What Bathroom Bill? Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, February 3, 2017

Governor Greg Abbott’s state of the state speech to the Texas Legislature provided the big event of the week, and it yielded the emergency designations that enabled Senate committees to propel two of the four emergency items – sanctuary cities legislation and ethics reform – out of committee. This meant an early-session, late night meeting of the Senate State Affairs committee, punctuated by heated feelings from the gallery likely spurred on by the polarized national reactions to Donald Trump’s delivery on his campaign promise to halt the flow of Syrian refugees, and more broadly to stem the entry of Muslims into the country, which, in effect, he did last week with his executive orders. The week also saw Lt. Governor Dan Patrick preside over the unveiling of Senator Larry Taylor’s SB 4, the long awaited school choice bill providing for educational savings accounts and a scholarship program for private school students funded by redirected insurance premium tax funds. No sign of the v-word here! Read on for data related to the week in Texas politics.

1. Governor Abbott’s moment to weigh in on legislative priorities came this week. He used Tuesday’s state of the state speech (read it or watch it at the Governor's official site) to declare four emergency items: action on the mess at CPS, Sanctuary city prevention legislation, ethics reform without pesky, divisive discussion of dark money, and Texas joining the call for a convention of the states (he wrote a book about it, you know). We posted briefly on this with a nearly comprehensive list of polling results on both the emergency items as well as the other call outs. The most frequently commented-on parts of the speech were his dig of the legislature for not being on board with the Governor’s approach to pre-k, and his absolute silence on legislation seeking to prevent transgender access to public restrooms and other facilities in the name of protecting the safety and privacy of women and girls (per the Lt. Governor). The governor got good play out of the inflection point granted him by the Constitution. He rode the consensus on CPS, fed the GOP base on sanctuary cities even as he meted out very public (if not so practically consequential) punishment to Travis County on the same subject (which got him some national coverage, by the way) and talked about broadly popular if not terribly consequential ethics action. By calling for both school finance reform and school “choice” without much in the way of details, he left it to the chambers to sort out one of their major axes of disagreement. Plus he got to demonstrate that he wasn’t going to be boxed in on transgender politics by either the Lt. Governor or (to a lesser degree) the Speaker – he left it to the legislature to sort that out, too. All in all, pretty reflective of the strengths and limitations of the governor’s office in the broader political system at this stage of the session, though Harvey Kronberg still only mustered qualified praise in Quorum Report. (Behind a paywall, but the free part captures the tone – scroll down to January 31 in the Hot Buzz…)

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Increasing the pay of public school teachers81%64%56%
Increasing opportunities for online learning69%68%65%
Reducing the number of standardized tests students must take69%51%61%
Allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards48%52%78%
Increasing funding for the public school system85%57%44%
Making it easier for charter schools to open and operate 44%51%71%
Expanding state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs78%56%34%
Creating a school voucher program35%40%64%

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Increasing the pay of public school teachers70%66%61%
Increasing opportunities for online learning66%66%66%
Reducing the number of standardized tests students must take64%66%56%
Allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards61%63%62%
Increasing funding for the public school system69%61%53%
Making it easier for charter schools to open and operate 59%54%62%
Expanding state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs61%54%43%
Creating a school voucher program50%49%46%

2. Enabled by the Governor’s emergency declaration, the Senate moved sanctuary cities out of committee on a party-line vote, amidst protests in the gallery and many hours of testimony, much of it against the bill. The Senate committee hearing Thursday provided an early dose of the theatrics that are synonymous with the State Affairs committee among #txlege veterans. While police and law enforcement are favorites with a large chunk of the GOP public, as illustrated below, the pleas of many police chiefs not to force their departments to absorb the costs, both direct (i.e. financial) and indirect (i.e. public safety opportunity costs), of being compelled by state law to detain illegal immigrants fell on deaf ears, at least among the Republican majority that passed Senator Charles Perry's bill, SB 4, to the full Senate in a party line vote. However much one supports the blue, public opinion on all things immigration pushes GOP legislators in one direction, and that is toward their primary voters. When it comes to the specific issue of sanctuary, even Democratic attitudes consistently show signs of being divided, though not among the Democrats on the Committee. Not to be a broken record, but there continues to be something of a solution in search of a problem factor here, as data in a Texas Tribune story by Jay Root and Morgan Smith about a year ago illustrated. The number of federal detainer requests denied by Texas was a tiny share of the overall total nationally – 146 out of 18,646 in the data they looked at. But this train appears to be leaving the station, with national politics probably adding fuel that has been lacking in the past.

