On the Texas side of politics, this week felt like a flashback to last Spring, as the anti-sanctuary city law, the bathroom bill, and the general tone of the 85th Legislature all got rehearings. It’s hard not to feel yet again that there are much bigger goings-on nationally, as students not on spring break staged a national walk-out to protest inaction on gun policy, the Democrats won a squeaker in a Pennsylvania special election, and we discovered what many presupposed, that Special Counsel Mueller has some questions about the Trump business empire and its connections to Russians. Read on for Texas public opinion data linked to some of the big stories from the week in politics.
When it comes to legal cases in general, and legal rights in particular, it's important to note that public opinion can often act as a poor guide to a just outcome, and in many cases, may have no relevance on particular legal proceedings. With that caveat aside, public opinion is useful in determining how elected officials, including the Attorney General, might react to court decisions, and further, whether the state chooses to push ahead in the legal process in the face of adverse decisions.
Speaker of the House Joe Straus continued his efforts to shift his party’s agenda into the realm of economic development and to re-engage the business sector. Meanwhile, over at the White House, apparently tired of Congress’s inability act on the ACA, Donald Trump used executive power to launch a frontal assault on Obamacare this week, with extremely uncertain political and policy results to come. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also expressed some very public frustration with Congress, who as a group had a pretty tough week even as they uncharacteristically tried to do their jobs by moving another disaster relief bill, which was passed by the House. One of those members, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, outraised his expected Democratic opponent, though also got word that he may have a primary challenger. And lest you think Congress deserves some sympathy, their response to the Las Vegas shooting devolved into the usual puddle of avoidance and utter predictability from all involved.
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.
Public Opinion Notes on Gay Marriage and Discrimination in the Wake of the Texas Supreme Court Ruling
The Texas Supreme Court appears to have slowed down the progression in LGBTQ rights since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that ruled gay marriage constitutionally protected. Per Alexa Ura's coverage in the Texas Tribune, the Texas Supremes have remanded "a lower court ruling that said spouses of gay and lesbian public employees are entitled to government-subsidized same-sex marriage benefits" back down the chain in order to clarify whether and how much the state can limit benefits associated with marriage. The June 2017 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll included the latest version of our standard gay marriage question, as well as an item on whether religious beliefs should be a legal rationale for exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.
The June 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll underlined both the Lt. Governor’s success at getting his name out there, but also the continuing strength of a better known Governor. An increase in the salience of legislative efforts to regulate transgender people’s access to bathrooms among conservatives in the GOP is a testament, though, to Patrick’s ability to capture the imagination of his base. Or maybe it’s hearts and minds, judging by some of the patterns of support for another conservative cause, so-called conscience exemptions. You don’t need to practice much pattern recognition, though, to pick up on the odd fact that, for all the declarations that some people in the legislature let conservatives down in the 85th, the Tea Party faction seems pretty pleased with the achievements of the legislature and its leadership. One thing no one seems interested in is throwing legal voters in jail, even if they fail to use their photo id when they vote. Seems there are limits after all.
No, That Really is Rain You Feel on Your Back: Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, March 17, 2017
The House raised the bet in the budget poker game as the House and Senate also displayed differences on sanctuary cities legislation, one of the Governor's emergency items. On the other hand, rejecting Governor Abbotts' lead on pre-k funding is an area of increasingly rare agreement between the House and the Senate. Still pending is how the Senate will respond to the statewide texting-while-driving ban passed this week by the House after a pretty lively debate. SB 6 passed the Senate this week, even as Chairman Cook confirmed the general sense that the House leadership, like the public, per UT/Texas Tribune Polling, is much less interested in the legislature regulating bathroom access than the Senate leadership. Looking toward 2018, Congressmen Will Hurd and Beto O'Rourke took a roadtrip and live streamed the whole thing, much to the delight of the national media and Jonathan Tilove – but probably not Texas' Junior Senator.
The Senate State Affairs Committee hearing tomorrow on Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 6 has triggered three press conferences today and will no doubt be the focus of a large chunk of tomorrow’s news media coverage in Texas – and probably some national coverage, too. Much of the extant coverage has missed how conflicting public attitudes provide an essential context for understanding the politics among the leadership. Recent results from the February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll confirm that while Texans’ attitudes convey the expected conservative tilt, only a minority – 39 percent – think it is important for the legislature to act on this issue now.
The week was barely underway when the new Public Education Chair in the Texas House illustrated just how much style and personality can make the same position feel really different when it comes from a Huberty rather than an Aycock. The House managed to make a fight out of the one issue that there seemed to be universal agreement on in the Legislature, while the Texas Supreme Court decided they want to hear arguments about gay marriage after all. Meanwhile, in the commanding heights, Governor Abbott was invited by the other two-thirds of the big three to have a fight with one of them, but it was no cigar. Instead, the Governor was plenty happy to take the resolution passed by the Senate joining the call for a Convention of the States, though conservatives are not all of the same mind on whether that’s a good idea or not. If the governor has to change their mind, maybe he ought to ask the President, who seems to have done a good job of moving Republicans toward a more open-minded position on the President of Russia -- though it turns out Attorney General Sessions may have jumped the gun on that front at least a little.
Nonetheless, pre-election polling in Texas reveals a group of conservative voters who do report feeling left behind by changes in the economy, while also holding attitudes that cohere with broader elements of Trump’s rhetoric-- and, crucially, with the appeals of the most conservative factions of the Texas GOP. The beginning of the Trump presidency will come 10 days after the opening gavel of the 85th Texas Legislature. While the internal dynamics of the state’s political system traditionally drive most policy and politics in the session, Trump’s ascension to the presidential bully pulpit, at the head of one-party rule in Washington, markedly changes the national context and its possible impact.