The public opinion context for Gov. Abbott’s emergency items for the 88th Legislature

While there is plenty of subtext to Gov. Greg Abbott’s state of the state address, the topline takeaways are the items designated as emergencies by the governor, qualifying them for consideration prior to the constitutional prohibition on passing bills during the first 60 days of the legislative session. We posted a lot of public opinion data as broad context going into the governor’s speech, but the unveiling of the much-anticipated emergency items enables a closer look at the public opinion context of the governor’s priorities in his efforts to shape the legislative agenda via the emergency designations and the budget guidance he unveiled later in the week (h/t Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report).

By and large, the key common characteristic of the governor's emergency items is that, to the extent the public is aware of them, they are likely to enjoy support from Republican voters. While some of the issues are more salient to Texas Republicans than others, all are likely to resonate with majority Republican preferences to some degree, with a couple of notable exceptions. Below are some polling results related to the governor's emergency items. I’ve used Gov. Abbott’s wording, since the Governor’s level of specificity here should be considered intentional and strategic.

“Cutting property taxes.” Abbott called for $15 billion in property tax cuts in the SOTS, which is reiterated in his budget proposal, though with minimal detail (see page 3). Shortly before the 2022 election, more than half of Texans said that property taxes were very important to their vote, including two-thirds of Republicans and 44% of Democrats – though when asked what issue was most important to their vote, property taxes finished behind seven other issues.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very important44%49%67%
Somewhat important35%36%28%
Not very important16%9%3%
Not important at all4%5%1%
Don't know/No opinion1%1%0%

“End COVID restrictions forever.” The lead-in to Abbott’s announcement of this priority is consistent with his treatment of COVID as a political issue rather than a matter of public health policy. From the pre-released text of his speech:

“People have been coming to Texas in search of liberty for almost 200 years. We must protect that liberty.
That’s why I’m announcing an emergency item to end COVID restrictions forever.”

Abbott’s initial treatment of the COVID outbreak in the Spring of 2020 as a serious public health threat quickly triggered pushback from the right wing of his party, which was further fueled by the Trump administration’s public stance. Abbott has justified his continuing renewal of the disaster declaration due to COVID as necessary to protect against local overreach until the legislature acts. President Biden announced in January that the national emergency declarations related to COVID would end on May 11. UT/Texas Politics Project polling has shown a steady decrease in concern over COVID since August 2021, though only about a quarter of Republicans have considered the coronavirus “a significant crisis” since October 2020.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
April 202091%56%48%
June 202088%52%29%
October 202087%45%24%
February 202085%48%26%
April 202185%46%24%
June 202177%37%23%
August 202188%41%24%
October 202176%37%15%
February 202266%46%19%
April 202236%26%8%
June 202241%19%11%

“Education freedom.” The COVID pandemic disrupted the delivery of public education as well as its politics, catalyzing a multi-front effort by conservative activists to focus Republican education politics around umbrella memes like “parental rights” and “woke education.” In his preamble to adding “education freedom” to the list of emergency items, Abbott repeated the line he used during the campaign, declaring that “schools are for education, not indoctrination,” and calling for a “Parental Bill of Rights.” Abbott positioned himself in the expected legislative fight on directing public funds to pay for private school attendance by repeating his recent support for expanding Education Savings Accounts to “provide every parent with the ability to choose the best education option for their child.” Yet he was more diplomatic than many “school choice” activists in his party in his praise of Texas public schools and teachers, opting to bemoan the effects of remote learning and, especially the impact of the “woke agenda” rather than indicting public schools’ performance more broadly. This combination of careful parsing and playing both sides lands amidst net-negative assessments of public education among Texas Republicans in a battery of institutional ratings in our December UT/Texas Politics Project Poll.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Local businesses in your area75%62%78%
Churches & faith organizations35%35%67%
Universities & colleges66%30%27%
Public schools (K-12)61%31%31%
Major companies / corporations based in the U.S.36%30%49%
Labor unions66%30%19%
Major companies / corporations based outside the U.S.16%15%16%

 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Strongly support10%20%30%
Somewhat support15%27%31%
Somewhat oppose15%15%8%
Strongly oppose44%18%19%
Don’t know/No opinion16%20%12%

"School safety." The address did not delve deeply into school safety. The governor's declaratin that, "We must establish the safest standards, and then use the newly created Chief of School Safety to mandate compliance with those standards, and we must provide more mental health professionals in our schools" certainly align with GOP responses that avoid any mention whatsoever of the role of firearms in the mass shootings that have focused attention on school safety. The governor did not mention the mass shooting in Uvalde. His emphases on mental health and school safety take refuge in safe harbors in public opinion that provide shelter from recognzing the central role of access to firearms in mass shooting in Texas. But the approach will appeal to Texas Republican voters, a plurality of whom said that Texas elected officials had "done enough" to prevent mass shootings in Texas. 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
The delay by police in confronting the shooter80%81%74%
Flaws in school safety practices42%47%54%
Weaknesses in the mental health system43%53%48%
The weapon used by the shooter74%35%22%
The shooter’s family history28%31%36%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
A lot42%47%54%
Some32%30%33%
Not very much18%9%7%
None2%1%1%
Don't know/No opinion6%13%5%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Enough5%20%39%
Too much3%0%5%
Too little86%60%32%
Don't know/No opinion5%20%25%

“Ending revolving door bail.” Abbott invoked both the harm of “activist judges who are using low bail to let dangerous criminals back on the street” as well as singling out frequently targeted Harris County in the latest episode of the reversal of what just a few years ago seemed like rare bipartisan momentum for reforming bail practices related to defendants and non-violent offenders. Bail reform has now been thoroughly recoded by renewed concerns about crime and public safety. UT/Texas Politics Project polling reveals an 11% decrease in the share of Texans who say they feel “very safe” in the areas in which they live between October 2020 and October 2022, from 44% to 33%, while the share who said they felt “very unsafe” remained the same (3%). During that 2-year period, more Republicans than Democrats reported feeling very safe in the areas where they live.

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categoryTotal
Very safe44%
Somewhat safe46%
Somewhat unsafe7%
Very unsafe3%
Don't know/No opinion1%

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categoryTotal
Very safe33%
Somewhat safe53%
Somewhat unsafe8%
Very unsafe3%
Don't know4%

“Doing more to secure our border.” Given Abbott’s investment in this issue, the weight it carries in the collective psyche of Texas Republicans (as repeatedly demonstrated in our polling over a very long period of time), and the politics of the Biden administration’s handling of the border, it was almost unimaginable that border security would not be an emergency item. Cutting property taxes may have pride of place on the legislative agenda for GOP policy makers, but as voters told us during the election, border security is still number one among Republicans. (Which explains why the dramatic increase in border spending seems to have triggered no fiscal backlash among Republican elected officials or voters, leading to still further increases in border security spending in the proposed budgets in both chambers.)

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Immigration / border1%25%60%
State economy9%21%18%
Abortion26%4%3%
Gun violence16%3%2%
Environment / climate change13%9%1%
Health care10%5%1%
Voting & elections9%3%3%
Property taxes1%8%4%
The state's electric grid7%4%2%
Public education3%4%1%
Public safety5%0%4%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too little13%32%45%
Too much51%32%11%
About the right amount17%16%33%
Don't know/No opinion20%20%11%

“Addressing the fentanyl crisis.” The governor framed the problem of “fentanyl poisoning” and deaths squarely in the context of the border, while also incorporating it in a general “law and order” theme interspersed throughout the address. He also repeated his call for increasing the supply and availability of NARCAN. Abbott dedicated a lot of time to the growing impact of fentanyl, which hasn't become that salient to the public, even given increased media coverage. Between zero and .5% of respondents cited opioid use as the most important problem facing the state in the six UT/Texas Politics Project Polls in 2022.

There is, of course, more subtext to be read into other non-emergency areas of Abbott's speech. While Abbott flagged the need to “build a grid strong enough to power Texas for the next century,” he did so after reminding listeners of the multiple laws passed to strengthen the grid, and “since then, no Texan has lost power because of the state grid.” While public polling in the aftermath of the last session showed Texans were not very confident that the actions taken by Abbott and the Republican-led legislature had made the grid more reliable, the results of the 2022 election suggest that Democrats’ concerted efforts to focus voters on those doubts in the campaign gained no apparent traction. Abbott’s continuing presentation of the grid as a problem mostly solved is in contrast with Lt. Governor Patrick’s comparatively strong emphasis on the need for further action from the legislature – an example of how the most pressing conflicts in the session are among Republicans rather than between the two parties.

As expected, Abbott also used the speech’s non-emergency passages to sound familiar themes emphasizing the state’s economic success and the continuing importance of economic development policies. The setting of the speech in the home of a company that manufactures rare earth magnets certainly underlined the theme (as did last session’s broadcast from a factory in Lockhart). 

Yet the location also indirectly (perhaps inadvertently) invites attention to ongoing conflicts in the Republican coalition. Increasing factional conflict between the business-aligned, developmental wing of the party and the more ideologically driven factions supporting government-led pushback against ESG and DEI-focused business practices is simmering. One can add to this the additional intra-business conflict playing out in the legislature between more traditional industrial and energy interests and newer industries more attuned to alternative sources of energy and, more broadly, what one might think of as the broader political economy of climate change.

Thus the location of the speech was a bit more charged than probably intended if we note that Abbott’s host, Noveion Magnetics, describes themselves on their website as seeing “a sustainable path where humanity can continue to thrive without taxing our planet,” with their sights set on a goal “to change the world and provide a cleaner, safer, and more efficient future.” No language like this made it into the governor’s address. The Governor chose to emphasize the company’s role in loosening U.S. dependence on rare earth materials from China, and making “Texas more self-reliant to create our own products and to secure the Texas of tomorrow.” 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable4%2%1%
Somewhat favorable8%5%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%26%9%
Somewhat unfavorable25%19%12%
Very unfavorable39%43%69%
Don't know/No opinion3%6%3%

 

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