuary city bills in the Texas legislature suggest that state level Republicans haven’t decided that the federal government can be expected to do its job now and so the issue can be left to them.

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Strongly support10%41%54%
Somewhat support11%18%22%
Somewhat oppose9%3%9%
Strongly oppose64%27%8%
Don't know/No opinion7%11%7%

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Strongly support13%31%48%
Somewhat support13%21%28%
Somewhat oppose23%15%10%
Strongly oppose44%19%6%
Don't know8%14%8%

2. Speaking of the federal government: Texas Republican Officeholders have long decried President Obama and his federal government, but with a Republican in the White House along with GOP control of both Congressional chambers, it will be interesting to observe whether and how Republican attitudes toward the federal government evolve after the change in leadership. Watching members of Texas’ executive branch lambaste the federal government (e.g. the seamless hand off from Gov. Abbott to Ken Paxton of an AG’s office seemingly enthralled with attempting legal actions against the Feds) has become a reflexive default in Texas politics. Not content to let the executive branch have all the fun, it has also been common to see members of the legislature attempt to limit federal power through state law. It seems reasonable to expect something of a reset to this dynamic, but will Texas GOP voters, long suspicious of the federal government, go along with their electeds should GOP officeholders seek detente with Washington? In June of 2016, when asked which branch of government they most trusted, 43 percent of Texas Republicans declined to make a choice, and despite control of both chambers, only 27 percent were willing to say the U.S. Congress. In February of 2015, while 78 percent of Texas Republicans held a favorable view of Texas’ state government, only 11 percent felt similarly about the Federal government. And similar to national polling, Congress’ approval rating in UT/Texas Tribune Polls has been abysmal since at least 2011 (admittedly, when approval was only as high as 20 percent compared to the 10 percent it has hovered around for a few years now). Whether and how quickly Texas GOP voters are to embrace their party’s control of a federal government that has been continually vilified will be a key questions for legislators with one eye on their primary elections and the other on a budget that could sorely use some of that federal tax money. Expect many to dust off the exhortation that “Hey, it’s our tax money!” refrain when it comes to getting some of that federal cheese.

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The U.S. Congress, the legislative branch3%3%27%
The President, the executive branch35%12%4%
The U.S. Supreme Court, the judicial branch31%36%26%
Don't know31%49%43%

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Texas State Government22%30%85%
Local Government45%34%52%
Federal Government23%11%27%

3. And nothing says federal money like highways, roads, and bridges! Donald Trump (like Hillary Clinton – and for that matter, Barack Obama before them) has called for efforts to revitalize infrastructure in the United States. Obama was reportedly frustrated at finding very few “shovel ready” projects when searching for quick avenues for spending, and in turn employment, as he tried to get Congress to help him stimulate the economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In Texas, rapid population growth has directed attention to water and transportation issues over the last few legislative sessions, resulting in major legislative action (with public approval via constitutional amendment elections) for measures in both areas in 2013 and 2015. While the public outcry for infrastructure spending didn’t approach the salience levels of, say, tax cuts or border security, there was evidence of support in polling for both during the legislative sessions in those years, and the ballot measures associated with them passed by very large margins. Public resistance, at least in principle, was minimal, allowing space for legislative and interest group cooperation on those issues. The early signs of what Trump initiatives might look like suggest some ambiguity to their application in Texas, particularly given that one of the few specific associated with Trump’s proposals has been a focus on toll roads – which will face significant hurdles here given their problematic implementation in Texas and the backlash against them among property rights advocates during the Perry years. Yet more broadly, public dissatisfaction with traffic and the strains of rapid growth in some regions may yet portend ways in which state authorities might find ways to work with federal initiatives if they cohere with the ways things are done here. In other words, if they don’t cross the major business interest groups that were central to forging consensus on other, recent, high-dollar infrastructure policies, and avoid poking the various suburban and exurban hornets nests with spending or eminent domain, there could be movement, event collaboration, on infrastructure. There are also murmurings of easing regulation on broadband deployment in Trump’s America, which might also have a constituency among rural constituencies in the Texas Legislature.

