The needs of a growing Texas collide with reelection pressures as the Republican-led Legislature struggles to reach consensus

The latest University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll found a striking degree of aggregate, bi-partisan support for the more fundamental policy proposals that are currently mired in various parts of the legislative process. Texas voters expressed their strongest and most widespread support for legislative action in response to problems that have affected many Texans’ daily lives in recent years: reliable power in their homes and businesses, access to clean water, the safety of students and teachers in Texas schools, and relief from property taxes driven up by steep, consistent growth in real estate values.

This degree of consensus doesn’t prevent the emergence of the culturally driven, polarizing issues that have also found their way onto the agendas of political leaders, and so onto the legislative agenda in a political system governed by a Republican Party dominated by a coalition of conservative and frankly reactionary voters, interest groups, and the elected officials they elect to represent them. When we look at the responses to the wider array of issues in the poll, differing priorities linked to political and ideological orientations of the parties do manifest in the results.

But perhaps most importantly at this stage of the legislative session, the striking degree of bipartisan consensus among voters has not resulted in consensus among the Republican elected officials currently attempting to address them in the legislative process. Republican elected officials seem to have picked up on the urgency with which voters view these issues; they have not, however, been able to resolve the conflicts among themselves and among mobilized stakeholders about the best legislative means of acting on the public’s concerns. While bills in all of these areas have moved through the early stages of the process, with less than three weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers in the Republican majority have been unable to agree upon final versions to send to the Governor to sign into law.

Each of the following priorities were judged “extremely” or “very” important goals to accomplish during the session by at least two-thirds of Texas voters in the April UT/TxPP Poll, and as many as 80% of voters with respect to the importance of improving the reliability of the electric grid.

The magnitude of support for these items reflects that each was supported by majorities of both Republicans and Democrats.

Grid reliability

Loading chart...
Extremely important48%
Very important32%
Somewhat important14%
Not very important2%
Not important1%
Don't know/No opinion3%

The persistent salience of the reliability of the state's power grid testifies to the impact of the power failures during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. The centrality of casting blame on GOP leadership for the state’s failures in Democratic campaigns in 2022 led some Republicans to portray raising questions about the reliability of the grid post-Uri as partisan handwringing. But the conspicuous absence of a grid related item on Gov. Abbott’s list of emergency declarations seems to indicate that dynamic is still at work in 2023.

The partisan breakdowns in response to this item strongly suggest that the issue remains a bipartisan concern. The combination of partisan dynamics and the disproportionate impact of the 2021 shutdown make it unsurprising that a larger share of Democrats than Republicans said it was “extremely important” for the legislature to improve the reliability of the grid (60% vs. 43%). But the combined “extremely” and “very” important responses among Democrats (86%) is only slightly higher than the Republican total (81%).

Loading chart...
Extremely important60%40%43%
Very important26%35%39%
Somewhat important10%14%16%
Not very important2%0%1%
Not important0%0%1%
Don't know/No opinion2%11%1%

Water supply

It’s a testament to the scale of the 2021 grid collapse and the inherent complexity of energy politics that the context of public opinion on improving the reliability of the state’s water supply is somewhat less complicated than the grid. However, water outages were also part of the misery and health threat experienced by many Texans during the storm and its aftermath. In the March 2021 Texas Politics Project/UT Energy Institute Poll conducted just a few weeks after the storm, more than half of Texas voters reported experiencing interruptions in their water service, with no partisan difference in reported experience.

Loading chart...
Electricity interruption67%62%67%
Water service interruption56%59%51%
Damage to your home22%23%18%
Natural gas service interruption13%13%12%
Damage to your vehicle8%7%7%

Disruptions in water service have also become more frequent in the context of the longer-term centrality of water policy in a state with an exploding population spread out unevenly amidst a sprawling, varied geography with highly uneven levels of water and/or the infrastructure to deliver it from elsewhere if they don’t have it. Water, however, has not carried as much of a charge as electricity in electoral politics.

The characteristics of public opinion among partisans in judging the importance of legislative action on water largely resembles those on the grid. While Democrats express a similarly higher level of intensity in their judgment of the importance of addressing the water supply (50% extremely important vs. 35% for Republican voters), the total share judging water reliability as either an “extremely” or “very” important policy goal is widespread among both groups (82% vs. 72%). These results don’t indicate an electorate confident in the state’s water supply.

Loading chart...
Extremely important50%31%35%
Very important32%29%37%
Somewhat important15%23%22%
Not very important1%4%2%
Not important1%1%1%
Don't know/No opinion1%12%2%

School safety

Loading chart...
Extremely important41%
Very important30%
Somewhat important18%
Not very important5%
Not important2%
Don't know/No opinion3%

The similar degree of consensus in public opinion on the importance of school safety legislation, and the partisan composition of that agreement, also likely reflects a combination of immediacy and political context. The severity and traumatic nature of the Robb Elementary mass shooting, the sustained and voluminous media coverage of its aftermath, and the sad fact that it was part of an epidemic of school shootings has shaken a common assumption: that schools are safe and secure places for children and teachers.

