Public Opinion Annotations on the Texas Senate's Interim Charges

Lt. Governor Patrick's interim charges represent a potpourri of issues ranging from the unsung operational stuff of government to the more provocative issues that rouse the GOP's voting base. University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling suggests that the GOP primary electorate is much less interested in the details of issues like water and electricity than they are in issues like immigration, border security, and the vociferous protection and expansion of gun rights. We posted quickly on the first item in the first set of charges, on "religious liberty," last week. Below we've used polling to illustrate where there is a receptive audience among the public for selected charges, including those given pride of place by the Lt. Governor.

Chief Law Enforcement Officers: Examine whether there are chief law enforcement officers within the state who deny NFA applications without any cause. Examine the application and certification process and recommend ways to eliminate no-cause denials. (Criminal Justice)

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categorycolumn-1
More strict36%
Less strict22%
Left as they are now36%
Don't know/No opinion5%

This charge relates to the roles chief law enforcement officers play in signing off on some transfers of guns and gun accessories that are covered by the National Firearms Act (NFA), including some silencers, short barreled long guns, and automatic weapons. (For more detail, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives website has a brief primer.)  This is not likely to blow up politically in the way open carry and campus carry did during the 84th session, but expect attention to the denial of these applications "without any cause" to be greeted warmly by firearms and Second Amendment enthusiasts who keep close watch on the borders of gun rights limitations. As the polling result below illustrates, the share of Texans favoring making gun control laws "less strict" is relatively small, but they are vocal, and maybe just as importantly, concentrated in the Tea Party faction of the GOP. 

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
More strict69%21%6%
Less strict5%23%54%
Left as they are now20%52%39%
Don't know/No opinion6%3%1%

Police Safety and Community Engagement: Review law enforcement efforts to engage community leaders and increase their involvement in communities. Assess dangers to law enforcement officers and the collection and distribution of threat assessment data. Make recommendations to reduce the number of injuries and deaths to or by law enforcement officers. (Criminal Justice) 

 

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categorycolumn-1
Very favorable27%
Somehwat favorable30%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%
Somewhat unfavorable13%
Very unfavorable10%
Don't know/no opinion1%

Several police shootings under questionable circumstance in the last year, the death of a woman in policy custody in Waller County in July, and the murder of a Harris County deputy in August have all fueled the ongoing discussion of both police practices and the threats faced by law enforcement. Public opinion toward the police are shaped by partisanship and, especially, by race. The police scored high overall in the comparative approval item on institutions featured below (54 percent held a positive view).  But those patterns varied significantly by race – a result also reflected in the results of the 2015 Texas Lyceum Poll, which found Africans Americans and Latinos significantly more likely than Anglos to report feeling unfairly treated by police.

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categoryWhiteBlackHispanic
Very favorable31%10%24%
Somehwat favorable34%19%26%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable16%33%20%
Somewhat unfavorable11%12%17%
Very unfavorable7%25%11%
Don't know/no opinion1%1%2%

 

Strike Force, VA Health, Mental Health: Study the state of veteran health and mental health in Texas. Review the progress made by state strike force teams to reduce the claims backlog and decrease wait times at VA hospitals. Evaluate if the passage of the federal Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 and other state initiatives have improved access and outcomes. Determine if state strike force teams should continue as established and make recommendations on necessary changes. (Veteran Affairs and Military Installations)

 

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categoryFavorable Attitude
Military76%
Police64%
Texas State Government47%
Local Government47%
Courts40%
Federal Government23%

Veterans' affairs received a lot of attention during the last session, and the charge above provides a vehicle for the state to continue this attention to veterans' health care – and also to criticize the federal government's well documented failures in this area. The more complicated charge, however, is in the area of veteran benefits, where there was an extensive discussion during the 84th session regarding the expense of Hazelwood benefits and whether being a veteran and living in Texas together are sufficient to qualify for benefits, the costs of which have risen substantially for state higher education institutions since 2009, when the Texas Legislature allowed these benefits to be passed on to the children of veterans. This is a thorny area to wade into given that the military ranked first in the institutional favorability rankings of the February 2015 UT/Texas Tribune Poll with little partisan difference, a fact that helps explain some of the difficulty that the Legislature had in addressing this issue in the last session, and why they might need more time to figure out their approach before 2017.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Military67%61%89%
Police48%49%82%
Texas State Government22%30%85%
Local Government45%34%52%
Courts38%27%45%
Federal Government23%11%27%

 

Sanctuary Cities: Study the various sanctuary city policies statewide, the number and types of crimes committed by previously arrested illegal immigrants within the jurisdiction of a "sanctuary policy," and possible solutions to discourage governmental entities from putting in place policies that conflict with immigration laws. Make recommendations to improve community safety.

Local Law Enforcement, PEP: Study local government efforts to secure their border communities and identify areas where the state could invest to bolster local law enforcement infrastructure and activities. Review the challenges faced by state and local law enforcement when providing border security, including the federal Priority Enforcement Program (PEP).(Subcommittee on Border Security)

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categoryLiberalsModeratesConservatives
Strongly agree9%25%50%
Somewhat agree10%26%29%
Somewhat disagree24%15%12%
Strongly disagree53%19%6%
Don't know3%15%2%

Immigration and border security consistently top the list of issues that voters say are the most important problems facing the state, especially among conservatives polled in Texas, and Dan Patrick, as both the candidate and the office holder, has been a vocal proponent of increased border controls and restrictive immigration policies. The return of sanctuary cities into the public discussion harkens back to the Perry-White gubernatorial contest of 2010, but has played a recurring role in the immigration debate since that time, with strong partisan overtones, as the polling reveals. The clarion call for the state to do something about securing the border in the face of alleged failures by the federal government has led to some complaints among local authorities that they are being asked to foot the bill for the nation's border security (and statewide politicians, buttressed by GOP attitudes, are eager to be seen as doing something about it). In an increasingly present pattern in Texas politics, whether in the form of sanctuary cities or the enforcement of border security, local governments are finding themselves in the midst of cross-currents in state, national, and in this case, international, politics.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Approve of sanctuary cities36%10%2%
Disapprove of sanctuary cities45%78%95%
Don't know19%11%3%

School Choice: Study school choice programs enacted in states across the nation, examining education savings account and tax credit scholarship programs in particular. Examine the implementation process used in other states and what impact these programs have had on student academics and state and local district budgets. Make recommendations on which choice plan could best serve Texas students. (Education)

Charter School Approval, Expansion, Revocation: Study the approval, expansion, and revocation of public charter schools in Texas, including the implementation of SB 2 (83R) and other legislation. In particular, examine the issues surrounding the disposition of state property when charters are revoked, non-renewed, or cease to operate. Make recommendations regarding policies to ensure an efficient and effective transfer and disposal of state property that preserves state interest while ensuring that certain investment capital and the bond market supporting charter construction remains robust. In addition, make recommendations if needed to clarify policies regarding expansion of existing high-quality charter schools in Texas. Additionally, examine facility funding for charter schools in other states and make recommendations on facility funding assistance for charter schools in Texas.

Teacher Preparation, Retention, Shortages: Study teacher shortage and retention issues in Texas and evaluate educator preparation programs to determine if these programs are preparing educators for the rigors of the 21st century classroom. In particular, examine the shortages of ELL, special education, and STEM educators across the state and identify the issues creating a shortage. Make recommendations to improve educator preparation throughout the state and increase certification rates. (Joint Charge with Senate Higher Education)

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categorycolumn-1
Extremely effective22%
Somewhat effective27%
Not very effective15%
Not at all effective17%
Don't know/no opinion19%

ONCE MORE, INTO THE BREACH! The Lt. Governor takes on a now familiar role, leading the charge to get some kind of a system which grants parents a means of diverting public funds to their efforts to send kids to private schools. Also in the charge are continuing efforts to manage the charter school systems, and to assess teacher shortages. As our battery on educational policy proposals illustrated, the Lt. Governor is pursuing Republican priorities with voucher and voucher-like programs, but charters are actually more well-received among Republicans, as are efforts to give more local control to school districts. While the item on teachers leads with preparation, there is widespread support, even among Republicans, for increasing the pay of public school teachers.