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Strongly support31%
Somewhat support37%
Somewhat oppose12%
Strongly oppose8%
Don't know13%

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The top priority8%7%3%
One of the top priorities54%53%45%
A secondary priority20%15%27%
Not a priority5%10%11%
Don't know/no opinion13%15%13%

4. There was some murmuring in the weeks before the election that this session might be the one in which Texas finally takes on Medicaid expansion under the ACA. The thought – or hope, really – was that in the face of the looming expiration of the 1115 waivers (which is the mechanism by which hospitals get reimbursed for uncompensated care), some pressure might be put on legislators to respond. One of the least expensive responses (in the short run) last session might have been to expand Medicaid, which would have both decreased some of the uncompensated care, but also lead to the federal government re-issuing of the waiver (since Texas’ refusal to expand Medicaid was the crux of the issue). With a Republican at the helm of the executive branch vowing to repeal and replace, or, more lately, “repeal and transition,” Obamacare, the terrain of the issue has changed significantly: expect Texas calls for some kind of a block grant to receive more of a hearing in a Trump administration. Large shares of Texans have and continue to hold negative attitudes toward the ACA. With legislators returning to Austin each session having to plug holes in Medicaid funding from the previous biennium, “Medicaid expansion” may continue to be a dirty word for most Republicans, though there’s a very small chance that breaking its association with the ACA during hard fiscal times might create some space to rework the intersection of federal and state funding.

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Very favorable15%
Somewhat favorable17%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable9%
Somewhat unfavorable7%
Very unfavorable49%
Don't know / No Opinion3%

5. The fiscal situation was much different going into the 2015 Legislative Session, when in the face of significantly more funds than the previous two sessions, a plurality of Texas voters, about one in five, said that cutting property taxes would be the best use of the surplus funds. Going into the 2017 session, the fiscal outlook is far less rosy, but there is ample desire to further cut property taxes in some corners of the GOP leadership. The Lieutenant Governor, who reserved the second spot in Senate Bill numbering (SB2) for property tax reform as he unveiled his list of legislative priorities, has led the way with the help of Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s blunt leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief during the interim. The challenges to enacting meaningful property tax reforms or reductions would be many (e.g. the state doesn’t set the property tax rates, any reduction would have to be paid for, or not, and the optics of what doesn’t get taken care of in a tight session in exchange for cutting taxes that were apparently cut in the previous session might be problematic). These challenges have been met rather neatly with legislation that would lower the threshold for local tax elections. But whatever the property tax reformers accomplish, they will likely have to do more than they did in 2015 if they want some credit from the voters. When asked at the end of the last session whether the approximately $125 a year in property tax savings would be enough to make a difference, 56 percent of Texans said it wouldn’t, and only 29 percent said that it would. This was the crux of Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s argument during that session: that the bang for the buck on property tax reform was minimal given that most people wouldn’t even notice that it had happened. In some ways, a Trump administration could change the calculus on this if, in conjunction with Republicans in Congress, they are able to pass a major tax cut at the federal level. In this working, the state could make a minor tax cut and then take credit for the feeling of a reduction mostly created by a federal cut. That’s taking the long way around, but given the constraints and the peripheral pleasures of further hamstringing state and local governments, all signs point to a major push in the direction helped along by cover from national Republicans.  

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Cut property taxes21%
Cut business taxes3%
Save it for future needs12%
Reduce the state's debt16%
Increase funding for k-12 public education17%
Increase funding for transportation7%
Increase funding for higher education7%
Increase funding for health and human services18%

6. If immigration and border security were Trump’s go-to issues during the GOP primaries, his general election’s greatest hit was probably his heavy criticism of trade deals in general, and NAFTA in particular. While anything that Trump accomplishes on this front is unlikely to touch the lege policy-wise, it could cause friction by bringing out divisions between the GOP factions. Free trade has long been a tenant of modern day Republicanism, and is important to the business interests intertwined with the legislative process here in Texas. GOP voters’ attitudes towards trade deals align with Trump’s, not traditional Republican orthodoxy: 60 percent of Texas Republicans say that international trade deals have been bad for the U.S. economy, compared to only 16 percent who say that they have been good. While this issue is unlikely to have a direct effect on specific legislation in 2017, it is likely to resonate with skeptics of state government efforts at economic development, which some legislators and state officials (including the governor) tie to international trade and investment.

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Good for the United States economy41%15%16%
Bad for the United States economy26%59%60%
Have not had much impact12%8%7%
Don't know/No opinion20%19%18%