Texas GOP Leaders Face Budget Choices Amidst Vague Public Attitudes

As tempers grow ever shorter at the Capitol, moods can only darken after most of this morning’s legislative clip roundups were headed by Mike Ward’s Houston Chronicle story with the headline “Odds Of Special Session Grow As Legislative Snarls Worsen.” While not news per se to insiders, the story certainly gave external form to their inner anxieties amidst the slow-motion slamdance between the House and Senate.

If the premise of Ward’s story is right — that a special session is becoming likely mainly because the conference committee can’t come to an agreement on how to finance the budget — then it’s worth noting that public attitudes toward the budget and how to pay for it were pretty foggy going into the session. The public — in particular the part of the public that matters most in practical terms, Republican voters — likely remains to be persuaded of the best path forward, holding attitudes that are not especially well-informed or fixed. In particular, given that the sticking point seems to be whether or not to tap the Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly called the Rainy Day Fund (RDF), only a plurality hew to a reflexive reluctance to tap the fund, with a decisive chunk of voters not having any opinion as of February.   

As the session began, despite the near constant presence of Comptroller Glenn Hegar telling anyone who would listen about the state's lower than expected revenues, voters didn’t know much about the general fiscal situation. Overall, only a quarter of voters correctly (guessed?) that the state had less money available to it compared with 2015. The plurality, 45 percent, said that they didn’t know, with the remaining groups saying that the state either had more (12 percent) or about the same amount of money (18 percent). And unlike almost everything that we poll on, there were no significant partisan differences.

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The state has more money available compared to 201512%
The state has less money available compared to 201525%
The state has about the same amount of money available compared to 201518%
Don't know enough to say45%

This relatively oblivious state of information on the budget underlies attitudes on the RDF — or at least should inform how we interpret those results. A plurality of Texans (43 percent) said that the state should tap the RDF in the face of potential budget cuts, including 33 percent of Republicans (but again, 42 percent said that we should not).

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Don't know/No opinion26%

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Don't know/No opinion26%25%26%

Not to be too old fashioned, but all of this suggests that there is an opportunity for leadership here if someone that Republican voters recognize and trust took the lead in making the case. Even in a Senate run by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who has strongly opposed using the RDF, Senate budget leaders have hinted at using one-time expenditures as a plausible rationale for tapping the fund, though in the political equivalent of hushed whispers. Whether Patrick can find his way to publicly accept such a (NSFW warning) compromise is a big question. But the Republican electorate is likely persuadable given how unformed public opinion is on the issue. Someone, however, with the political capital to spend, has to do the persuading. 

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Approve strongly3%11%52%
Approve somewhat10%12%28%
Neither approve nor disapprove20%25%11%
Disapprove somewhat13%23%3%
Disapprove strongly48%25%2%
Don't know7%4%4%

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Approve strongly1%6%32%
Approve somewhat5%9%27%
Neither approve nor disapprove23%24%25%
Disapprove somewhat9%18%3%
Disapprove strongly46%31%3%
Don't know16%12%11%

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Approve strongly3%4%11%
Approve somewhat9%5%25%
Neither approve nor disapprove30%42%30%
Disapprove somewhat14%7%6%
Disapprove strongly21%25%6%
Don't know22%16%22%