Worlds in Collision: Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, January 29, 2016

By James Henson and Joshua Blank

When Comptroller Glenn Hegar assured the Senate Finance Committee that he would “much rather be in this state than the other 49 states in this nation,” Dallas Senator Royce West captured the underlying tension in the Senate’s engagement with the economy, budget prospects, and taxes when he cracked back, “I just don’t want to be in a state of denial.” The finance committee’s worry about what the budget might look like was little in evidence the next day when the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief convened in San Antonio to wave a red flag on local taxation. The Senate State Affairs Committee explored how the state is muddling through implementation of the state’s new gun laws, while over on the House side, Republicans flipped a seat in the HD118 special election, triggering Democratic dismay and some public self-loathing. A Houston grand jury propelled Texas into the national headlines after reviewing the case of the surreptitiously filmed attempt to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood and indicting the fraudulent would-be tissue peddlers rather than anyone at Planned Parenthood. Way back at the beginning of the week, Rick Perry also got back in the national news for half a cycle after leaking to Politico (take that, state press corps) that he would be endorsing Ted Cruz. Perry revealed that he apparently doesn’t know Cruz real well, but he former governor reported that the endorsement comes after they “spent some very appropriate time together.”

1. Another sign that the 85th Session may be one in which fundamental world views collide: A meeting of the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief in San Antonio Wednesday, presided over by Houston Senator Senator Paul Bettencourt, turned into a series of attacks on local government, taxation, and, ultimately, the House of Representatives and the Speaker of the House (right in his backyard). Also pushing this message, the Lt. Governor Patrick continues to call for still more tax reform in the next session. The slide below, prepared by committee staff for the meeting, nicely captures the message. Expect to see it again in future field hearings, along with a corresponding slide with regional figures to facilitate the badgering of local authorities.

Meanwhile, in an adjacent universe, the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday seemed worried about the continued decline in oil prices, but were unable to induce Comptroller Hegar into giving them a number that might reflect the potential lost revenue from the collapse of oil and gas prices. Telling committee members that “We’re entering a new paradigm of volatility” didn’t do much to squelch their concerns. Thursday, Moody’s threw another wrench into the Comptroller’s rosy portrait of Texas’ economy, that Texas’ projected budget surplus is likely to evaporate with sustained lower than anticipated oil prices and a linked fall in sales tax revenue. Taken together, the two hearings and the conflicting accounts of state government’s financial health presage clashing realities in 2017: In one world, the top priority is to find ways to cut taxes, with little apparent concern for funding needs of local government entities. In another world, the cascading reduction in state revenue triggered by drastic drops in oil prices is seen as the harbinger of shortfalls in the state’s ability to fund education and social services, let alone tax cuts. The inevitable reduction in state revenues would seem to dictate against another session in which the big fight within the GOP and between the two chambers is how much to cut which taxes, rather than whether to cut them at all. The emphasis of Lt. Governor Patrick, Senator Bettencourt, and their allies on legislation putting more checks on city and county tax increases seems to be a sequel to another theme of the 84th Legislature: Passing laws designed to limit the powers of local government in the name of tax relief.

While local government doesn’t have quite the stink of the federal government among the conservative Republicans’ base voters, support is comparatively soft — especially when local government is targeted in the name of lower property taxes.

2. The Texas Senate held hearings on Tuesday to discuss the perceived ambiguities in the state’s new open and campus carry laws.

While there was nothing weak or neutral, let alone ambiguous, about Nobel Prize winning UT Professor Steven Weinberg’s declaration that law or no law, he was banning guns from his classrooms, what seems clear is that some issues around the laws’ implementation will be a part of the 2017 session. But it will be interesting to see how much appetite the rank and file GOP has for spending more of the Legislature’s limited agenda space on guns, as we wrote in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of a slew of executive actions on gun control. The crux of the issue is that many Texans, and even those in the GOP, have seen the legislature take actions on guns in the most recent session, and are expressing less of an appetite to loosen those restrictions further given the change in the status quo after all the legislative gunplay in the 84th legislature.

3. Republican John Lujan beat Democrat Thomas Uresti in the special election in Hispanic-majority HD118, inducing at least one Democrat to go scatological. Per MadlinMekelburg in The Texas Tribune, it was a pretty pathetic affair, even by special election in Texas standards:

Just 3,601 people voted in Tuesday’s election — 4.12 percent of registered voters — compared to the 14,531 people who voted in the 2014 general election. In 2012, with a presidential race on the ballot, more than 40,000 voters from the district went to the polls.

This is the kind of stuff that sends Democratic Party stalwarts streaming in the Star Bar at lunch time. (Just joking — bar’s not open at lunchtime Monday or Tuesday). HD 118 is 71.7 Hispanic, though Democrats (and some Republicans, of course) were quick to point out that San Antonio has been the site of other Republican gains recently despite being 63.2 percent Hispanic. Of course there will be three more elections for this seat (2 primaries and the general) between now and November, so keep those crude metaphors handy. Turnout was probably an issue in this round of voting, and it will be in the next few elections it will take to settle this by the time the 85th gets underway.

4. Planned Parenthood escaped indictment in Houston, but those surreptitiously recording them did not. While Democrats across the country are crowing, Texas Republicans see no reason to backtrack on their efforts to take down the organization. In a piece earlier this week, we took a slightly different perspective, speculating on whether the GOP’s continued push against the organization might make Planned Parenthood this year’s version of voter ID in 2012 — when Democratic leaders successfully raised the profile of voter ID legislation with their base and clearly moved public opinion against it. The legislature eventually passed the law, but Republican supporters could no longer truthfully say that it had broad bipartisan support. In the case of attitudes toward Planned Parenthood, the Houston indictments are unlikely to mute the presence of anti-Planned Parenthood forces in the state, whose interests in undermining the organization reflect the seemingly eternal battle over abortion and women’s health as well as the more starkly political effort to undermine Planned Parenthood’s presence as a Democratically-allied player in the interest group universe.

5. The week started with Politico breaking the story that former Gov. Rick Perry was endorsing current Texas Senator Ted Cruz for President. Unless the Cruz campaign collapses — and this means finishing third or fourth in Iowa, NOT second — Texas is shaping up to be Cruz’s big moment: The potential face-off between Cruz and Trump on Cruz’s home turf is more fundamental to the eventual outcome than any one debate or who finishes first or second in Iowa. A Cruz loss in Texas would be fatal. With the caveat that, to borrow a phrase, we’re entering a new paradigm of volatility in the GOP nomination race, Cruz was much more favorably viewed by Texas Republicans than Trump in our last poll, but that didn’t translate into a huge lead in our trial ballot. As for Perry, he benefited from a burst of national media attention, and by mid-week he was back in Iowa to stump for Cruz. The theory seems to be that Cruz might benefit around the edges from the virtues that Perry was never quite able to base his candidacy on, namely, Perry’s ability to generate the support of both evangelicals and other ideologically-driven conservatives while remaining cozy with the can-do business corners of the GOP. In an appearance with Perry on Fox Business Network, Rudy Giuliani seemed happy to see his pal Gov. Perry, but still wasn’t quite buying Cruz as a ticket topper. For that matter, even Perry’s description of not knowing Cruz very well before they visited about the endorsement seemed a little odd, given their overlapping tenures in state government. The point was clear enough — to wit, “don’t believe what you’re hearing, really, Ted Cruz is a nice guy” — but Perry’s apparently late conversion made the governor an awkward delivery man for this particular message.


Originally published at texaspolitics.utexas.edu on January 29, 2016.