Subtweeting the 85th Texas Legislature

Most of the post-session coverage among the Texas political press has predictably focused on the politics of the big three and how much (or how little) of Greg Abbott’s agenda was acted on by the Legislature – coverage led by public signalling from both the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. But a look at some of the lower profile aspects across the arc of both the regular and special sessions of the 85th Legislature reveals a lot about the nature of the for-now dormant legislature and, more broadly, Texas politics as the political mix shifts more heavily toward electoral politics.

1. With little fanfare, the Legislature continued funding the border security efforts to the tune of $800 million plus per year, with most of that funding going to the Department of Public Safety. That amount emerged from increases put in place in 2015 as a response, in part, to the Central American refugee crisis, and in part to the meme that, as Julian Aguilar wrote in May in the Texas Tribune, that “the Obama administration had abdicated its responsibility to secure the border.”  The budget allocation for 2017-2018 was less than DPS’ initial $1.1 billion funding request, but more than the House’s initial budget bid, which would have more or less treated the 2015 increase as a one time cash infusion. The maintenance of the status quo underlines the GOP’s continuing recognition that being tough on illegal immigration and undocumented people in Texas is still a requirement for GOP primary candidates – and any appearance of backsliding is likely to be an electoral liability.

2. Neither the constellation of private school interest groups nor their chief advocate in Government, Dan Patrick, have been able to seal the deal on vouchers, despite years of concerted efforts. From the record votes in the House that effectively defeated Patrick’s demands to the narrowing of the scope of their ambitions and rhetoric, no one has been able to make the sale on a “school choice” concept that will gain a majority in the Texas House. This was telegraphed by polling going into the session, which showed that while “vouchers” may provide a reasonably effective partisan cue for Republican voters, support for the concept underlying a voucher program – or other substitute terminology – receives much more tepid support among Republicans. It would seem that there is enough popular support among Republicans, conjoined with vested interest groups around the issues, to guarantee that lots of resources will continue to be expended in these efforts. But the recent session, especially the relevant floor votes in the House, suggest that they will fuel yet more failures. 

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Extremely effective10%14%29%
Somewhat effective22%24%32%
Not very effective16%19%13%
Not at all effective35%23%6%
Don't know17%22%20%

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Strongly support8%19%23%
Somewhat support19%25%32%
Somewhat oppose13%14%17%
Strongly oppose48%34%19%
Don't know11%9%9%

3. Conservatives won the session. Rank and file conservative voters seem to know this, even if their figureheads, professional advocates, and purists don’t – or won’t publicly admit it for political reasons. As we’ve written elsewhere, conservative and especially Tea Party approval of the Legislature, the Governor, and the Lt. Governor were extremely high at the end of the regular session, and seem unlikely to change significantly after a special session held in the dead of summer. (If you’re reading this, you may have been following the happenings in Austin even if you were on vacation, but your neighbors probably weren’t.) Conservative policy preferences shaped the agenda of the 85th to a remarkable degree, leading to many important victories, the most important being SB4 - the sanctuary cities bill. Despite the grousing of recent days, the base looks pretty pleased. We expect that at this very moment, campaign fliers and digital ads trumpeting incumbents’ support for SB4 and border security funding are being produced in GOP campaign shops all over the state.

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Strongly support13%51%69%
Somewhat support14%19%17%
Somewhat oppose19%5%5%
Strongly oppose40%14%4%
Don't know14%10%6%

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Border security3%15%20%
Political corruption/leadership21%13%2%
Health care9%5%4%
Crime and drugs4%8%2%

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Strongly support10%42%68%
Somewhat support8%13%19%
Somewhat oppose18%11%6%
Strongly oppose57%25%5%
Don't know7%8%3%

