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Bathroom bills are out; funding schools is in

THE KEY TO understanding Texas is the state Capitol in Austin. It is there that legislators meet only every other year to pass new laws and set the state budget. The elegant domed building is several feet taller than the Capitol in Washington, and that matters to Texans. Gun-owners with a concealed-carry licence can enter through a separate security lane and do not have to go through the indignity of a metal detector, as lowly journalists do. The Capitol is built of pinkish granite, a suitable material for a red state now facing the prospect of diluted Republican influence.

After years of pushing to the right on social issues and immigration, Texas Republicans have shifted their tone during the current legislative session. “There’s been a rush to the middle,” explains Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategy, a lobbying firm. Evidence of that lies in the list of priorities presented by Greg Abbott, the recently re-elected Republican governor. His “emergency” items, which he wants the legislature to focus on, include financing public schools, paying teachers more, reforming the property-tax regime, funding for special education and expanding access to mental-health services.

How unlike the previous session of the biennial legislature, in 2017. Back then Republicans passed a hugely controversial immigration bill, giving law-enforcement officers the right to stop people and ask to see papers confirming their citizenship. Some compare this action to Proposition 187, an anti-immigration bill that passed in California in 1994 and turned Hispanics in that state against the Republican Party. Another contentious legislative item that session was a “bathroom bill”, designed to regulate where transgender people are allowed to pee. Mr Abbott declared it a priority at the time, though ultimately it withered after opposition from businesses.

Republicans “have moved over to our issue set and the things we had been talking about,” says Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. Culture wars are still playing out in this legislative session, including over abortion, but they are fewer. Republicans are “not talking about divisive social issues any more,” says Joe Straus, who served as Speaker of the Texas House for a decade before stepping down in January. Republicans moved to the right to win primaries against other Republicans, but now they face more challenging general elections. Today “there’s more fear of the November voter than there is of the primary voter. But there’s fear of both,” says Mr Straus.

There are several reasons for the Republicans’ change of tone and approach, but the 2016 and 2018 elections are central to it. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost Texas by the smallest margin of any Democrat since 1996. In 2018, when Democrats picked up 12 House seats and two state Senate seats, many right-wing Republicans lost what were thought to be safe districts or won by slimmer margins than expected. This had more than a little to do with Beto O’Rourke, who was challenging Republican Ted Cruz for the US Senate. Although he lost, Mr O’Rourke helped get many down-ballot Democratic state legislators and judges elected.

Donald Trump has also cast a shadow over state Republicans. “The worst thing that ever happened to Texas Republicans was the election of Donald Trump,” says Mark Jones of Rice University in Houston. Mr Trump has alienated many white Republican women in Texas, and has also pushed away Hispanics, who account for around 40% of the state’s population. Long after Mr Trump leaves office, demographic change in Texas will continue to exert an influence on the fortunes of Republicans, as the Hispanic population grows, millennials vote in increasing numbers and people continue to move to Texas from other states, bringing their more liberal politics with them. According to a recent poll by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, more Texans say they would sooner vote for a candidate running against Mr Trump than re-elect the president.

Showing voters that they can bring about change on bread-and-butter issues may help Republicans fend off competition in 2020. Legislators are broadly in agreement that the state needs to do something about property taxes, which have risen considerably as Texas’s economy has boomed and pushed up property values. Texas does not have a state income tax, so it relies disproportionately on property taxes to fund schools. But because the property tax is a very transparent levy, voters frequently complain about their high bills.

Mr Abbott has suggested capping the rate by which local governments can raise taxes at 2.5% without a special vote (today, that threshold is 8%); this is probably just a starting point for negotiation. But how the state will manage to reduce property-tax growth rates while doing more to fund public schools equitably and boost their performance—another legislative priority—is unclear. Restricting the ability of local districts to raise revenue when they have so few other sources available to them could damage the state’s educational prospects in the long run.

The property-tax issue points to a broader theme in Texas politics: the clash between state and local control. In theory, Republicans tend to be in favour of light-touch regulation and leaving governance and policymaking to local authorities. But as cities have turned into Democratic bastions and forged their own liberal visions for the future, Republicans have changed their stance. For example, last year Austin and San Antonio passed ordinances that require employers to offer paid sick leave. But a bill making its way through the state Senate would hamstring cities’ ability to set such policies.

Much is at stake. If Republicans lose the state House, Democrats will have a stronger influence on the redistricting process. (A Democrat-controlled House would presumably not agree with a Republican-controlled Senate plan.) In another twist, next year’s election will be the first when “straight ticket” voting (ie, ticking a single box to vote for every candidate from that party on a ballot) is eliminated, thanks to efforts by Republicans in the previous legislative session. Candidates will have to compete more on their own merits rather than rely on party loyalty. This could contribute, sometime between 2020 and 2026, to the end of the Republicans’ 20-year dominance of all statewide offices, according to Mr Jones of Rice University.

Democrats are certainly banking on it. This week Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, travelled to Dallas and Austin and declared Texas “ground zero” for Democratic efforts in 2020. Houston is one of three finalist cities applying to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention; if selected, it would further underscore the Democrats’ strategic embrace of the state. Many are waiting to see whether Mr O’Rourke will run for president, joining Julián Castro, a fellow Texan and former mayor of San Antonio, to compete for the Democratic nomination. “South by Southwest”, a popular convention in Austin beginning on March 8th, is set to draw other Democratic nominees, including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who are hoping to drum up support. Those visiting Austin will find it nearly impossible to ignore that prodigious dome, with its faint glow of pink.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Twilight in Austin"
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