Data Points from the Week in Texas Politics (August 7, 2020)

The week started with the Comptroller releasing revenue numbers that invited cherry picking by the desperate, manipulative, and just plain inattentive. But they weren’t really very sweet if you looked closely. Governor Abbott held events and press conferences on two separate days as he continued his attempts to manage the COVID-19 crisis and the  politics surrounding it, which have not gotten any easier, as illustrated by the fact that he got sued this week by five legislators ostensibly on his team. Those legislators are a thorn in the governor’s side, but point to the larger question of whether we can expect a less obstructionist, more constructive vision of legislative action to restore some balance between the two main branches of government in 2021. Part of the answer to this question will depend on the outcome of the 2020 election. And while it made for a good story for The Texas Tribune’s Alex Samuels, we very seriously doubt that Donald Trump’s efforts to persuade Black voters to take another look at him as a candidate, while claiming that he is more of a civil rights hero than John Lewis, are going to help him close that deal. Read on for data points on these happenings and discussions from the week in Texas politics.

1. Read the tables linked to this week’s release from the Comptroller. While some were tempted, out of optimism or politics, to emphasize the positive numbers in the Comptrollers’ update on July revenue – most frequently, the news that July sales tax revenue increased compared to last July –  an even slightly closer look at the details shouldn’t cheer anyone up about the state’s revenue situation or the macroeconomy. Pay attention to the Comptroller’s careful description accompanying the updated data, and actually look at the table. Most other sources of revenue were negative compared to a year ago as activity migrated from categories now shut down or stagnant, while e-commerce sales increased. And as the release said directly: “Total sales tax revenue for the three months ending in July 2020 was down 5.3 percent compared to the same period a year ago.” One interesting thing to note in the accompanying tables is the big increase in “federal income” compared to last year largely as a result of numerous emergency measures such as the Cares Act, increases in unemployment insurance money, and other measures. Income to state coffers from the federal government increased 38.66%  – about $15 billion – compared to this point in the last fiscal year and totals just over $54 billion so far this fiscal year. By comparison, total tax collected by the state government decreased by 2.2%, and so far in the fiscal year adds up to about $1 billion less than federal income. In other words: The federal aid package tying Congress up in knots is important to state coffers. 

2. What bleeds doesn’t always lead. Governor Abbott gained some attention and a brief write-up by Nicole Cobler in the Austin American Statesman with a couple of press conferences and public events this week in San Antonio and Dallas. These came after several weeks of the Governor’s communication strategy focusing almost entirely on a flurry of appearances on local television news broadcasts across the state (per Abbott spokesman John Wittman in Bob Garrett’s Dallas Morning News piece on the subject way back on July 3, Abbott had done “more than 350 ‘TV hits’ since the pandemic began in March.”). The strategy attracted some criticism in other corners of the Texas media world, including a strongly worded letter from editors of some of Texas’s major dailies. Both Garrett and Cobler found academics who find local TV defined by “softballs,” and not asking any “tough questions”; but Garrett cites some testy exchanges with local anchors during the pandemic to qualify this view, as did the Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove in his Sunday piece on Abbott and in a part of a discussion of Abbott’s media strategy in this week’s “Second Reading Podcast”. The governor’s recourse to blitzing local media while he was focusing his message on mask wearing, physical distancing, and generally urging Texans to take the pandemic seriously is a sensible approach, though it did seem to fall within the pattern of getting the message out (good) while not attracting undue attention from the far right and especially the President (a bit more problematic given the urgency of broadcasting the message as widely as possible in the midst of a crisis). Shutting out the urban dailies, statewide media outlets, and networks for long periods of time deprives him of another large audience that also needs to hear those messages, or at least tends to. (And to be fair, their probably predominantly urban, college-educated readers have likely received the message.) It’s also hard not to detect some familiar professional bias in the snooty response to local TV news’ access to the governor among a lot of media professionals at print and print-legacy outlets (and whatever we’re calling The Texas Tribune; “prestige media”?), even if the broader point about public accessibility is understandable enough. One thing for sure is that local TV has a lot of viewers. Our UT Austin colleague Talia Stroud put it succinctly to Bob Garrett: “Local television news is one of the most watched and most trusted news sources, making it an effective way to reach constituents.” Our June 2020 polling found results very much in line with that, on a broadly bipartisan basis, as the graphics below illustrate. (And not for the first time.) 

