Is Texas becoming increasingly partisan on the issues most important to the Governor? Depends on the chamber.

Texas is often perceived as a solidly red state by casual observers, especially those from out of the borders of the Lone Star State. Common sense would therefore dictate that the policies put forth by the State of Texas, especially the high priority ones, would be highly conservative and highly partisan. But does the data on the votes of the Governor’s priorities in the past few sessions bear this out? Maybe.

The Texas Governor is what is considered a weak governor. He has minimal executive privilege and is largely beholden to the actions of the legislature, which itself is often divided on many issues. One of the powers he is authorized by the Texas constitution is the ability to declare emergency items. These items can be considered in the inactive period of the legislature during the first 60 days where the Texas Constitution prevents the passing of any legislation other than the aforementioned emergency items. This stipulation allows a light to be shown on the Governor’s priorities for the legislature, which are often laid out in their state of states. Given Republican control of both state legislative chambers and the governorship, one would assume that this would be used as a ripe opportunity to push deeply conservative legislation through both chambers before the thousands of bills that make up the 140 days wash ashore. This seems to be the case, but not as much as you may think.

The way that bills advance through the legislature is that they go through a committee in the chamber they are filed in (the House or Senate) and then to the floor of that specific chamber. After that they go to the other chamber to have the process repeated and if both chambers agree then the bill goes to the governor for a vote.

Vote data obtained from the Texas Legislature Online
Vote data obtained from the Texas Legislature Online

To the left is the data for the partisanship of the Senate and House committees regarding governor emergency items during the 80th through 84th legislatures (note that there were no emergency items during the 83rd ). Partisanship here is defined as the percentage difference between the members of one party voting yes versus members of the other voting yes on a given pieve of legislation. Observing the trend lines shows a noticeable difference; the Senate became much more partisan than the house over this period of time. This follows the trend that we will see later when it comes to floor votes. The Texas Senate in the 84th Legislature was a product of the session before when a group of freshman Senators known as the Liberty 8 would arrive and shift the ideological balance of the chamber farther to the right. A new, more conservative, Lieutenant Governor in the form of Dan Patrick during the 84th would then give committee chairmanships to his ideological allies and cause the increase in partisanship in the Senate’s committees that wouldn’t mirror itself in the House.

Vote data obtained from the Texas Legislature Online
Vote data obtained from the Texas Legislature Online

This trend continues when considering the partisanship of the chambers as a whole. The Senate has a steeper trend line towards partisanship compared to that of the house. Based on the data it appears that even with the most critical pieces of legislation, the Governor’s emergency items, both chambers abstain from rank partisanship most sessions, the 82nd not withstanding. Still the Texas Senate has seemed to become more partisan over the years. This falls in line with the split that has occured between the two chambers as lead by two idealogically distinct politicians. The Speaker of the House Joe Straus is a cautious centrist, elected by a Democratic minority and centrist Republicans presiding over a very ideologically split chamber. Across the building from him, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a self described stalwart conservative, enjoys a fresh batch of highly conservative Senators.

The Texas Legislature is a minefield of competing interests. One of the phrases you hear bandied about often is that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, a phrase in reference to water issues which break down much more along urban/rural lines than Republican and Democrat ones. Still, partisanship rises in the upper chamber of the Senate with regards to Governor items, while staying more stable in the House.

Saurabh Sharma is a sophomore studying biochemistry at The University of Texas at Austin and a Legislative Aide in the Texas Senate

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