Back on the 4th of July, I posted that I wanted to recap this year's Texas Legislative Session. I ended up getting caught up with work (you can learn more about what I do here) and now it's almost November.
On the one hand, this update seems late since the Regular Session ended nearly five months ago. But on the other hand, the Legislature met three more times (in Special Session) since then, with the last session ending last month. So perhaps I got lucky being late in writing this piece.
In addition to recapping the 2021 Texas Legislative Session, I'm going to argue that when Texas Republicans think they could lose to Texas Democrats, they move to "the center", and when the Republicans are concerned that they could lose their primary election races, they take more extreme positions.
When most people think of partisans these days (Democrats or Republicans), they think of folks taking extreme positions (the second part of my argument). As I alluded to in a previous piece, I don't think this is because Party leaders themselves are pushing the candidates in that direction. I put the blame squarely on primary voters and special interests.
At the same time though, these forces aren't all powerful. Sometimes competitive pressures do cause moderation and that's important because if that strategy can work for the Republicans, it can work for us Democrats as well.
To stretch out this argument though, it's helpful to review the 2018 Election and the 2019 Legislative Session as well.
(Disclosure: Ross Ramsey over at the Texas Tribune makes this argument frequently. So this idea isn't unique by far. I think Ramsey is correct and I'm going to make the same argument in my own words both to amplify the general idea, but also to set up future pieces I plan on writing.)
2018 Election Recap
As many of you know, I ran for the Texas State House in 2018 out of Clear Lake, Texas (House District 129). Unfortunately, I didn't win my race. However, partly because of national dynamics and also because of the race between Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz, 12 Democratic State House candidates beat their incumbent Republican opponents. It was the biggest shift in the Texas State House since the 2010 elections (when 23 Democratic State House incumbents lost).
While Democratic members didn't become a majority in the State House, they were able to exert some influence in selecting the next Speaker of the House. The previous Speaker, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus had announced his retirement the previous October. While he was a Republican, he had long standing disagreements with the more extreme House Freedom Caucus. They were happy to get rid of him and hoped for a more conservative Speaker. The replacement of 12 fellow Republican members with Democrats did not help their cause.
Shortly after election day, Brazoria County Republican Dennis Bonnen announced that he had the votes (including those of prominent Democrats) to become speaker. He was both a Straus lieutenant but also someone that the House Freedom Caucus felt they could work with. In January 2019, he received unanimous support in his bid to be the Speaker.
2019 Legislative Session
I remember following the 2019 Legislative Session pretty closely. At the time, I was in Clear Lake thinking about my just ended campaign, what lessons I had learned and what to do next. I was also trying to figure out whether I should try running again in 2020.
HB3 injected $11.6 billion in state funds into K-12 education. $6.5 billion was new money spent directly on public education, including raises for teachers. The other $5.1 billion was used to replace existing K-12 funding and allow school districts to lower property tax rates. Legislators technically used $6.1 billion in rainy day funds to cover other budgetary expenses, but money is fungible, so you can imagine some of that money helped pay for more public education and some helped pay for the tax cuts.
SB2 was the big property tax reform bill. It limited the growth of local property tax revenues to 3% annually, unless voters explicitly approved of a higher rate through a ballot election. The previous limit had been 8%, but recent rapid population growth put pressure on the housing market and caused housing prices to increase faster than wages, squeezing the budgets of Texas families.
The "Big 3" (Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott) also attempted to trade a 1% decrease in property taxes for a 1% increase in state sales taxes. But that effort ultimately failed due to large opposition from Democrat and Republican rank and file members.
- a bill to fund a new state flood infrastructure fund to respond to the challenge of Hurricane Harvey
- a bill to create more mental health resources for K-12 schools (in response to the Sante Fe High School shooting)
- a bill protecting the lives of babies born after a failed abortion attempt
- a bill restricting the state and local governments from engaging in contracts with abortion providers (even for non-abortion related services)
- a bill raising the smoking age to 21
- a bill ending the use of red light cameras
Outside of the two abortion related bills, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a fairly boring session. I clearly forgot these other bills. It's also interesting to see which Republican priority bills failed:
- a bill to restrict abortions when a fetal cardiac activity is detected
- a bill allowing for "Constitutional" carry (or the ability to openly carry fire arms without licensing or mandated training)
- a bill allowing the Attorney General to sue social media companies for censorship
- a bill to increase funding to secure the border
- a bill to ban local governments' ability to hire lobbyists
- a bill to end local paid sick leave ordinances
Many of these became highlights in the 2021 session! But they didn't happen in 2019, despite Republicans controlling both chambers of the State Legislature and the Governor's office.
