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Analysis: “Texas Miracle” comes down to earth

In their just-ended legislative session, Texas lawmakers mowed through a list of politically divisive issues that could have lasting effects on how others see a state that's been known for years as a mecca for business.

Construction in downtown Austin's warehouse district on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.

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A “sanctuary city” immigration bill derided as a vehicle for institutional racism. A voter ID law designed to mollify a federal judge who found the existing law an example of intentionally discriminatory legislation. Redistricting maps repeatedly labeled intentionally discriminatory and unconstitutional by a number of other federal judges. Efforts to put more money into the public education system — and to lower local property taxes — died. So did an effort to leash local government property tax increases by requiring voter approval of hikes over a certain size.

And a fight over a “bathroom bill” and “religious conscience” legislation that businesses inside and outside Texas have warned will turn off their employees and their customers and put an economic hickey on the state known for the “Texas Miracle.”

The 85th Legislature has some 'splainin' to do if the state is going to sell that package of social, property tax and education engineering to economic development people. At the very least, state officials have a lot of public relations work to do after a bruising session. They accomplished some things, sure, but they might as well have written the marketing flyers for regional business developers in other parts of the country.

Doing what their primary voters have loudly demanded, lawmakers have risked their long-standing support from the business and economic development folks.

Politics is competitive. But so is economics.

Education, taxes, and intentional discrimination: The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.

Economics offered the strongest argument against the “bathroom bill” — legislation that grew from public debate over public school rules for transgender people using restrooms and other facilities that don’t match their sex at birth. In other places — notably North Carolina — related laws prompted companies to cancel expansions, sports leagues at the national and collegiate level to move tournaments and games to other states, and performing artists to cancel shows and concerts.

It wasn’t a threat that something might happen, but a threat that something that had happened — in North Carolina —might happen in Texas, too.

It was, in a phrase that turns the stomachs of people who work in chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus everywhere, “bad for business.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others who support the legislation dismissed those concerns as overblown and contended that Texans needed protection from a menace for which they presented no evidence.

That’s not unlike voter ID, which targets a rare sort of voter fraud and ignores a much more common one — “harvesting” votes at nursing homes and centers for the elderly.

Opponents of those and other measures see them as cloaks for other objectives, ways to discriminate against transgender people on the one hand, and to discourage minority voters on the other.

And the end of the session isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s more like a change of venue — from the statehouse to various courthouses, the legislative branch to the judicial branch.

The bathroom bill didn’t make it past the Legislature. Maybe it’ll return in a special session, and maybe it won’t. Only your governor knows for sure.

But voter ID made it, and the Texas Legislature’s new version will get a going-over by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos as soon as this week. She’s the judge who ruled last month that the 2011 law currently on the books intentionally discriminates against minority voters in Texas.

Redistricting lines for the state’s congressional delegation and the Texas House will be in front of judges once again in July. “Intentional discrimination” has been a regular phrase in those rulings, too.

Austin, San Antonio and other cities are already suing the state over the freshly signed sanctuary law, which doesn’t take effect until September.

The business argument that prevailed against sanctuary legislation in 2011 was that it would disrupt the labor pool in Texas, that it was discouraging to the exact kind of immigrants — people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, to revive an aphorism — the state wants to attract, and that it would undermine community policing that many law enforcement people consider essential in safe big cities.

But the business voice on that issue was buried this year, the victim of a presidential election that emphasized immigration as a problem, a rush of conservative politicians who have noted voter disquiet about border security for years, and a distraction — the bathroom bill — for trade groups that might otherwise have been focused on sanctuary legislation.

School finance, and the local property tax relief that would be engendered by higher state spending for education, died last summer when the Texas Supreme Court said the current system was flawed, but not unconstitutional. That gave the Legislature — which never takes big steps on education spending without court orders — room to do nothing.

The other stab at property taxes — an effort to constrain local increases by giving voters better veto power — fell short, too.

Education, taxes and intentional discrimination. The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.

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Economy State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature