As GOP preemption bill steers power to the state, most Texans still express positive views of locals

While stifling the autonomy of state governments has been an ongoing project of the state’s Republican elected officials for several years, the latest University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll found Texas voters much more positively inclined toward their local government than toward state government.

Efforts by Texas Republican elected officials to preempt the authority of local governments reached its zenith in the current legislative session with the passage of the unfortunately nicknamed “Death Star” bill, HB 2177, which leaned into the state’s constitutional authority to preempt local self-governance in many key policy areas.

The Republican architects of the the bill hailed it as a big achievement. Senate sponsor Brandon Creighton, in an exchange on the floor, argued that “...our businesses are panicking,” describing the bill as “a lifeline for small businesses who need consistency and certainty to invest and expand and grow.” House Sponsor Dustin Burrows echoed that argument: “We want those small-business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families, not trying to navigate a byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time.”

The economic development rationale for the bill provided for a cool justification for a reworking of governance in Texas that follows years of red-hot attacks on local autonomy that frequently channeled racial animus, fear of crime, the cultural divisions that came to define peak pandemic politics, and more recently, the “anti-woke” crusade in its many forms.

While these buttons were easily pushed by GOP candidates in the last two election cycles, a growing body of polling data suggest that, among the public, these political attacks were energized more by the polarizing policy and cultural issues they activated than by widespread animus toward local government per se.

Sustained efforts by Republican office holders to preempt local government are being carried out amidst crosscurrents in the attitudes of the Republican electorate who, while holding generally more positive views of state government compared to their own local governments, nonetheless exhibit only small differences in evaluations of each. While Republican opinion leaders, elected or not, may have successfully appealed to voters on issues that may have put some local governments in a negative light in those specific policy areas, they are not tapping into any obvious wellspring of negative sentiment toward local government that requires a draconian reduction in the ability of those governments to govern.

Overall, 47% of Texans hold a favorable view of their local government (25% unfavorable), largely indistinguishable from their views of state government (46% favorable), though with more unfavorable views of state government (37%).

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Very favorable12%
Somewhat favorable35%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable24%
Somewhat unfavorable15%
Very unfavorable10%
Don't know/No opinion3%

This summative picture obscures some of the ways in which local governments are viewed significantly more positively than state government: 35% say state government is honest compared to 50% who say the same of their local government, and 33% say state government is careful with people’s tax dollars compared to 40% who say the same of their local government. Most relevant with respect to legislation that takes authority away from local governments to act in a number of policy areas: 36% say that state government mostly addresses the needs of residents, compared to 47% who say the same of local government. All things being equal, the government entity Texans see as relatively less responsive to their needs has acted to reduce the capacity of local government they currently view as being more responsive.

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Mostly addresses the needs of Texas residents36%
Mostly ignores the needs of Texas residents49%
Don't know15%

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Mostly addresses the needs of local residents47%
Mostly ignores the needs of local residents39%
Don't know14%

None of these results are overwhelmingly positive for either state or local government, a sign of our times notable for sinking trust in political, if not all, institutions. But nonetheless, they indicate that local government’s detractors, however numerous they may be in the legislature, are likely in the minority in the electorate.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find Democratic voters holding significantly more positive views of local governments than state government given Democratic control of local governments in most of Texas’ population centers and GOP control of state government. But polling data clearly shows that it would be wrong to attribute the relative prevalence of positive views of local government solely or even mainly to Democrats, or to assume overwhelmingly negative views of local government among Republican voters.

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Very favorable16%2%10%
Somewhat favorable33%25%41%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable24%35%19%
Somewhat unfavorable14%16%17%
Very unfavorable10%21%10%
Don't know/No opinion2%2%4%

Polling data suggests that Republican elected officials’ enthusiasm for state preemption of local governments doesn’t stir Republican voters in the same way. While 73% of GOP voters said that they held a favorable view of state government in June 2023 UT/TXP polling, the majority, 51%, also held a favorable view of their local government, with only 27% registering an unfavorable view. After a session in which abolishing many local government functions was a key priority subsequently hailed as a major legislative accomplishment by Republican elected officials, only about one in four Republican voters held a negative view of their local government, with the majority holding a positive view.

