The Polling Center: Public Opinion and the Budget

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sits at his desk in the House Chamber on April 3, 2013. Pitts' HB 1 the Appropriations Bill will be heard on the House floor Thursday, April 4th.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sits at his desk in the House Chamber on April 3, 2013. Pitts' HB 1 the Appropriations Bill will be heard on the House floor Thursday, April 4th.

As the 83rd Legislature’s budget enters a more publicly visible phase, the time is ripe to revisit public attitudes about budget priorities that might influence the views of lawmakers. The results of a broadly posed question about budget priorities illuminate both the underpinnings of the budget presented by the Republican legislative leadership as well as the potential public support for efforts to derail that approach.

This item in the February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll yielded the following results:

Below are some proposals that have been made for this session as the Texas legislature considers the budget for 2013-2014. Which of the following do you think should be the legislature’s top priority?

1. Restore cuts made in the last session to education and human services... 30%

2. Continue to limit government by approving no new spending and no new taxes... 32%

3. Lower property and business taxes... 14%

4. Provide public funds for future infrastructure needs like water and transportation... 14%

5. Don’t know/no opinion... 9%

No real surprises there. Those who prefer restoring education cuts represent the majority of Democratic partisans (52 percent) as well as smaller slices of those who identified themselves as Republicans (14 percent) and independents (19 percent). The group gravitating to the “continue to limit government” response contains the lion’s share of Republicans (51 percent) and the plurality of independents (36 percent), along with a smattering of Democrats (10 percent). If we add in those who chose the third option, we see evidence of the Republican coalition we’ve come to expect in the electorate and in the Legislature: Among those who want lawmakers to lower taxes we find another significant chunk of Republicans (19 percent) and a healthy slice of independents (16 percent), alongside another dollop of Democrats (10 percent).

Those first three responses represent familiar political poles of the budget debate in equally familiar proportions — 30 percent wanted to spend more on education and human services versus 46 percent who favor limiting government spending and growth and/or cutting taxes.

The fourth option represents what might be thought of as a “developmentalist” approach that has exerted much more influence during this session than in the prior two sessions. The “developmentalists” — yes, it’s clunky — recognize the role of government in fostering and maintaining economic and institutional infrastructure that buttresses economic development and growth in the state. For the moment, we can rule out the possibility that the new willingness to consider dedicating public moneys to infrastructure such as water and transportation resulted from a groundswell of public support. A modest 14 percent of voters favored spending for future infrastructure needs: 17 percent of Democrats, 11 percent of Republicans, and 13 percent of independents.

In the Legislature, we can see how a measured version of the drive to invest in infrastructure has been melded with a budget approach that splits the difference between the ideologically familiar duel of spending versus cutting. The approach currently in play shows a predictable skew toward fiscal conservatism that is, after all, the baseline of politics in a Republican-dominated state, especially one in which the state GOP is in the process of digesting a strong Tea Party faction.

The broad outlines of both chambers’ budgets reflect that hybrid approach, restoring some but not all of 2011’s reductions in education and other spending — but otherwise hewing to a fiscally conservative approach.

The trade-offs here establish a perch on the center-right of the political spectrum that appears firm enough to support a significant down payment on this session’s infrastructure du jour, the state water plan. (Though again, the public, while willing to recognize that water is important to the state, has not been clamoring for action.)

This all looks good on paper and has gone smoothly enough so far, but such compromises inevitably leave some parties unhappy. Many Democrats will continue to press for more education and social service funding, particularly with the Rainy Day Fund opened up for water. On the right, the most ideological fiscal conservatives remain determined to leave their stamp on the budget, as a group of freshman made clear earlier this week. Beyond the freshmen (though overlapping with them), outside groups that have been active in GOP primaries in the last few election cycles continue their attempts to throw wrenches in the works, reminding Republicans of the possible dangers they could pose next time primary elections roll around. These politics involve more than just budget issues, but fiscal conservatism is one of these groups’ major framing devices.

The freshmen nominally leading the first public attempt to muck up the budget on the floor of the House are associated with the Tea Party-friendly wing of the GOP and come largely from suburban and rural districts. These characteristics link them to significant forces within the Republican Party that have been suspicious of the center-right approach to the budget and other issues.

These suspicions are evident in responses to the budget priority item. Tea Party identifiers in the UT/Tribune poll embrace the “limit government” option at a rate about 18 percentage points higher than mainline Republicans (62 percent to 44 percent, respectively). The limited government response also was popular among rural and suburban Texans. Rural Texans favored the limited government option by a wide margin (42 percent), while it was essentially a tie among suburbanites, with 32 percent favoring limited government and 29 percent favoring restoring cuts.

Shifts in the political environment have fostered the emergence of a center-right approach to the budget. A combination of improved economic conditions, increased state revenue, and a seemingly less volatile political environment have contributed to a budget process that has been much calmer than the budget wars of the two preceding, crisis-ridden sessions. Given those changes, the tactics of the freshman upstarts might wind up having more symbolic significance than budgetary consequence.

Either way, if their gesture of defiance resonates with intense constituencies in the GOP who remain suspicious of the current leadership, they could be sources of turbulence as the legislative leadership tries in the next few weeks to close the deal. 

Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin.

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