A majority of voters in Texas are not particularly happy right now, and their unhappiness is directed at the state’s top elected leaders for failing to address the state’s most pressing problems while focusing instead on divisive issues popular with the state’s most conservative voters.
Voters also want state leaders to spend billions of dollars in federal stimulus funding on some of the state’s most pressing long term challenges, including the vulnerable energy grid and safeguarding the state’s water supply and quality in droughts.
Those happen to be two issues scarcely addressed by the governor and legislature in the last three sessions. The Texas legislature will reconvene for the fourth time and its third special session of 2021 on Monday, this time to address redistricting following the 2020 U.S. Census.
The mood of the state’s voters was measured in the latest statewide poll conducted by the nonprofit Texas 2036 organization, a nonpartisan, data-driven enterprise dedicated to seeing the state engage in the necessary long-term planning and investment to assure economic and social viability by the year of the bicentennial.
One in 491 Texans (population 29.2 million divided by 59,000 deaths) have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a quick piece of arithmetic on my part after reading last week in the Washington Post that 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that nine out of 10 voters surveyed are concerned about the direction of the state, and nearly six out of 10 are “very or extremely concerned.” More than one-quarter of the respondents say they are personally worse off than they were one year earlier, and more than half say the state itself is worse off than it was one year ago.
Of course we are worse off. Take a few seconds to consider the fact that one in 500 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the pandemic. That is 663,000 Americans, an alarming statistic that should silence the anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers, those who opposed the initial shutdown, and those who likened the coronavirus to the flu. Millions have lost their jobs, and public health experts are only beginning to grasp the mental health implications on adults and children after more than 18 months of forced isolation.
Meanwhile, poll respondents have watched this year as Gov. Greg Abbot signed into law a bill preventing local officials from enacting the kind of innovative voting options that led to a record turnout amid the pandemic for the November 2020 election that saw the defeat of former President Trump. Another new law allows most adults over 21 to carry a gun in public without a permit or training. A new anti-abortion bill outlaws the constitutionally protected medical procedure six weeks after conception, a time when most women do not yet know they are pregnant.
Voters want elected officials to turn their focus away from divisive wedge issues and focus instead on improving lives and making sure stimulus funds are fairly and smartly invested in the state. Instead we are about to watch the ugly political process of the dominant political party redrawing congressional district lines in an attempt to perpetuate one party rule.
The real issues lie ahead like icebergs awaiting the Titanic: Public health amid the pandemic and the crisis of the uninsured. The lack of energy and water reliability. Addressing the enormous impact of learning loss on the state’s 5.75 million PK-12 students, and closing the gaping digital divide.
Look to Austin and you hear nothing about these issues. It’s as if they do not exist.
The question is whether state leaders — Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan, and the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature — will be influenced by the Texas 2036 poll, or whether their focus will remain on those who vote religiously in state primary elections.
“This poll shows that Texans are still one people — far more binds us than divides us,” Margaret Spellings, Texas 2036 president and CEO, said in a statement. “Most of us share the same aspirations, want to take advantage of the same opportunities, and recognize the challenges that Texas will have to overcome to create a thriving economy. The legislature can help address those concerns about the future — and capitalize on the powerful opportunities we now face — by appropriating federal COVID relief funds in an ambitious, responsible, far-sighted way.”
Perhaps so. I would say a majority of Texans find themselves held hostage by a loud, irrational minority of voters in a gerrymandered state where elected officials can ignore the common good and act with astonishing self-interest.
Self-described conservatives will no doubt once again express dismay at what they will call a liberal take on the great state of Texas, its great pro-business economy, and the continuing flow of new residents to the state.
But I must ask: What is so conservative about a state government that increasingly forces its way into every aspect of our lives, requires its legislature to meet long after its regular session expired, continually works to undermine the home rule of cities and local authority, and even pretends to be the ultimate authority in running our public schools?
Disclosure: Texas 2036 Executive Vice President A.J. Rodriguez serves as chairman of the board of the San Antonio Report.