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Mostly addresses the needs of local residents51%31%49%
Mostly ignores the needs of local residents38%58%38%
Don't know11%11%13%

The measures of views of more specific characteristics of the two levels of government discussed above reveal a slightly different pattern, in which evaluations of state and local government were largely similar. Again, there is no evidence of general animus toward local government. Half of Republicans said that state government was mostly honest, 54% said the same of their local government; 42% said that state government was mostly careful with people’s tax dollars, while 41% said the same of their local government. In the biggest, and likely least surprising, difference, 54% said that state government mostly addresses the needs of residents compared to 49% who said the same of local government (still the plurality).

Consistent with these patterns in attitudes, the poll revealed no evidence of a groundswell of support for the concept underlying HB 2177. Among a list of policies the legislature considered this session, the poll asked voters whether they support or oppose “reducing the power of cities and counties to pass laws or regulations in areas where state and local governments have traditionally shared authority.” Only 41% of Texas voters expressed support — the lowest level of support among the 16 policy items tested — while 35% expressed opposition, with the remainder declining to offer an opinion. The majority of Republicans (53%) did support the measure, but gave it the lowest level of support from the list of items largely determined by the visible priorities of the GOP majority in the legislature.

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Strongly support19%
Somewhat support22%
Somewhat oppose15%
Strongly oppose20%
Don't know/No opinion25%

We highlighted aspects of these dynamics in an article for the Texas Monthly website back in October 2017, as the politics of “local control” seemed to be changing under pressure from Republicans. At the time, we hypothesized that stronger attitudes and partisan cues on particular issues overrode the positive associations around “local control.” As we wrote at the time

Deploying the principle of local control as political rhetoric depends at the very least on there being enough of an audience for such an appeal. Among voters, at least, the principle of local sovereignty appears to have shallow cognitive roots: people attach value to it in the abstract, but it is easily crowded out by other more established attitudes. So “local control” can be both readily applied when it’s consistent with what people already prefer, yet easily discounted when it conflicts with other, more deeply formed attitudes. It’s unlikely that all but a small handful of voters have a strong opinion about what level of government is best for administering government functions, let alone the even more arcane judgment as to what level of government should make decisions on particular issues.

The lines of attack chosen by Republican elected officials in the last two elections and the legislative sessions that followed suggest they have incorporated these public opinion dynamics into their political strategies.

Republican elected officials and allied interest groups promoting the preemptive authority of state government have seized on issues that animate voters, especially (though not exclusively) Republicans – from the caricatures of tyrannical school districts and police-defunding cities that helped galvanize Republicans in legislative elections in 2020 to the 2022 trope of fighting wokeness in all its nefarious local forms, especially in public schools, to the still ongoing efforts to cast suspicion, and control, over local election officials.

The most recent polling, including the lukewarm response to generalized legislation like HB 2177, suggests that GOP elected officials may be overreaching in these efforts. Ironically, their success at limiting local governments may also have the effect of preemptively removing potential future campaign issues which have contributed to GOP electoral success. Both state-level and local candidates have campaigned against local policies the designers of the "Death Star" bill aims to annihilate. If local implementation of such policies becomes a thing of the past, Republicans will have lost a politically useful means of rabble rousing while at the same time reducing the capacity and responsiveness of both Democrats and Republicans at the local level. Short-term political gains may well come at the expense of both political costs and instituional degradation in the long term.

The likely impact on both Democratic and Republican-led local governing bodies points to the fact that the political geography of the state contributes to the relatively positive views of local government among all partisans. Ideological self-sorting among geographic lines likely boosts favorability toward local government compared to its state and national counterparts, and modulates the influence of partisanship in cultivating views of local governments as purveyors of Bad Things. Just as mostly Democratic voters in urban and some suburban areas are electing mostly if not entirely Democratic governments at those local levels, there are many, many, more, smaller localities being governed by Republican elected officials put there by overwhelmingly Republican electorates. All are potentially impacted by HB 2127.