In a more partisan vein, results in the latest poll and in previous surveys reveal a pattern in which Republicans are likely to attribute the causes of shootings, and thus the remedies to them, to causes other than guns. This also raises the likelihood that Democrats and Republicans read different specific policies into the broad category of “school safety,” and that many Republicans might include more guns as part of the solution e.g. arming teachers and/or other school personnel, increasing armed security, etc., that Democrats are unlikely to reflexively include in their ideal responses — and may reject outright. 

Once again, larger shares of Democrats than Republicans say it’s important for the legislature to increase school safety, but the most meaningful and statistically meaningful difference is in intensity: 51% of Democrats say it is extremely important, compared to 35% of Republicans. 

Loading chart...
Extremely important51%25%35%
Very important26%29%37%
Somewhat important14%17%21%
Not very important6%3%5%
Not important1%15%0%
Don't know/No opinion2%12%1%

Property taxes

The distribution of partisan views looks different among the 67% of voters who judged reducing property taxes extremely or very important. Given the centrality of property tax reduction in the campaigns of Republicans from Gov. Abbott down to legislative candidates in 2022, the comparative intensity and breadth of the urgency of the issue for Republican voters makes sense. Of the four items, this is the only area in which the share of Republicans (52%) who find a top-priority “extremely important” is substantially higher than the share of Democrats (35%), and the overall share of Republicans who see the issue as “extremely” or “very” important (74%) is significantly higher than the share of Democrats who say the same (63%).

At the same time, the absence of substantially different or even polarized differences between the parties likely reflects the comparatively high property tax burdens voters face in Texas, particularly given the increasing tendency of the Democratic Party to attract college educated Texans with the corresponding earning power to join the property owning class in Texas’ increasingly Democratic, and increasingly expensive, cities.

Loading chart...
Extremely important35%42%52%
Very important28%23%25%
Somewhat important21%15%17%
Not very important8%5%5%
Not important4%4%1%
Don't know/No opinion4%12%1%

It’s a testament both to the complexity of all of these issues and to the divisions rending the Republican party in the legislature that despite the degree of public consensus, neither the leadership of the two chambers nor the members have settled on consensus measures in any of these areas (at least as of this writing).

This consensus on issues with widespread resonance in the experiences of the electorate shouldn’t obscure the fact that many of the other prominent legislative priorities declared by one or more of the Big Three are driven by the GOP voters in the electorate that put them in office – and which most calculate are necessary for keeping them there given the gerrymandered districts that maximize significant but slowly eroding Republican electoral advantages.

For example:

These patterns of polarized partisan support are even more apparent as the overall shares of support decrease on other issues more specifically aimed at Republican primary voters, such as prohibiting doctors from providing gender affirming care to minors, prohibiting by-mail voting for voters over the age of 65 unless they have a medical condition, and prohibiting drag performances in the presence of a minor.

The patterns of public opinion on these two sets of issues – one understandably but still a bit surprisingly bipartisan, the other driven by sharp partisan, ideological differences in attitudes – together illustrate the underpinnings of a very polarized legislature dominated by an entrenched Republican majority. As the legislature enters its final weeks and the pressure increases to make decisions about the details of legislation and relative priorities, that majority seems increasingly Janus-faced, pulled in one direction by the urgency of responding to the structural pressures generated by the state’s growth, and in another direction by the frequently narrow requirements for holding power — primarily, catering to primary voters seemingly alarmed by the demographic and cultural correlates of the same growth.

The tensions between these two efforts are causing two significant difficulties that seem to define the character of the 88th Legislature, mostly for the worse, at least at this critical stage of the session.

First, the political tensions within the Republican Party between the center right and the far right of the party (very broadly speaking) impair the GOP’s ability to legislate in crucial areas. In the presence of very clear signals from the electorate (including their own partisans), the legislature has, so far, failed to produce consensus bills in any of the major areas addressing voters’ concerns. At this writing, the Republican majorities and their leaders have failed to reach agreement on legislation related to the power grid, water supply, school safety, or property taxes, in addition to a slew of other issues assigned high priority by leadership (such as community college funding, school vouchers, and investment incentives).

This is what conference committees are for, of course. But the public bickering bordering on outright acrimony between the leaders of the chambers, and the governor’s maneuvering in the wings of the Capitol, suggest levels of conflict and disagreement beyond that premised simply by the nature of the process, or even the personal animosity and distrust among the Big Three. The degree and long tenure of one-party control has resulted in an erosion of party cohesion in important circumstances, and, more broadly, is stoking institutional dysfunction.

Second, the particulars of the GOP’s de facto monopoly on elections and government creates incentives for Republican incumbents to cater to sectarian ideological interests in the party by advocating for policies that frequently enjoy the support of majorities of Republicans but generate opposition by large shares, sometimes even majorities, of the rest of the state. The draconian bans on abortion and dropping of most requirements to publicly carry a handgun passed in 2021 provide the most prominent and consequential example of this dynamic, and the leadership has been very quiet about abortion and guns this session. But similar, if smaller-scale, political problems have arisen for Republican leaders as the fringe has led them on issues like purging libraries and banning drag shows. Gestures in these directions in theory help defuse primary challenges; but they also divert time and energy from other efforts while generating intra party conflict that reduces the cohesion necessary to make progress on the big issues that matter most to the state’s future – and, not coincidentally, to most voters, whatever their party.

Subscribe to the Texas Politics Project Email List

* indicates required