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Sitting in the shade outside the Texas Capitol on a humid afternoon, Jenny Trumphour said she traveled 200 miles from Fort Worth for a rally – on property taxes.
“It’s been going on for years,” she says. The Texas Legislature “promised reform and they haven’t delivered on it.”
This was going to be the session: The governor, lieutenant governor, and new speaker of the House had all committed to unity and focusing on meat-and-potatoes issues like lowering property taxes and increasing school funding and security. But with six weeks left, property tax legislation has yet to make its way to the governor’s desk and tensions are high. So far, 30 bills to restrict abortion rights have been proposed, though only two have progressed. Other bills would open the door to discrimination against LGBTQ residents.
The tension comes after Democrats posted their best election in decades, and after the last legislative session was dominated by debate over a failed transgender bathroom bill.
That should have been a lesson, says state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo. “It doesn’t appear to have very much,” he says. “It should have [been] because of the messages to be gained there, primarily by Republicans.”
Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger thought things would be different in the Capitol this year.
Republicans have kept a firm grip on politics here for 17 years, controlling both the governor’s mansion and the Legislature, and in that time Texas has come to define American conservatism. Last November that grip loosened ever so slightly.
Inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly strong challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Democrats enjoyed their best election in decades, flipping two seats in the U.S. House as well as two seats in the state Senate and 12 seats in the state House. (Republicans still hold majorities in both state legislative chambers.) Many Republicans who did win, like Senator Cruz, won narrowly.
That this occurred a year after a contentious legislative session dominated by debate over a transgender bathroom bill should have been a lesson, says Senator Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo.
“It doesn’t appear to have very much,” he says. “It should have [been] because of the messages to be gained there, primarily by Republicans.”
Those messages were that Republicans were spending too much time on socially conservative issues, such as abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. While the bathroom bill failed to pass in 2017, so too did efforts to lower property taxes, which created a perception among many Republican voters in Texas that, despite the party’s control of state government, “the Legislature was abandoning its responsibilities on big issues,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.
“Most Republicans saw the 2017 session end in disaster for both Republican principles and the Republican brand,” he adds. Now “they’re willing to focus, at least temporarily, on other priorities.”
Indeed, this session began with Texas government’s “big three” – Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and new Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen – pledging a united front to focus on school finance and property tax reform, Hurricane Harvey relief, and school security. While those spinachy issues remain priorities, that hasn’t prevented legislators becoming bitterly divided over them – both Republicans against Democrats, and Republicans against Republicans.
“The session began with this initial comity. There was a lot of bipartisan rhetoric,” says Ann Bowman, professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University. “But now we’re in the heart of the session the tension has got really high.”
It is a different kind of tension, however, with forays into cultural wedge issues often halfhearted. This angers some conservatives here who believe that, as the biggest Republican-controlled state in the country, Texas is considered a laboratory for conservative policy and politics. The tea party movement began here, for example. But for the most part Texas voters see meat-and-potatoes issues like property taxes and education as top priorities for the Legislature. The current strategy is geared toward preserving Republican control of the Texas Legislature in 2020 so Republicans can control redistricting after the 2020 census. The looming question in Texas politics: What happens then?
“You’re likely to see [social issues] surge back. The conservative wing of the party has already geared up to put the screws to Republicans they think haven’t been conservative enough,” says Professor Rottinghaus.
“Bringing attention to these conservative social issues is going to turn off a lot of voters,” he adds, “and it could exacerbate the speed of Texas turning more purple.”
The ho-hum culture wars?
Socially conservative issues haven’t vanished from the Texas Legislature. One need only look at the roughly 30 bills introduced seeking to regulate and restrict abortion.
Some of the more extreme bills have made national headlines, such as a bill that would make women who get abortions subject to the death penalty. So far, two abortion-related bills have made meaningful progress.
The nearest “bathroom bill” analogue this year is SB17, legislation that would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. Like last term’s bathroom bill, Democrats, LGBTQ advocates, and the state’s business community have come out against it, calling it a “license to discriminate” that is bad for business.
Another bill in the state senate, SB15 – which began as legislation to prevent cities from enacting paid sick leave ordinances – has been amended in a way that could undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in cities.
This approach to addressing polarizing social issues is evidence of Texas Republicans’ shift in priorities, says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
“We haven’t seen nearly as much polarizing legislation, and even the [polarizing] legislation we have seen has been somewhat halfhearted,” he adds.
One reason much of the more controversial social legislation is unlikely to go anywhere this year is because of the change in state house speaker. Previous sessions were defined by heated public battles between Lt. Gov. Patrick – a former talk radio host and the face of far-right Texas politics, who leads the Senate – and Joe Straus, then the moderate, business-minded Republican leader of the House of Representatives.
Mr. Straus retired last summer, and Representative Bonnen replaced him with unanimous support from the lower chamber. More conservative than Mr. Straus, Mr. Bonnen has a better working relationship with Mr. Patrick and Governor Abbott, but he has combined that with a longer-term view to protect Republican control of Texas.
“Bonnen is conservative [but] he’s also pragmatic,” says Professor Jones. “He’s not going to try and pass legislation so he can score quick political points with Republican primary voters if it would hurt the party’s longer term efforts to retain its majority in 2020 and beyond.”
Clock is ticking
All this isn’t to say that debate over issues like property tax relief has been plain sailing. With no state income tax, property taxes are the primary source of funding for public schools, and state funding has been decreasing for years. With six weeks remaining in the session, legislation that would attempt to lower property taxes and increase public school funding has yet to reach Mr. Abbott’s desk.
The debate has been fierce at times. So committed is Mr. Patrick to passing property tax relief that he made moves to trigger a “nuclear option” in Senate procedure, doing away with a three-fifths vote requirement to open debate on a bill that is seen as encouraging bipartisan debate.
The threat moved Mr. Seliger, one of the few moderate Republicans in the Senate, to vote in favor of debating the bill – avoiding the nuclear option – before voting against the bill itself.
“My [first] vote wasn’t for that measure, it was for the Senate itself and its tradition as a deliberative body,” he said last week on a panel organized by The Texas Tribune.
Which all points to the idea that, in the Texas Legislature, even when things change, nothing really changes.
“The fact that the issues that are focal points are different doesn’t change the session,” says Mr. Seliger. “This time it’s about tax and property tax, last time it was about bathroom bill, the time before that it was something else.”
Some Texans are happy with the chosen agenda, however. Sitting in the shade outside the Texas Capitol on a humid afternoon last week, Jenny Trumphour had traveled 200 miles from Fort Worth for a property tax rally.
“It’s been going on for years,” she says. The Legislature “promised reform and they haven’t delivered on it.”
“Some of the issues they take up just don’t make any sense,” she adds. “They should do what they promised people, listen to their constituents and work on common-sense legislation.”