It was a week in which Texas political headlines were generated by characteristically low-turnout Constitutional and local elections and the release of interim charges by the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives – which is to say, it was a week for insiders. But the inside game can be illuminated by some thoughts about what the public is thinking (or not thinking about) when it comes to such things. This is especially so when when some of these matters – like property tax exemptions, anti-discrimination ordinances, and highway funding – show up on the ballot, like they did this week, and so few voters weigh in. The announcement of interim charges are even further from most voters’ minds, but not so far that they don’t provide the opportunity for us to see just how differently the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House choose to lead their chambers and, more broadly, present themselves to the public.
As always, click on the legends of the graphics to customize, clarify, and generally play with the data being “visualized.” It’s especially fun in the turnout graphic.
1. A state constitutional election was held, with the usual half full / half-empty (but really, mostly empty) views of turnout. At 8 percent of the voting age population (or 11.6 percent of registered voters), turnout was a bit more than one might expect on the typical constitutional election, but still pretty dismal.
Turnout as a Percentage of Voting-Age Population in Five Types of Texas Elections and Presidential Elections Nationwide, 1970-2021
|category||Presidential Elections-National||Presidential Elections-Texas||Gubernatorial Elections||Presidential Primaries||Gubernatorial Primaries||Special Constitutional Elections|
|Gays and lesbians should have the right to marry||42%||38%||51%|
|Gays and lesbians should not have the right to marry||46%||39%||33%|
2. The hotly contested mayoral race and the HERO referendum in Houston meant a bit of a spike in Houston’s turnout, but the failure of the HERO ordinance by a large margin (61 percent to 39 percent) has lead to much speculation about its cause. By all accounts, the public seems to have fallen hard for opposition’s framing of that vote as “about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms — defying common sense and common decency,” to quote the Lieutenant Governor.
Within the dual context of the HERO vote and the mayoral election, there has also been much attention paid to the ordinance’s poor showing in city council districts with substantial shares of African American voters based on the assumption of their liberal leanings given overwhelming Democratic identification. Though not an exact corollary with the HERO debate as it emerged over time, it’s important to point out that black support for gay marriage has trailed white support nationally, a pattern also witnessed in University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling on the subject. Bob Stein of Rice University, a close observer of public opinion in Houston, told Katherine Driessen of the Houston Chronicle that many black voters were undecided going into Election Day. Some combination of the destined-to-be-infamous bathroom message (what else can you call it?), the absence of effective alternative messaging, and the lack of a clear countervailing set of considerations in the form of strong support for gay rights among African Americans as a group may well have been at work in the ultimate fate of the ordinance. It seems judicious, though, to keep in mind that even “high” turnout for a constitutional/mayoral election is still low turnout in any meaningful sense. Therefore, it’s an overreach to draw any clear conclusions about major swings in attitudes among African Americans or Houstonians, not to mention Texans based on Tuesday’s results. (NOTE: As we were posting this, Stein published a must-read interpretation of the HERO vote at Tribtalk.)
|Poll||Gays and lesbians should have the right to marry||Gays and lesbians should have the right to civil unions but not marriage||Gays and lesbians should not have the right to civil unions or marriage||Don't know|
3. All seven of the constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s ballot passed by wide margins, including the marquee proposals increasing the homestead exemption (aka, the property tax reduction) and dedicating more funds to highway maintenance and construction. The tax measure emerged as a result of the determination of the Republican majorities in the Texas Legislature, as well as the Governor and Lt. Governor, to deliver on promises of property tax relief in their 2014 campaigns. As the session got under way, the UT/TT Poll showed lots of dissatisfaction with property taxes, especially among GOP partisans:
Following through on these promises in a substantive way proved harder than it might have seemed, as we wrote at the time: the legislative leadership was also determined to provide a cut to the franchise or business margins tax, something long sought after by business corners of the party – and all this tax reduction had to be paid for, no easy task in the era of “no new revenue,” a school funding system still stuck in the courts, and spending hawks guarding the rainy day fund like it was their very own sharp taloned little hatchling. The result was an increase in the homestead exemption with a big total figure but very little actual relief on a per-taxpayer basis – a reduction likely to be swamped by increasing property values to boot! When we polled Texans about how much difference the tax break would make, expectations were tepid.
|Enough to make a difference to most Texas families||29%|
|Not enough to make a difference||56%|
|Don't know/No opinion||14%|
All this notwithstanding, buoyed by a well funded and executed pro-passage campaign spearheaded by establishment interest groups, low turnout, and an electorate eager for any reduction in their high property taxes, the measure sailed to passage.