4. The lack of any mass conservative discontent in the public amidst lines drawn in the sand by political leaders is also expressed in the path of the bathroom bill and the tortured logic of the twists and turns in the efforts of those trying to sell the legislation. What began with the we-didn’t-start-it-Obama-did meme pitting Texas holy warriors against perverted secularists soon morphed into a public safety exercise and a defense of bodily privacy (this happened at about the same time that increased penalties for crimes committed in bathrooms was permanently removed from the Senate version of the bill). The sudden effort to argue that an apparently Griswold v. Connecticut-like embrace of everyone’s zone of privacy extended everywhere from bathrooms to locker rooms (at least those on state property) signaled a path that understandably message-tested well in it’s most anxiety-producing wording. But the transgender cat was already out of the bag – the initial framing of the debate had been established and kept seeping back in, even among those who were most actively trying to re-frame the efforts in public safety rather than civil rights terms. See, for example, the Lt Governor’s comments on bathroom privacy legislation in his post-sine die press conference. Less than a minute (between 6:00 and 7:00 in the official video) separated his declaration that this fight wasn’t about transgender persons to saying that “the speaker wanted to give a child who’s a transgender child, or any child, the choice of any bathroom in the school.” The rhetorical point was to slag Straus for not passing legislation ostensibly providing school choice for disabled children – but his choice of an example meant to belittle Straus had the unintended effect of undermining his claims about what motivated the so-called privacy legislation. Whatever his motivation and however disappointed he was in the outcome, comparing views among GOP voters of how important it was for the legislature to act on regulating transgender access to public facilities between February and June suggests that the Lt Governor’s efforts likely provided cues that moved GOP attitudes, especially among the most conservative voters, in the direction he desired – but enough to make most GOP House members want to vote on it.

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Very important19%23%35%
Somewhat important16%8%22%
Not very important9%22%15%
Not at all important44%32%22%
Don't know/No opinion12%14%5%

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Very important24%11%27%
Somewhat important13%12%17%
Not very important10%16%14%
Not at all important40%46%35%
Don't know/No opinion12%16%8%

5. The role of business in Texas politics writ large and the Texas GOP in particular became a matter of unusually open discussion that is likely to echo through the coming election cycle and into the next legislative session. The state media jumped hard on this story at different phases – during the regular session pondering if the prominence of the aforementioned bathroom bills in the face of business opposition meant that business was losing stroke at the Capitol, or, in a variation on the theme, if the uneven efforts at expressing this opposition meant that these businesses were unwilling to put their money where their mouths were when it came to transgender people’s rights. During the special session, particularly after several oil and gas executives came out against the bill, the subject came up again – this time with the common subtext that NOW business was back in the driver’s seat and should (maybe) get some credit for killing the bill in the special. There’s a lot to unpack here, but two observations for now.  

First, big business has free rider problems, too, especially during the regular session.  Spending economic and/or political capital on macro-level issues like the business climate (in this case, the potential backlash against bathroom legislation) at the expense of success on more particular priorities (tax issues, subsidies, regulatory rules, etc.) is likely to induce everyone to leave the macro-level efforts to everyone else – meaning nobody, or almost nobody, wanted to spend the necessary resources. This dynamic can probably be expected to be less prevalent in a special session with a more limited agenda and less exposure for the business groups on other issues. Thus, the more pronounced efforts in the special were probably less about the discovery of some guts and more about lower perceived costs, in the form of other legislative goals, of being more direct in opposing measures perceived as potentially bad for everyone’s bottom line.

Second, bathroom bills are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the growing awareness among business groups in the state that there are Republican elected officials who question the traditional pro-business (pro-economic development, if you prefer) regulatory model traditionally embraced by whatever constellation of political forces are currently governing the state (including the conservative Democrats of a bygone era). Anecdotal evidence suggests that the realization that they might have to fight harder for their positions with their home party, and against more than token opposition, has dawned somewhat slowly, as has a strategy in reaction to a situation many seem to have hoped would just fix itself or revert back to what they took to be the natural state of things. This is one of the most important and proportionally under-reported and under-analyzed stories in Texas politics.