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Very favorable18%10%6%
Somewhat favorable37%33%37%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable21%24%29%
Somewhat unfavorable13%16%15%
Very unfavorable9%12%8%
Don't know/No opinion2%4%4%

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Very favorable19%12%16%
Somewhat favorable29%30%38%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable13%14%15%
Somewhat unfavorable15%14%14%
Very unfavorable22%28%13%
Don't know/No opinion2%2%3%

The fundamental tension between a legislature hell-bent on a broad constitutional assertion of state preemption of the locals, and the fact that those being preempted have been elected by their constituents (including Republicans), haunts GOP efforts to agitate their voters into signing off on limiting their own local governments.

One way Republican political leaders have managed this tension has been to target specific local governments – such as the largest urban region in the state (Houston) and the traditional avatar of progressive government (Austin). We’ve seen such attempts in the legislative process and in the operation of state agencies under de facto Republican supervision, with varying degrees of success (and justification). The state takeover of Houston ISD, and the initial policy moves made by its new, appointed stewards, provides a rich recent example (all the complexities of the specifics of Houston ISD’s dysfunction notwithstanding).

But the GOP’s oscillation between the specific and the general application of state preemption exposes the blunt politics animating the overall effort. The contortions necessary to create, pass, and justify legislation like HB 2177 amidst the continuing and very public focus on hamstringing local government bodies in the state's major urban areas calls attention to the unavoidable political underpinnings of the legislature’s sustained efforts to limit self-government by the state’s major population centers.

The straight-faced recital of the urgent need to avoid a “patchwork” of laws and policies can’t obscure the political logic of using state government power monopolized by Republicans to limit the power of governments elected by Democrats. A state government dominated by Republican elected officials further empowered by a general doctrine of preemption limits the responsiveness of local government, particularly those officials and bodies elected predominantly by Democratic voters. This intentional reduction of the capacity of local government to be responsive to constituents via the codified embrace of preemption is another sign of how the longevity of the GOP’s dominance of politics in the state is having the structural effect of undermining key components of democracy, like governmental responsiveness and self-governance. While the immediate political targets are Democrats, the scope of HB 2177 means the effects are systemic: all voters are subject to the erosion in the responsiveness of local government.

Institutional consequences and colleral damage among Republican local officials notwithstanding, the politics work for Republican officials in many circumstances. Poll after poll reveals that many Republican voters are willing to cheer on Republican officials who go after the “woke,” the socialists, and various groups demonized as social deviants. The support of rural voters for such politics illustrates the electoral payoffs when Republican leaders can claim to be thwarting the will of voters in geographically and culturally distant cities. Leaders can expect the same response if they present as striking back in the name of urban Republicans cast as oppressed minorities in their own cities (who are not nearly as rare as rural Democrats). Undermining Democratic attempts to govern in their only political redoubts lands well among the GOP base in times of ideological sorting and negative partisanship – and serves the self-interest of Republican incumbents attempting to deflect any Democratic gains in a state that is very slowly but seemingly inexorably becoming more competitive between the two parties while denying the opposition party’s ability to demonstrate  any contrasting vision of government where they have been overwhelmingly elected.

Yet the extent of the preemption of local autonomy implemented in the current legislative session seems to add another example to a long list of Republican efforts that test the limits of public support. Polling results that show a lack of public animus toward local government provide yet another example of a growing list of Republican elected officials’ accomplishments that are not embraced by a majority of the state, and only by thin majorities of their own partisans. In this sense, public opinion on state preemption fits broadly with issues like abortion and gun safety, other issues in which Texas Republicans have been effective in implementing policies that are not supported by a majority of the state - and in some cases, even a majority of Republicans.

It’s no longer very novel to point out that Republican incumbents spend a lot of time catering to extremely conservative (in some cases reactionary) primary voters while relying on a combination of agenda management and negative partisanship to avoid the defection of comparatively mainstream, conservative voters. Amidst the multifaceted efforts by Republicans to find new ways to institutionalize the political advantages they have enjoyed since the turn of the century, the doctrine of state preemption lacks the mobilizing impact or national resonance of issues such as voting laws, abortion, or gender identity politics. But it provides a potent example of the extent to which Republican incumbents are willing to recast the constitutional political order and the functioning of political institutions in order to defend their entrenched advantages against forces that threaten their monopoly on state government.

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