Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics — August 5, 2016

by Jim Henson and Joshua Blank

The week saw the stirring of politics in Texas not reducible to the ever-more-weird presidential race, as Texas’ voter ID law was back in the news after the state was forced into an agreement that was a de facto recognition of the law’s shaky constitutional status. Another shaky Texas political arrangement — the system of financing public education — and the polarized political responses that have stymied progress on revamping it, were also on display in a long meeting of the Senate Education Committee. Senate Ed Committee member Don Huffines, an active questioner at the hearing, was also involved in the politics and Twitter-fighting that accompanied the sudden resignation of the chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, another chapter in the ongoing inter-GOP skirmishing in North Texas. Greg Abbott’s heretofore relatively quiet attempt (unless you’re on his fundraising list) to implement new rules that would require hospitals and clinics to either inter or cremate aborted and miscarried fetuses got a public hearing this week. On the national front, well, a lot happened that’s been covered a bit, and who knows what happened in the last five minutes. But we’ll note that for his birthday (which was Thursday), Barack Obama has been gifted some approval numbers almost as high as his age, which he hasn’t seen since his hair didn’t have any gray in it.

1. If at first you don’t succeed… The state has made a deal on implementation of the much-litigated voter ID law for the upcoming general election. The relaxation of provisions of the law were clearly a win for Democrats and other opponents of it, but a spokesperson for Attorney General Ken Paxton says the state will continue “working hard on saving all the important aspects of our voter ID law,” per David Rauf’s story in the San Antonio Express-News.

While proponents of voter ID laws in Texas and elsewhere have insisted that they are aimed at protecting the integrity of the voting process, the politics of these laws have long been fundamentally partisan in nature. It’s pretty difficult for proponents to get around the fact that the type of voter fraud the laws are primarily designed to address are exceedingly rare while the people that these laws might inadvertently impact are exceedingly Democratic. (For a cheeky look at just how rare, see Philip Bump’s little “Let’s Find Some Fraud” app at the Washington Post’s “The Fix.”) But the politics are abundantly clear for GOP elected officials: Texas’ voter ID law is extremely popular among Texas Republicans, with 78 percent holding a “very favorable” view of Texas’ now historical law.

2. Is this being graded on a curve? The Senate education committee met Wednesday to hear testimony on the school finance system recently very much damned with very faint praise by the Texas Supreme Court, who nonetheless didn’t MAKE the legislature do anything about it. Kiah Collier writes in the Texas Tribune that “The 11-member Senate Education Committee and a hearing room full of education professionals, lobbyists and school and minority advocates generally agreed that the Legislature should scrap the way it divvies up the more than $40 billion of state money now spent on public schools.” But she also notes that the familiar divide between fiscal conservatives, aggressively led by Senators Huffines and Bettencourt in Wednesday’s hearings, and Democrats and public school advocates, was very much on display. Overall, 38 percent of Texans viewed the public schools favorably back in February 2015 polling in the lead up to that legislative session. This put public schools just above the courts and the federal government in Texas voters’ overall estimation. When asked in that same poll about the potential effectiveness of a range of policies, increasing pay for public school teachers and increasing opportunities for online learning were equally seen as most effective. Reducing the number of standardized tests was perceived to be the next most effective proposal, which creates a structural problem for advocates of accountability approaches to K-12 education: the public has long been in favor of moving away from standardized tests, a feeling that has likely only grown due to recent problems with the administration of the STAAR exams. This leaves advocates for so-called performance based funding in search of metrics. Back in June 2013, only 5 percent of Texans said that the K-12 education system in Texas was “excellent”, and while a plurality said that it was “good” (40 percent), 50 percent said that it was either “not very good” or “terrible.” Given a set of voters that tend to view the public education system negatively, standardized tests with skepticism, and a willingness to view increased funding for teachers as a laudable approach, this is going to be a tricky area to “fix” — not that it isn’t already extremely complicated even without taking the public into consideration.

3. “And Dallas is a jungle…” In a story likely of interest to only a few hundred people, most of whom you know if you’ve read this far, the chair of the Dallas County Republican Party resigned, triggering fighting among GOP elected officials in the region. The skirmish included a Twitter war in which State Representative Jason Villalba got all up in State Senator Don Huffines grill, and Rep. Jonathan Stickland and other hard tweeting Republicans joined in. Want more? It looks like Senator Huffines’ brother — his TWIN brother, no less — is in the running to replace the outgoing party chair who appears to have left the county party’s coffers almost as bare as Donald Trump’s military record (or his history of charitable giving). More seriously, it underlines how many cross currents there are in the dominant party inside Texas that have nothing to do with Donald Trump. These internecine struggles, seemingly about ideology but often undergirded by personal, regional, and a host of other factors, have been much in evidence since the moment the Texas GOP completed its takeover of Texas government by taking the House in 2002. (See: Craddick, Speaker Tom.)

Look no further than the differences in the perceptions of the Republican Party among Tea Party and non-Tea Party identifiers to get a glimpse of such tensions. The Texas Tribune was predictably all over it (though no Snapchat as of yet) — get the details in Patrick Svitek’s text-only article. Reading the comments recommended, too

4. No joke zone. On Thursday, The Texas Department of State Health Services held public comment hearings over proposed fetal tissue disposal rules that would require the cremation or interment of all fetal remains, regardless of the period of gestation. Along with the expected testimony of pro-life and pro-choice activists, health care providers and funeral directors questioned whether this rule change would do anything to improve public health — the general standard around which most recent abortion legislation has been couched (though this is a “rule”) — and who would pay for it. It’s hard not to focus on the politics of this given that the quietly proposed rule change was brought to the attention of those who follow these things by a fundraising letter sent from the governor. In addition to an expressed desire to protect the sanctity of all life, it’s also possible that this rules change came in response to recent political setbacks on the pro-life front, such as the Supreme Court ruling that found Texas’ omnibus abortion legislation of 2013 — HB2 — unconstitutional, and the recent failed fight with Planned Parenthood over the sale of fetal tissue. Given the lead-in, this appears to be an issue that the Governor wants to carry into the legislative session. Republicans in Texas are overwhelmingly pro-life, and making Democrats, who no doubt will try to focus on the cost and burden this policy places on women, talk instead about how aborted fetuses should be disposed of, probably seems like good politics — using the term “good” extremely loosely.

5. Happy Birthday, Mr. President — Texas won’t be attending your party. President Obama’s job approval hit a high for his second term in the CNN/ORC poll results released this week, reaching 54 percent. He hit a similar high in the Fox News Poll, too — 52 percent, the highest in the Fox poll since at least mid-2014 (though their summary sheet doesn’t have the complete series). While we don’t have any Texas data since the convention, it’s hard to imagine the president getting much air in Texas, where he hasn’t seen north of 40 since the earliest days of his presidency. In the June UT/Texas Politics Project Poll, he was at 39 percent approval, with the predictable partisan distribution.

Extras:

The Center for Disease Control released data on household telephone status. Turns out that Texas has the third highest percentage of “wireless-only” households (59.2 %) according the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey. Link to pdf of data from the 50 states.

Henson sat in with Ben Philpott and Jay Root on their election podcast The Ticket this week. Much cutting up ensued, suggesting election fatigue. Blank not responsible for any of it, especially response to Root goading on Nate Sliver/538.

The 20 Best Songs Ever Written About Dallas from the Dallas Observer in 2014. Used it for that slug & Easter egg in pt 3 above, then played the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper,” probably too loudly given location of office. Twice.


Originally published at texaspolitics.utexas.edu on August 5, 2016.