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

After weeks of Dan Patrick standing shoulder to shoulder with Ted Cruz in front of every TV news camera on basic cable and Greg Abbott calling for a constitutional convention and publishing a book, Speaker of the House Joe Straus inserted himself into the state’s political process in a manner consistent with his style and his job. The timing was no coincidence, as the week saw House interim committee hearings right in tune with the Speaker’s messaging. Next week, expect the Senate to try to change the subject. While the state nervously awaits news from the courts on the state’s system of financing schools, teachers sued over using the results of widely-reviled student testing in their own assessments. Meanwhile, out on the presidential campaign trail, Ted Cruz accused Donald Trump of approving of men being in the bathroom with the Senator’s daughters. Don’t act surprised.

1. Because I’m the Speaker, that’s why. As the House Appropriations Committee convened for an interim hearing on, among other things, the state’s fiscal situation, House Speaker Joe Straus publicly released a letter flagging the fact that the state has some pressing needs and even emergencies that will likely require spending some money – and the state won’t be flush with cash like in the last couple of sessions. The hearing being called by departing Chairman John Otto (R-Dayton) (who is highly unlikely to have acted independently of the Straus operation) and the Speaker’s letter set off vibrations between 11th Street and MLK Blvd., particularly given somewhat different messaging emanating from other leaders of the state (See below). If you read between the lines of the other big announcement from the Speaker’s office this week – naming his appointees to the Sunset Advisory Commission, as Ross Ramsey points out in a column in the Texas Tribune – it’s pretty clear that the Speaker is making his move to set the content and tone of the agenda in the upcoming 85th Session. It’s worth pointing out that Straus’ signaling this week is strikingly consistent to the tone he tried to set going into the last legislative session, with shifts that reflect the expectation (at least among realists or anyone not working for the Comptroller) that the next session is going to be the toughest financial session since 2011. 



2. Big, Cooling, Stingy, and More Right. Another in a series of interim hearings underlining the stress in state services took place this week when the Senate Health and Human Services (HHS) committee held a hearing Wednesday revealing that child welfare services in the state is near the breaking point and facing a $40 million budget shortfall. The aforementioned letter from Speaker Straus laid out the “challenges on the horizon,” telegraphing the likelihood of some real moments of truth in the fiscal and policy debates in the state, as well as a new chapter in the discussion both inside and outside of Texas of just how much of a hoss Texas is in the national economy, and just how miraculous the “Texas Model” should be considered. No one should expect Texans, particularly the state GOP leadership, to cease being bullish on themselves; even the Speaker’s letter reminded that “Texas is fortunate to enjoy an economy that is, overall, performing ahead of most states, and in many regards, the nation as a whole.” Last June, their voters agreed that the Texas Model was a winner. If self-regard were revenue, no one would have to worry about what the judge is going say about school funding. 

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Strongly agree7%12%46%
Somewhat agree22%31%42%
Somewhat disagree19%16%6%
Strongly disagree38%19%2%
Don't know14%21%5%

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Enough to make a difference to most Texas families29%
Not enough to make a difference56%
Don't know/No opinion14%

3. Next slide, please. Meanwhile, in an adjacent political universe where declining revenue is seen as a virtue, the drive to cut taxes continues. For those looking to make a bigger dent in the tax burden of their constituents, both points above point to the fact the next legislative session is likely to present some major challenges. The Texas Senate will no doubt strike out a course, if the interim charges are any indication, to continue the work of the last session. While this will be difficult in the context of a tightened budget and a number of major needs, there’s little ambiguity to how Texans feel about the size of their last tax cut. Sorry Rep. Bonnen, we mean homestead exemption increase. The focus will turn again to property taxes and local government next week , when Senator Bettencourt’s Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief takes their road show to Arlington. h/t to whatever staffers are doing those PowerPoints -- they’re awesome, even if they would give Edward Tufte fits.

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Enough to make a difference to most Texas families25%20%35%
Not enough to make a difference63%47%53%
Don't know/No opinion12%33%12%

4. (d) None of the above. The Texas State Teacher’s Association filed a lawsuit this week attempting to block the use of standardized test scores in a formula to assess teachers. It’s of particular, native, interest to us that the system would compare the test scores of a teacher’s students to a statistical model’s predicted test scores for similar students, and incorporate that difference into a teacher’s evaluation. The TSTA contends that law requires that the evaluation system reflect, “observable, job-related behavior,” and it’s not – at least obviously – clear whether such an approach is a violation of this law. In any event, testing isn’t popular with most Texans, and a number of polling items over the last two legislative sessions have shown a marked embrace of decreasing the number of tests that students must take – with these results holding across a number of partisan and demographic characteristics.

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Extremely effective33%
Somewhat effective30%
Not very effective17%
Not at all effective11%
Don't know/no opinion9%

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Extremely effective34%31%32%
Somewhat effective35%20%29%
Not very effective14%20%21%
Not at all effective10%13%12%
Don't know/no opinion7%16%7%

5. Next stall, please. Out on the GOP campaign trail, Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump mixed it up over “bathroom laws” and transgender rights. We wrote this week in the Texas Tribune’s TribTalk about the difficulties that Gov. Greg Abbott is likely to face in the upcoming legislative session between the state’s business interests and the party’s conservative base over so-called religious protection legislation, a major management project between the two big players in the Texas GOP. If you want to read more about this, it’s on TribTalk and Medium too.