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Analysis: How cars and booze might split sellers, buyers and lawmakers

Lawmakers get uncomfortable when their voters and their business supporters are out of sync. And the "bathroom bill" isn't the only legislation where there's daylight between those groups.

Barrels of wine at William Chris Vineyards in Hye, Texas, on Feb. 22, 2017.

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Being a politician has to be easier when constituents aren’t at odds with one another. That’s clear from the reactions — particularly among Republicans in the current Legislature — to the gulf between their business supporters and their voters on bathroom regulations for transgender Texans.

It’s not just bathrooms, though: Conservative businesses and conservative consumers could easily part company over other issues, like whether carmakers can sell directly to Texans, or why the state’s alcoholic beverage laws seem tailored for incumbent makers, distributors and retailers.

For lawmakers with friends on both sides, issues like those can be troublesome.

When businesses and the public agree, lawmakers’ jobs are much easier. When businesses want something and voters either don’t care about it or aren’t paying attention — killing franchise taxes or fiddling with obscure regulations — lawmakers’ jobs are easy. The same is true when something is popular with a majority of the voting public — voter ID restrictions or fees for concealed carry licenses, for instance — and businesses don’t really care one way or another. It’s an easy vote (if you’re with that majority).

It’s when popular sentiment doesn’t rhyme with business sentiment that things get sticky. The “bathroom bill” is a famous and unusual case.

It has received more attention than almost any other issue of the current legislative session. It’s politically charged. It attracts lots of news media attention. The public — mostly unaware as recently as a year ago of disputes over which public restrooms should be open to which transgender people — is paying attention. They’re talking about it.

Maybe Texans will eventually want to buy cars and order whiskey on the internet in the middle of the night. Lawmakers might have to choose sides.

So are businesses, made nervous by the idea that laws deemed discriminatory might have a negative economic effect, either on their employees or their customers or both.

Conservatives have worked to rally their voters around the “no men in women’s bathrooms” slogan that worked so effectively in turning back the city of Houston’s equal rights ordinance in 2015.

Businesses — led by groups like the Texas Association of Business, Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Area Tourism Council — fear that such a law might have negative effects on corporate relocations, tourism and the state’s overall economy.

It’s not just a division — it’s a loud one. And it’s a hard vote for legislators who would like to make both their voters and their business supporters happy.

Cars and booze haven’t lit up the headlines or most political groups in the same way, but they have the potential to split industry and the electorate.

Car dealers remain one of the strongest lobbies in the Texas Capitol, in large measure because they are big economic players in every town, city and political district in the state. They’re fighting legislation that would allow manufacturers like Tesla — an electric carmaker that makes techies swoon — to sell cars directly to the public.

Dealers want dealers to handle those sales, see? With their political clout, they’re winning; even Tesla’s advocates in the Capitol say so. But they’re asking the kind of question that often seeps in over several legislative and political cycles: Why can’t you buy a car directly from the manufacturer?

Booze is another area where the interests of the business players and those of the public show signs of divergence. Companies that manufacture spirits, beer or wine are legally separated from those that distribute those drinks and those that sell them to consumers. You’re either in silo one, silo two or silo three.

That’s the way it’s been since Prohibition ended and the incumbents in each of those businesses — makers, distributors and retailers — have done an awe-inspiring job of batting away reformers. But craft brewers, local wineries, internet sellers and all the rest have created some daylight — from a market standpoint — between how business is done now and how it might be done if the laws were changed.

If the public gets the idea that a new way of doing business might be preferable — and legislative debates might bring that to their attention — their interests and those of the incumbent businesses might change. Maybe Texans will eventually want to buy cars and order whiskey on the internet in the middle of the night. Lawmakers might have to choose sides.

That could turn today’s relatively easy legislative votes into tomorrow’s tough ones.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Legislature's Easter break ends with a sprint. Only six weeks remain between now and the end of this regular legislative session — and most of the 6,000+ bills under consideration are going to die.
  • A state law that's supposed to keep a leash on school tax increases might be preventing temporary tax breaks in the Texas districts with the highest tax rates. But reversing it could make it easier to raise taxes.
  • Another federal judge has ruled that Texas legislators intentionally discriminated on the basis of race when changing voting and election laws. But even if the laws change back, the state still got away with it.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Texas Legislature