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Very favorable14%18%40%
Somewhat favorable26%33%33%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable23%21%14%
Somewhat unfavorable19%10%9%
Very unfavorable16%16%3%
Don't know/no opinion1%2%0%

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Approve of sanctuary cities36%14%6%
Disapprove of sanctuary cities34%62%87%
Don't know/No opinion30%24%8%

3. The sanctuary city discussion took place in the larger context of the politics of Donald Trump’s executive order limiting travel and immigration from 7 countries last week, which continued to play out this week with protests, court actions, and attempts at clarification from the Trump administration. Data on related attitudes from the UT/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that the partisan divide evident in public opinion nationally is likely to manifest itself in Texas, too.  

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Should accept63%28%12%
Should not accept20%57%77%
Don't know/No opinion17%15%10%

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Strongly support13%31%48%
Somewhat support13%21%28%
Somewhat oppose23%15%10%
Strongly oppose44%19%6%
Don't know8%14%8%

4. The Senate also moved the Governor’s favored ethics legislation out of committee. The bill, per Jay Root (on another beat) in the Texas Tribune, "would require lawmakers to reveal more of their private business dealings, take away lucrative pensions from corrupt elected officials and close a loophole that allows special interest lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers without disclosing it." The UT/TT Poll asked about mandating more legislator disclosure, and, not surprisingly, found a lot of public support – which is almost always the case when asking about ethics and elected officials. If this makes it into law, Ross Ramsey’s sources in some of Austin's fine dining establishments will get a little less valuable. Maybe.

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Such a law is appropriate because it allows people to judge potential conflicts of interest58%
Such a law is an invasion of privacy that goes too far23%
Haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion20%

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Such a law is appropriate because it allows people to judge potential conflicts of interest65%48%52%
Such a law is an invasion of privacy that goes too far17%28%28%
Haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion18%24%20%

5. National and state politics on diverting public money to private schools intertwined a little this week when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveiled his preferred school choice legislation as public school critic Betsy DeVos became the most endangered Trump cabinet nomineePatrick’s favored proposal, sponsored by Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), would fund a modest pilot program that would create both Educational Savings Accounts and scholarships funded by contributions that businesses could credit against their insurance premium tax. If that last bit sounds tortured, it is, but it does technically allow supporters of the bill to claim, as bill author Larry Taylor did at the press conference rollout of SB 3, “This is not money leaving the system. It is money following the student.” It is also, however, money that is headed for the system but which, before it gets there, is redirected to a distribution system that the legislation mandates will be overseen by the Comptroller, for distribution to parents, who then pay it to schools that aren’t part of the public school system. This difference may be plain to the Lt. Governor and Senate supporters of SB 3, but it seems unlikely to be evident to 76 members of the Texas House. While Republicans favor the concept of vouchers (that is, directing money from public coffers or destined for it to parents to pay for non-public school), there’s not much evidence of a ground swell – and rural folks, once Democrats now Republicans, whose less densely populated communities offer fewer alternatives (i.e. “choices”), have never been on board with suburban and urban Republicans.

Other Bits

Senator Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) unveiled his CPS bill, SB 11, in committee, in the wake of the Governor giving action on CPS pride of place in his state of the state speech. Approval of CPS was not so hot among those aware of problems in the October 2016 UT/TT Poll.

Donald Trump nominated seemingly well-respected conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who died quite a while ago. The Texas Tribune opted to go long for the local angle and Twitter hits in the hed: Trump picks Gorsuch for U.S. Supreme Court, bypassing Willett. Speak up loudly now if you had Willett as the pick in your office pool. That's what I thought.