When this year’s regular legislative session was beginning, House Speaker Joe Straus was out telling business groups he needed their support.
They were slow about it — their lassitude cost Texas business leaders their long-held position as persuasive voices on what to do (and what not to do) about undocumented immigrants, for example — but a late push from the private sector helped Straus and others kill the "bathroom bill," an attempt to regulate use of public restrooms by transgender Texans that dominated public conversation about the legislative session.
Now, the speaker is asking them to stay the course through 2018’s elections and into the 2019 session, buttressing business-friendly Republicans against a conservative tide.
“Texans rejected name-calling and scare tactics, and as a result, we avoided a major mistake that would’ve cost our economy greatly and divided us unnecessarily,” Straus told the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce last week, referring to the failure of the bathroom bill. “Now is not the time to walk away from the table. Going forward, working together, we can do more than just avoiding mistakes.”
Hearing an echo? Here’s Straus back in January, speaking about the bathroom bill at the Texas Association of Business gathering in Austin: “Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that can slow down our overall job-creating machine,” he said. “They are also watching what happened in North Carolina, and they are not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention."
That last bit was a reference to the economic development issues that followed North Carolina’s passage of similar legislation.
Straus, and the companies and business folk who finally joined in that debate, prevailed. He’s trying to tell them the game isn’t over.
Getting things done in the Texas Legislature has some things in common with getting things done in the free market. It’s competitive. Money talks. Relationships are important. It’s stressful. Winning and losing has real and sometimes lasting consequences, but it’s often possible to reverse a loss or to squander a victory.
Take a look at immigration reform in general, and in particular at the state’s efforts to eliminate “sanctuary cities” in Texas — places where police don’t check the citizenship of the people they detain. Texas passed one of the strongest sanctuary city bans in the country this year, allowing local police to check the immigration status of people they stop and punishing local officials who don’t cooperate with requests from federal immigration authorities. That’s being contested in court; a federal judge in San Antonio temporarily blocked part of the new law last month, and the state has appealed.
That said, the legislation flew through the Texas Legislature earlier this year, and Gov. Greg Abbott happily signed it. Business barely raised an eyebrow — a flip from the business opposition that killed similar sanctuary city legislation in 2011. That year, business leaders worried over the effect such legislation would have on their workforce — a position that attracted big Republican and Democratic donors from industries like homebuilding, groceries and agriculture.
They prevailed, but the issue exposed differences between Republican factions. By spring of that year, Tea Party leaders were calling on then-Gov. Rick Perry to do something about immigration and, in particular, sanctuary cities.
That fight had some parallels with this year’s bathroom battles. Both issues came up short in regular legislative sessions. Both were on gubernatorial agendas for special sessions, and both failed there, too.
It took sanctuary cities six years to pass the Legislature. Bathrooms are just getting started.
For all that, Straus is struggling to get business into the fight over public and higher education, a debate he’d welcome to a center ring currently preoccupied with social and immigration issues. State funding for education at both levels has fallen on a per-student basis, a decline that raises concerns about the quality of the state’s future workforce.
His is an uphill battle: Social conservatives running for office — and social conservatives who financially support them — dominate the state’s Republican primaries and have made steady progress in recent elections. Immigration remains the top issue for Republican voters in many polls, including those done by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune over the past several years. It’s not surprising that sentiment changed on sanctuary cities over the years, or that business eventually lost the fight: Lawmakers follow voters.
What’s surprising is that business — always present and attentive to regulatory and tax legislation, and often effective on hot topics like bathrooms — hasn’t kept steady watch over its longer-term interests. They don’t win when they don’t show up.
Disclosure: The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Association of Business and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.