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The Polling Center: From Smooth Sailing to Traffic Jam

The regular Texas legislative session was notable for bipartisan coalitions and harmony. The special sessions have been notable for partisan battles and stalemates. To understand what's going on, just look at the voters.

A line of Department of Public Safety troopers keeps order in the House gallery on July 9, 2013.

Between the bitter partisan fights over abortion in the first two special sessions and the current transportation muddle, one might be tempted to look back on the regular session that ended a mere two months ago now as an exceptional time. But the only special thing about the regular session was the promotion of an agenda that played on the legislators’ expectations of their respective bases, and the relative size and influence of the three relevant blocs in the Legislature — mainline Republicans, the GOP’s fiscally radical Tea Party faction and the Democrats.

In the February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, fielded in the early days of the legislative session, we asked Texas voters about their budget priorities for the upcoming session. There was a stark partisan divide: Slim majorities of Democrats wanted the Legislature to focus on restoring the cuts made in 2011 to education and human services. But 51 percent of Republicans, including 62 percent of Tea Party Republicans, wanted the Legislature to focus on limiting government through no new spending or new taxes.

That 10 percent difference between Republican stalwarts and those who identify with the Tea Party invites a more subtle read of the Legislature’s move to restore some of the education spending while seeking authorization from voters to dip into the Rainy Day Fund (RDF) to develop water infrastructure. Public opinion supported the formation of a center-right coalition that drew on Democratic and mainline Republican support and that marginalized the most determined fiscal conservatives.

Water provided the easiest piece of the equation, because voters reflexively attributed importance to water on a nonpartisan basis. In February, when we asked Texans specifically about whether water should be a top priority, 62 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Independents and approximately 50 percent of Republicans thought that water should be the top priority or one of the top priorities of the Legislature. (Though left to their own devices, it has never occurred to many voters to identify water as an important problem facing the state — which probably helped water proponents as opposition was diffuse or, at the very least, unorganized.)

Proposals to dip into the RDF were aided by the drumbeat for a one-time expenditure among insiders mindful of the “no new taxes” preferences of the right. Yet many conservative legislators still balked, fearing backlash: Only 8 percent of fiscally conservative Tea Party voters thought water and transportation infrastructure were high priorities in February, preferring instead to keep spending to a minimum.

The acceptance of water as a priority by the public, coupled with the declared emphasis on the issue by the GOP leadership, enabled Democratic legislators to push hard for something their constituents wanted: restoration of the 2011 cuts to public education funding. It’s easy to see why so many Democratic legislators fought so hard to restore those funds, stalling priorities like water hostage at key junctures. In June, 65 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of liberals thought the Legislature should have restored the full amount of the cuts or more, compared with only 22 percent of Republicans.

Once the deal was cut, Republican opposition to restoring education funding was not monolithic either. Pluralities of Republicans thought that the right amount was restored, but 40 percent of Tea Party Republicans thought that the Legislature should have left the cuts in place or cut more.

Skepticism among these most fiscally conservative Republicans toward restoring the funds contributed to Democratic leverage on the issue. The Tea Party conservatives found themselves outnumbered and marginalized in the larger debate about spending — especially in the House, where the pushback from fiscal conservatives was vocal but not, in the end, numerically large.

Mainline Republicans wanted water funding, and felt no strong opposition from their base to restoring funds to education in the wake of unexpected revenue. The volume of Tea Party protests and conservative primary threats kept some Republicans on the fence, and thus enabled Democrats — whose votes were necessary for passage — to hold out for additional education funding.

With the budget, water and education off the agenda, the coast was clear for the special-session play that would re-polarize politics with an eye toward election season. We’ve written about abortion recently, so we’ll only note again that primary-conscious Republicans fell over each other to further restrict the practice in light of attitudes of their primary voters. In our June poll, for example, 67 percent of conservatives and 73 percent of strong Republicans thought that abortion should never be allowed or only allowed in a handful of circumstances. Additionally, 65 percent of strong Republicans, 72 percent of extreme conservatives and 68 percent of Tea Party Republicans said that Texas’ abortion laws should be made stricter than they were at the time.

In that fracas, the political players defaulted to their polarized positions, with Democrats having none of their previous leverage and moderate Republicans forced, in most cases, to duck their heads and mutter about “voting their districts.” So as lawmakers wearily limp into a third special session on road funding, the public watches (sort of) as the Legislature competes its devolution from the go-along-to-get-along mentality of the regular session to transportation gridlock: You can hear the honking horns all over the state.

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