Mandate or machinations? Unpacking efforts to set the legislative agenda

(This piece originally appeared in TribTalk)

The prevailing narrative among legislators and the political class in Austin since November holds that the 2018 elections sent a clear signal to abandon red meat politics and start steaming those vegetables that the people really want, which has been taken to mean doing something to fix the school finance system and reduce Texans’ property taxes. This narrative was boosted in the early weeks of the session by the news conference on January 31 in which the governor, lieutenant governor and the new speaker of the House went to great lengths to project unity on identical property tax bills being introduced in the Senate and the House, and confidence about their prospects.

While that narrative has a surface plausibility, it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny as an explanation for the projected consensus. This consensus seems much more established among the top political leadership than it does either in public opinion or the legislative bodies who will have to vote on the property tax bills. Set aside the hand-waving and vague muttering that “elections have consequences,” and the evidence for a public mandate is pretty thin. The current consensus around property taxes and school finance likely has more to do with the new governing dynamic among Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Dennis Bonnen, and is likely much more tentative than the Olympian assurance the Big Three are working so hard to project.

From the governor-appointed secretary of state’s release of a flawed and apparently inflated list of potential non-citizen voters, to Abbott’s reminder in last week’s State of the State address that, “It is our burden to deal with the consequences of the federal government not securing the border,” the divisive politics elected officials are supposedly avoiding continue to hover over the process. Perhaps the most telling moment occurred at that news conference to highlight their consensus on a starting point for property tax legislation. The first question from the media wasn’t about property taxes; instead, a reporter opened the questions by asking Abbott about the voter list, to which the governor responded, as quoted in The Texas Tribune, “This is what you would categorize as a process, a work [in progress]."

The intrusion of two of the most volatile subjects in Texas politics — access to the electoral process and the views of shifting demographics in the state as the Latino share of the population continues to grow — provided a discordant reminder of the effort required to maintain the consensus that the big three are attempting to project.

GOP voters’ anxieties about immigration and cultural identity remained evident in public opinion polling on the eve of the election. In the October 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, a majority of Republican voters (52 percent) cited either immigration or border security as the number one issue facing the state; 66 percent said that there is “too much” legal immigration; 81 percent agreed that all undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be deported immediately; and, in the wake of the family separation crisis as well as a surge in troops on the Texas border, 57 percent said that the Trump administration had “not gone far enough” in enforcing federal immigration laws.

In the same poll, 6 percent cited education as the most pressing state problem, and 3 percent said taxes were most important.

Loading chart...
Border security16%
Health care9%
Political corruption/leadership8%
The economy3%

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Gone too far81%38%9%
Been about right9%16%30%
Not gone far enough5%36%57%
Don't know5%10%4%

So the alarmist press release out of the secretary of state’s office and subsequent tweets by elected officials, including the attorney general, were bound to find an audience still attuned to politics at the intersection of cultural identity, immigration and the electoral process. The continuing resonance of these appeals was also exploited by the president in the longest and most energetic section of his State of the Union speech just a few days later, and further amped up by his visit to El Paso — effectively keeping these issues in the political air.

The recent efforts by GOP leaders to buckle down and get serious about schools and tax bills seem more likely rooted in the current state-of-play in the agenda-control politics that have periodically roiled the Legislature throughout the period of GOP hegemony, rather than a devotion to an electoral mandate.

The governor’s designated emergency items — which put school finance and teacher pay front and center, and also included property tax reform — further reinforced the impression of consensus. But for all the paeans to the newfound sense of cooperation between Abbott and the presiding officers of both legislative chambers, the key feature of both bills — the 2.5 percent threshold for triggering tax-increase elections — was well below the thresholds that failed to pass the Legislature two years ago. Property tax crusader and chairman of the Senate property tax committee Paul Bettencourt joked about it awkwardly during the proceedings. Still hovering over the governor’s aggressive stance on tax reform and this public show of unity among the leadership is the question of whether majorities in legislative bodies are prepared to follow them into the breach.

If the actual votes are not in hand — and if they were, one assumes that the speaker, the lieutenant governor and relevant committee chairs would be saying so loudly — then the show of unity is more about promoting the agenda among the members than ratifying the popular will. Recent events seem less a recognition of a populist moment in the state than a conventional effort to persuade members to support the legislative agenda that the state’s GOP leadership has settled on.

The key factor in this alternative narrative isn’t the 2018 election, but the exit of Joe Straus and the ascendance of Dennis Bonnen to the speaker’s chair. Not surprisingly, given the open antipathy between the lieutenant governor and Straus, Patrick came closest at the joint news conference to saying directly that the consensus among the big three was made possible by Straus’ exit, demonstrating  that even in his absence the leadership is still willing to blame the former speaker for every conservative disappointment. Left unsaid is that Bonnen’s apparent success in consolidating power in the House is based, in large part, on the expectation that he will defend the body and its members against Patrick’s attempts to shape their agenda for his own ends.

Bonnen’s rise coincides with another convincing electoral performance by Abbott, whose presence on the ballot and campaign spending likely helped many GOP candidates who barely survived 2018. Patrick, by contrast, was re-elected by a comparatively narrow five-point margin and is now missing two of his key supporters in the Senate with the defeats of Don Huffines and Konni Burton. Not surprisingly, deprived of using Straus as a foil and with less leverage in his own chamber, the lieutenant governor has decided to declare victory in the battle of the bathroom bill and to make common cause with the governor and speaker on a shared agenda.

The election results are not irrelevant, as these inside politics illustrate. However, their most important effect wasn’t to provide a clear mandate. It was to provide a public veneer for agenda-setting efforts by the major actors in the executive and legislative branches. 

Despite those efforts, the powerful currents of public opinion around immigration and voting — which is to say, around cultural identity and civil rights in the state — can’t be fully repressed by simply repeating everyone shares the same agenda for the 86th Legislature and proceeding as such.

The benighted attempt by the secretary of state and attorney general to purge alleged non-citizens from the voter rolls and the responses to it across the political spectrum (including  by the president) point to how established patterns of behavior, and perceived incentives, still drive decision-making.

The inattention to the details of the list conveyed by the secretary of state and the news release that drove public discussion were judged as incompetent by some critics in Thursday’s Senate Nominations Committee. Yet the defenses mounted by his allies on the committee also point to how reflexive it is to channel the assumed negative views of undocumented immigrants in the Republican electorate.

Habitual politics reemerge, despite the efforts of leaders to keep them below the surface while they try to shore up their positions and even try to get some work done.