A last note on public education: buried among the 6 items in the monitoring charge is the monitoring of "initiatives to build a high-quality pre-kindergarten program." This program was never popular among Republicans, as results below illustrate, and there was tension between the Governor and Lt. Governor on the issue as a result of Governor Abbott's public call for a pre-k bill.  Expect to hear about recent research showing less than stellar results for one particular pre-k implementation. 

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categorycolumn-1
Increasing the pay of public school teachers66%
Increasing opportunities for online learning66%
Reducing the number of standardized tests students must take63%
Allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards62%
Increasing funding for the public school system61%
Making it easier for charter schools to open and operate 58%
Expanding state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs54%
Creating a school voucher program49%

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Increasing the pay of public school teachers81%64%56%
Increasing opportunities for online learning69%68%65%
Reducing the number of standardized tests students must take69%51%61%
Allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards48%52%78%
Increasing funding for the public school system85%57%44%
Making it easier for charter schools to open and operate 44%51%71%
Expanding state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs78%56%34%
Creating a school voucher program35%40%64%

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely effective12%17%33%
Somewhat effective23%23%31%
Not very effective15%17%14%
Not at all effective29%18%8%
Don't know/no opinion21%25%14%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Extremely effective13%26%40%
Somewhat effective23%31%33%
Not very effective16%18%8%
Not at all effective29%11%8%
Don't know/no opinion19%14%10%

 

Tuition Deregulation and Student Debt: Examine and make recommendations regarding tuition and student debt at public institutions of higher education in Texas. Specifically, study how Texas compares to peer states, variance between institutions, how accountability measures can be used to impact tuition, and increases in tuition since 2003. (Higher education)

The Legislature has been divided on the effects of tuition deregulation in Texas from almost the moment it was instituted, and the continuing national discussion of both higher education costs and student load debt have fed recent higher education discussions in the legislature. The Lt. Governor invoked both when he publicly opposed tuition increases in the University of Texas System recently. A recent statewide poll sponsored by Western Governors University-Texas found that a large majority of Texans (72 percent) thought that student load debt is a problem in the United States; it also found that among Texans who had not completed a college degree, 76 percent listed the cost of college as a reason they had not obtained a degree – the most common answer, followed closely by family responsibilities (71 percent). Yet even amidst these worries, strong majorities still expressed the view that a college degree conferred economic, personal, and social benefits. (Disclosure: Henson and Blank designed this poll for WGU Texas.)

Local Ordinance Integrity: Examine the processes used by home rule municipalities to adopt ordinances, rules, and regulations, including those initiated by petition and voter referendum. Determine if additional statutory safeguards are necessary to ensure that ballot language accurately describes proposed initiatives. Identify ways to improve transparency and make recommendations, if needed, to ensure that local propositions and the means by which they are put forth to voters, conform with existing state law.

Debt Transparency in the Voting Booth: Examine ways to improve government accountability in elections regarding the issuance of public debt. Include a review of the information that is currently provided to individuals in the voting booth and provide statutory recommendations, if necessary, to improve transparency.

It's difficult not to see these items in the context of the escalating conflict between (mostly) conservatives in the legislature and county and city governments, particularly cities. The flash point for this conflict in the last session was the fracking ban passed by the City of Denton and subsequently overturned by the legislature, in which defenders of the cities faced off against the oil and gas industry with predictable results. But conservative think tanks and activist groups have also chose local debt and taxes as foci, and this charge will no doubt provide a forum for those interests to make their case that local debt and taxes should be the next front in the war on big government. As Texas becomes more urban and the pressures to limit government continue both to drive Republican politics and to lead local governments to seek revenue, this fight will continue to be a big one. The partisanship of the fight over the Denton ban, evident in polling on fracking, was stark, and at the time seemed to reflect cleavages over business prerogatives and environmental politics. But the fight between Democratic cities and Republican suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas was also lurking there, and can be expected to fully reveal themselves as these discussion turn to cities' autonomy, fiscal and otherwise.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Yes21%37%72%
No59%36%13%
Don't know / No opinion20%27%16%