4. Proposition 7 passed by a similarly large margin, shifting several billion dollars of general revenue by setting aside portions of sales tax and motor sales tax revenues to pay for highways in the coming years. Despite the widely held, though still impressionistic, sense that everyone hates traffic in Texas cities, whether you live in one or are visiting, when we’ve asked Texans about whether transportation funding should be a legislative priority, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to put the pedal to the metal, either overall or among particular partisan groups.
|Increase K-12 funding||15%|
|School voucher program||5%|
|Limit government - no new spending/taxes||18%|
|Lower property taxes||13%|
|Lower business taxes||3%|
|Funding for transportation||5%|
|Continue border security funding||18%|
|Expand state-funded, pre-k||1%|
|Expand Medicaid funding under ACA||15%|
|Restore cuts made in the last session to education and human services||30%|
|Continue to limit government by approving no new spending and no new taxes||32%|
|Lower property and business taxes||14%|
|Provide public funds for future infrastructure needs like water and transportation||14%|
|Don't know/no opinion||9%|
The legislative leadership has been dogged for the last two sessions in pushing to rebuild the system of transportation funding in the state, justified by concerns about population growth, the state of existing highway infrastructure, and the historically haphazard means of funding TxDOT. Speaker of the House Joe Straus has been particularly emphatic about the legislature needing to rationalize the funding process while responding to the obvious signs of growth. In an interview at UT Austin in February 2015, at the outset of the session in which the Texas Legislature passed the proposition approved by voters this week, he talked about how transportation funding was increased by about $1 billion in the 2013 session, even though it had to compete with other priorities. His comments, and perhaps even his affect, illustrate how the passage of Proposition 7 was the culmination of a long effort by legislative leaders.
5. Speaking of the Speaker, he released the House of Representatives interim charges this week. Most observers noted plenty of overlap with the Senate’s own charges, with calls for the appropriate committees to examine “issues such as oil field theft, eminent domain, groundwater issues and the property tax appraisal system,” as Aman Batheja wrote in The Texas Tribune. Both chambers will look (again) at the franchise tax, which was the venue for the other big tax cutting exercise last session. As we’ve previously noted, there was evidence of what someone in an academic mood might call elite consensus around cutting the franchise tax in 2015 in the face a public opinion that placed cutting the franchise tax pretty low on its list of priorities.
|Property tax dissatisfaction||55%|
|Motor fuels tax dissatisfaction||40%|
|Sales tax dissatisfaction||34%|
|Sin taxes dissatisfaction||34%|
|Business margins tax dissatisfaction||32%|
The House charges also included some of the more controversial matters roiling the political world that made it into the Senate charges. Perhaps the biggest example is fetal tissue sales, but the House charges generally more generally lacked the red meat approach and the theatrical rollout of the Senate.
Most of the Capitol press corps noted this difference in styles between Dan Patrick’s multi-day release of charges with daily emphasis on issues that matter to the GOP primary voter and Speaker Straus’s low-drama one-day release. As Tara Doolittle put it in an op-ed in the Austin American Statesman, Patrick “grouped them thematically and used each installment to hammer home his showcase issues: fighting abortion, school choice, police safety, border control, property tax reduction.” The House charges were also notable for their use of repetition of the following charges to *every* committee to push a policy emphasis:
Monitor the performance of state agencies and institutions, including operating budgets, plans to carry out legislative initiatives, planned budget reductions (if directed), caseload projections, performance measure attainment, implementation of all rider 5
provisions, and any other matter affecting the fiscal condition of the agencies and the state. In conducting this oversight, the committee should:
a. consider any reforms to state agencies to make them more responsive to Texas taxpayers and citizens;
b. identify issues regarding the agency or its governance that may be appropriate to investigate, improve, remedy, or eliminate;
c. determine whether an agency is operating in a transparent and efficient manner; and
d. identify opportunities to streamline programs and services while maintaining the mission of the agency and its programs.
This union of substance and style in the House charges provides a further contrast with the approach taken by the Lieutenant Governor, which we wrote about in the early stages of the Senate rollout. Cooler and perhaps more seasoned observers will see at work here the vastly different institutional positions between the Lt. Governor, who is elected stateside and must manage the Senate, and the Speaker, who is elected in his district but is elected Speaker by the membership to both lead and serve them. One might expect the Lt. Governor to be interested in speaking to the electorate while the Speaker settles for targeting messages to House members. But even the coolest observer can’t ignore the differences between the two men in substance and especially style, and why would you – they certainly aren’t ignoring it.