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Local news sources70%
Conversations with family and close friends 69%
Newspaper and online journalism outlets57%
Network TV news (ABC, NBC, CBS)55%
Cable News51%
Social media other than Facebook or Twitter25%

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Local news sources78%54%68%
Conversations with family and close friends 68%49%74%
Newspaper and online journalism outlets76%48%42%
Network TV news (ABC, NBC, CBS)73%46%42%
Cable News56%37%50%
Social media other than Facebook or Twitter28%20%25%

3. NOW he wants to involve the legislature. Despite Abbott’s assiduous efforts to manage the GOP’s, and in particular, his own, right flank, the uncertainty of pandemic politics is reanimating challenges to the Governor from the far-right corners of the party. One current source of friction comes from a $295 million contract given to a private company to engage in contact tracing. Five of the most conservative members of the Texas legislature (Representatives Biederman, Lang, Zedler, and Toth, and Senator Bob Hall (who had a busy week, ahem), an ally of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick) are suing the governor and public health officials, seeking to have the contract voided, per Emma Platoff’s coverage in The Texas Tribune. There was near immediate pushback on the contract, which is understandable given both the unusual contracting procedure and the objectively terrible performance of the company hired to help rein in the pandemic, but the origin of the most intense resistance so far is notable. Abbott provided an illustration of how this move doesn’t bode well for the legislature at his Thursday press conference. Asked by a reporter about the lawsuit, he dismissed the chances of it succeeding, and proceeded to fairly deftly pull the legislative leadership into the swamp of the contract with him, providing a litany of legislative leaders – including, most interestingly, the Lt. Governor, but also the chairs and vice-chairs of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, and the speaker of the Texas House – who he says were all involved in CARES Act funding decisions. See the video below, via CSPAN. 



As for the sources of the lawsuit, at least as of June, Abbott had the overwhelming support of the most conservative Texans, both overall, and with respect to his handling of the coronavirus. While it’s quite possible that his approval among this group has slipped some since June, at no point have we seen broad disapproval of the Governor — or the state’s operations in general — from the conservative voters that a handful of members and allied interest groups claim to represent. More to the point, asked whether Texas’ Republican elected officials are conservative enough (or not), a majority of the most conservative voters, along with majorities of all stripes of conservatives, elected to say “conservative enough” — but with notable differences among each group in the share that said “not conservative enough.” It’s presumably this group that far-right legislators claim to be channeling.

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly28%57%69%
Approve somewhat40%28%22%
Neither approve nor disapprove15%6%4%
Disapprove somewhat9%3%2%
Disapprove strongly6%5%2%
Don't know2%1%1%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Conservative enough54%57%53%
Too conservative19%7%1%
Not conservative enough18%30%43%
Don't know/No opinion8%6%4%