Why? Because Republicans were freaked out after losing 12 seats in 2018 and they knew if they lost another 9, they'd no longer have a majority in the State House. And there were big consequences to not having a majority in 2021.
After reflecting on my own election experience and watching the 2019 Legislative Session, I was pretty convinced that I couldn't win my race. I had lost by nearly 15 points and two of the most animating issues for my community, public education funding and taxes, had been dealt with. Not to mention the additional funding towards flooding infrastructure.
Was it perfect? No, of course not. But could Dennis Paul (my opponent) say that he had heard voters' concerns and worked in a bipartisan manner to address them? Absolutely. Nearly every member voted in favor of HB3 and many Democrats voted in favor of SB2.
To beat an incumbent, a challenger has to make two basic points:
- Explain why the incumbent should not be re-elected
- Explain why they should be the one to succeed them
I couldn't explain item 1, so I decided not to run again. I share this story because these types of thought processes happen throughout the state all the time. Before a voter even gets the chance to evaluate a candidate, the candidate has to actually decide to run. And when Bonnen, Patrick and Abbott saw the 2018 election results, they were determined to dissuade as many people as possible from running.
What better way to do that than to address the issues the voters asked them to address?
As I wrote about in Who's in charge here?, there was an incredible amount of enthusiasm and interest around the 2020 election in Texas:
- 11.3 million voters voted (an increase of over 2.6 million voters from 2016)
- eligible voter turnout increased by 9 points from 51% to 60% between 2016 and 2020
- Joe Biden increased his number of votes by 1.4 million over what Hillary Clinton received in 2016
- Donald Trump increased his number of votes by 1.2 million over what he received in 2016
- Texas State House Democrats targeted 22 State House seats
- National Democrats targeted 10 Congressional seats
- Candidates in the most competitive seats had more money than they could possibly imagine
On top of that, there was a lot on folks' minds due to COVID-19 and the economy.
After all that, Texas Democrats walked away with:
- no new Congressional seats
- swapping out one State House seat for another
- no statewide wins either for Biden or for MJ Hegar (US Senate)
Go back and read Who's in charge here? for more post-election thoughts on the Democratic side.
2021 Legislative Session
After going through COVID-19 and the 2020 election cycle and barely receiving a scratch, I can only imagine how relieved Texas Republicans were. They were finally free to pursue their more ideological goals. And boy did they.
These are the highlights this legislative session:
- Removal of licensing restrictions on carrying firearms
- New restrictions on abortions when a fetal cardiac activity is detected
- New restrictions on teaching "critical race theory" in K-12 schools (two bills!)
- New restrictions on the ability of transgender students to participate in athletics based on their gender identity
- A new requirement to play the national anthem in government supported buildings before sporting events
- New restrictions on elections
- New incumbent protection political maps for Congress, the State House, State Senate and State Board of Education
- Additional border security funding
- New regulations on energy security (a response to the winter storm)
- New social media regulations
- Funding for broadband expansion (a response to COVID-19 and remote learning/working)
- Bail reform (increasing requirements to post bail)
- Limitations on the government's ability to close religious institutions during emergencies
- Raising the property tax homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000
That's just incredible and a major 180 from where the Legislature was in 2019 with not only the same number of Democrats and Republicans but also nearly the same people!
What was the difference? Texas Republicans knew they didn't have to worry about their general elections.
Republican incumbents now head into the 2022 election cycle bolstered by their conservative accomplishments. They don't seem to face sustained primary opposition (Gov. Abbott leads former Texas GOP Chairman West 56-13) and, with politically favorable maps at their back, they're likely to win their general elections.
That is, as long as Democrats continue to run the same plays we always do. If there was ever a time to try something different, it's now. If we don't, we'll continue to lose and as long as we lose, Texas Republicans will govern like 2021 versus 2019.
As always, your feedback is greatly appreciated. I'm also considering adding a comments section to this page. If that's something you'd be interested in, please let me know. You can email me at [email protected].