Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics - January 22, 2016

Oil may be struggling to stay above $30 a barrel, but the Comptroller made multiple public appearances this week urging the political and business communities not to worry. We’ll see how that looks in January 2017. Speaking of not worrying, the Dallas City council is floating the idea of moving to a cite-and-release approach to possession of less than four (!) ounces of marijuana. Lest you think Texas is going completely in the direction of personal freedom, the Attorney General cried foul over fantasy sports betting, reminding everyone that key sectors of the Republican base are still very uptight about gambling. Governor Abbott (who has also played pretty tight on gambling expansion) spent his week on another international trip, making common cause with Bibi Netanyahu in Israel then going to Switzerland to do Davos. Back in the U.S., the odds on Bernie Sanders’ long shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed to improve dramatically in the eyes of pundits, giving Team Clinton bad flashbacks to Iowa and New Hampshire circa 2008 – and making it seem like Texas might just be important in the Democratic race, too. 

1. 2011 called and they want their budget crisis back – but the Comptroller says to keep calm. With oil prices continuing to plummet, many are quietly speculating (or freaking out about) the impact that decreased prices will have on revenue, and in turn, on the next legislative session. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has been on a bit of a road show this week, trying to calm weary lawmakers and lobbyists about oil’s impact on Texas’ bottom line, testifying Wednesday before the House Select Committee on Transportation and making an encore appearance with Evan Smith at the Austin Club on Thursday Morning. When last faced with a large budget shortfall in 2011, Texans, and in particular Texas Republicans, overwhelmingly favored closing that gap through spending cuts, with a plurality (31 percent) saying that they wanted the gap closed entirely through spending cuts. This very well may be the landscape that Legislators find themselves in when they mosey into Austin in January 2017.

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0 - Close the gap entirely through spending cuts3%17%31%
10 - Close the gap entirely through revenue increases7%9%2%

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Strongly support44%
Somewhat support24%
Somewhat oppose11%
Strongly oppose15%
Don't know7%

2. The Dallas City Council is considering implementing a cite-and-release pilot program for individuals found to have less than 4 ounces of marijuana on their person, an approach Dallas Police Chief David Brown described as, “just so damn practical.” While the Chief also said that he had mixed feelings, Texas voters appear not to be so anxious. In June 2015, we asked Texans whether they would support reducing the maximum penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a citation and a fine. Overall, 68 percent of Texans said that they would support this change, including 60 percent of Republicans (we know Democrats are down), 58 percent of conservatives, and 60 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

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Strongly support59%44%31%
Somewhat support20%17%29%
Somewhat oppose5%17%14%
Strongly oppose10%11%20%
Don't know5%11%7%

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Strongly support70%45%32%
Somewhat support18%22%26%
Somewhat oppose2%9%15%
Strongly oppose5%15%20%
Don't know4%9%7%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly support63%30%33%
Somewhat support21%25%27%
Somewhat oppose5%13%15%
Strongly oppose8%23%22%
Don't know3%8%2%

3. Speaking of partying, January 20 was Greg Abbott’s one-year anniversary as governor. It found the Governor overseas in Israel and en route to Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. If you’re a cool (and by definition, pretty high falutin’) participant, you just call it Davos, as in, “Oh, I’ll be in Davos again this year.”  This may seem an odd destination for one of the exemplars of the new generation of Texas GOP leaders steeped so deeply in conservative populism, but joining Leonardo DiCaprio and the Black Eyed Peas in Davos comes only after stopping in Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged business people not to have anything to do with Iran, sanctions or no sanctions. At any rate, even if he gets photo-bombed by Bono, Governor Abbott has political capital to spare among the voters that count, as his stellar ratings among Republicans in Texas illustrate.

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Approve strongly3%10%38%
Approve somewhat10%19%32%
Neither approve nor disapprove23%33%17%
Disapprove somewhat16%11%6%
Disapprove strongly40%17%2%
Don't know8%11%6%

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4. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion this week saying that placing bets on fantasy sports websites is probably an instance of illegal gambling, or at least, that’s what he believes the courts would find should a case come before them. Paxton’s opinion received immediate push-back from a lawyer for DraftKings, who said, "The Texas Legislature has expressly authorized games of skill, and daily fantasy sports are a game of skill," and added, "The Attorney General's prediction is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding" of fantasy sports sites. Their interest in not being equated with gambling obviously is understandable from a legal perspective, but it makes sense from a political perspective, too. The famously divided gambling sector has been unable to reach consensus on gambling legislation over the last several sessions, and the issue of expanded gambling has been kept at arm’s length by the House leadership, no doubt mindful of Speaker Straus’s family interests. The recent dust up between the Texas Racing Commission, racehorse owners, and the legislature over “historic racing” isn’t helping to clear the way either, and Governor Abbott has shown no inclination to entertain an expansion of gambling that would surely be opposed by evangelicals and conservative interest groups. It’s not as if the public writ large is against expanded gambling, though it’s been a while since we polled on the issue. In 2011, a majority of Texans supported allowing full casino gambling in Texas compared to other potential proposals, and in that same year, 61 percent were open to gambling as a source of much needed revenue increases. If the Comptroller's sunny reassurances turn out to be wrong, no doubt the gambling sector will bet on a financially-pinched 85th legislature as another chance to try to solve their collective action problems. Feels like a long shot either way.

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Banning all gambling and gaming in Texas8%
Leaving current gambling laws unchanged11%
Allowing limited expansion of gambling, but only in existing locations12%
Expanding gambling but only to Indian reservations6%
Allowing full casino gambling in Texas56%
Don't know9%

5. Texas is likely Bern-ing less than Iowa or New Hampshire after last weekend’s Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, in which the punditry appeared to overwhelmingly call the debate for Sanders (though mostly because the actual debate was perceived to be a tie). While Sanders seems to be surging in Iowa, and maintaining his strength in New Hampshire, the likelihood of a Sanders upset in Texas come March 1st appears a lot less likely. Remember, back in 2008, with Barack Obama entering Texas with a notable tail wind, Clinton received more votes than the eventual victor (50.88 percent overall though Obama edged her out in the caucus phase of the Texas two-step). More important for the present moment, in the November UT/TT Poll, Clinton garnered 61 percent of the Democratic vote to Sanders’ 30 percent. As we get closer to March 1st, Sanders is likely to gain ground, but it’s unlikely that he would overtake Clinton in a state that’s supported her once before over a liberal alternative.  That said, it seems a little overconfident that the Clinton campaign just announced paid staff last week. It’s not just us, either – a Politico story says Bubba’s worried, too.

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Hillary Clinton61%
Bernie Sanders30%
Martin O'Malley1%
Lawrence Lessig0%
Don't know7%