4. It may be hard to accept, and it may not always feel like it, but Texas needs a legislature. In last week’s data points, we flagged the increase in both individual and collective pondering of what the next legislative session might look like under pandemic conditions. Ross Ramsey wrote a column this week with a sub-head that read, “During a pandemic, they might want to do a lot less.” The column itself is a little less committed, suggesting that “they’re going to have some explaining to do if what they do for themselves is much different from what they prescribe for the rest of us,” which we suppose means that those recommending opening the schools should be ready to show up to work themselves, and that those being more cautious about reopening schools should have more room to be careful about reopening the Capitol, with all the partisan implications associated with these positions. Institutionally, there is another major consideration here: If the legislature, thinking of their own vulnerability due to the institution’s demographics and of the volume of bills considered (both of which Ramsey notes), adopts the position that “some of it can wait,” and in turn adopts a minimalist agenda, they would be doing two things they shouldn’t. First, abdicating their constitutional responsibility to look out for the welfare of Texans via the most important representative institution in the constitutional structure of state government; and second, continuing to cede authority to an executive branch headed by a governor who has been more than eager to take the wheel, but has struggled to keep the state out of the ditch while facing the biggest test of his governorship (not to mention the fact that the entire Texas House and a third of the Texas Senate will face the voters this year — something Abbott won’t have to consider until 2022). It’s an inherently challenging situation and it’s no surprise that legislators in both parties might be inclined to just let the governor and executive branch handle all the policymaking. But it would be nearly impossible to count all the times legislators have stood on the floor of the house in the last 20 years extolling Texans’ ingenuity, courage, and dedication to their state. It’s time for the legislature to live up to that talk. No one should be cavalier about the risks, nor the needs for adjustment to ensure as much as possible the health and safety not just of legislators, but of the staff, advocates, and ordinary citizens involved in the process. But there is time to figure it out, and they have access to the resources to cover the costs of adopting a process that both mitigates risk and respects principles of accountability and transparency. And they should remember that Texans expect state government to respond: Asked in the June 2020 Texas Politics Project poll how important each of a range of actors and institutions are to efforts in their community to respond to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, 71% of Texans said that Texas State Government was either “extremely” or “very” important. It was ranked as less important than individuals, family and friends, and the local community (very Texan), but was at the top of the list of institutional actors. And this was not driven by Democrats and progressives, as the second graphic below illustrates. 

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Family and Friends76%
Your local community73%
Texas state government71%
Your local government70%
Federal government66%
Businesses (Not insurance companies)66%
Religious groups and organizations56%

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Family and Friends82%65%72%
Your local community81%65%66%
Texas state government79%66%67%
Your local government84%59%62%
Federal government75%60%60%
Businesses (Not insurance companies)74%57%62%
Religious groups and organizations53%51%61%

5. “I invited every Black friend I know, and they didn’t show!” That’s a quote from Alex Samuels’ story in The Texas Tribune about a “Black Voices for Trump” event organized by the McLennan County GOP that Samuels attended, where the guest speaker was KCarl Smith, “a member of the advisory board for the Trump campaign’s Black Voices for Trump initiative, which has held its own events nationwide to chip away at his broad unpopularity with Black voters and flip the narrative that he is hostile to people of color,” per the story. The guest speaker and Samuels were the only African Americans in attendance, and the story is a masterpiece of the art of the deadpan, at least as we read it. Suffice it to say that in a week in which Axios published a much-watched video of Jonathan Swan’s interview with Donald Trump that included the president repeatedly declining to say anything positive about the late John Lewis, the project to mobilize “black voices for Trump” has a big hill to climb. The Trump message is a simple one, as delivered in the interview:

“He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches...and that’s OK. That’s his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake. I think he should have come.” [emphasis added]

Trump has a lot of work to do getting that message across, because Black people don’t seem to be making the same connection. In June UT polling, 88% of African Americans registered disapproval with how the president is handling his job, while 80% disapprove of his handling of race relations. In that same poll, 79% said that they would be supporting Joe Biden come November — a share likely to go up based on past voting behavior and the variance we expect in the relatively small number of Black voters in most poll samples.

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Approve strongly40%10%25%
Approve somewhat16%7%14%
Neither approve nor disapprove3%3%9%
Disapprove somewhat4%11%8%
Disapprove strongly37%67%43%
Don't know0%1%2%

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Approve strongly33%6%22%
Approve somewhat17%10%8%
Neither approve nor disapprove5%2%8%
Disapprove somewhat3%5%10%
Disapprove strongly39%75%47%
Don't know2%2%4%

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Donald Trump59%13%39%
Joe Biden36%79%46%
Haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion5%8%14%