Giving (Some of) the People What They Want: 85th Legislature Endgame Edition

By Jim Henson and Joshua Blank

The to-and-fro between Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick this week provides the latest development in the Austin political press corps’ favorite plot line, the personal relationships among the Big Three. (To be fair, what editor or reporter can resist the old school move of a “Dear Dan” letter from the Speaker, met by Patrick’s spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester righteously declining to “negotiate in the press” followed the next morning by an impromptu press conference with her boss laying out his negotiating stance?)

Speaking of hard to resist, for the moment we’ll avoid again directly addressing the Lt. Governor’s specific claims, repeated in his press conference, about what the public is demanding. At this point in the budget negotiations, however, results in the February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll shed light on the relevant public attitudes toward the components of the budget deal that seems to be emerging, both in terms of the budget itself and in terms of the accompanying legislation that the Big Three are promoting.

On using the Rainy Day fund. While the Lt Governor’s press confab got the most immediate response for his his lines in the sand (some kind of “bathroom privacy” protection akin to SB6 and property tax reform a la SB2), a more appropriate headline might be that Patrick reiterated a position he has held, but soft peddled, throughout discussions over the budget: that he is okay with using the Rainy Day Fund for one-time costs. Overall, the public is likely fine with this approach. And more importantly, in a state in which everybody with a direct connection to this deal is focused on what Republican primary voters want, those voters are split, but as of February, contain a large number of people with no opinion, and thus, can be led to accept either approach if they get consistent signals from GOP leaders. This sets the stage for a deal that dips into the RDF for one time expenditures in an amount somewhat below the house starting point (an easy enough thing to find in a budget of this size) but also defers transportation payments per the Senate’s preferred point.

On property tax tweaks. On the first of the Lt. Governor’s apparent ransom demands, GOP voters are VERY interested in property tax relief. Whether they will view whatever SB2 compromise is eventually settled upon (that is, something between the Bettencourt hard trigger for property tax elections versus the Bonnen “transparency” oriented measure), GOP voters can be expected to think positively of the effort. But given that the measure is NOT automatically going to produce a direct reduction in their property taxes, expect them to damn with faint praise, as they did with last session’s reduction in the homestead exemption, no matter what the bill taking this approach looks like in its final form.

On bathroom access. On the Lt. Governor’s other ransom demand, what he calls “bathroom privacy” — in an apparent effort to not leave a trail of discoverable discriminatory intent and to reflect his commissioned polling — as of February, GOP public opinion was a mixed bag. We’re just as tired of pointing out that public opinion is mixed as he is determined to portray it as unambiguous. Suffice it to re-present an item on the importance Texans attached to the Legislature acting on bathroom access, and awkwardly invite you to read a past post on polling on this issue. To be clearer, though: the claim that a large majority of the public is clamoring for action on this is highly debatable. A guess: amendments are already being drafted attempting to reach a minimum acceptable level of “bathroom privacy” while the search for a vehicle continues.

As preoccupied as you are if you’ve made it this far — or even started reading this post, for that matter — recall that in the big picture, both chambers and their leaders, and of course the Governor, are broadly doing what their GOP voters want — which translates into squabbling over whatever cuts it takes to not increase taxes or spending.

You may know a lot about the details, but most voters certainly do not, as we wrote a few weeks ago. Whether their primary voters know a lot about the budget or not, the GOP leadership has broadly given them what they say they want.

POSTSCRIPT: Speaker Straus responded to the Lt. Governor’s press conference with a lengthy statement; a spokesman for Governor Greg Abbott released a statement saying that he supports the Lt Governor’s two priorities, but still thinks they can be done in the regular session.

Originally published at on May 17, 2017.

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