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Mark Jones Talks Texas Politics

The Women’s Institute is thrilled to have Mark P. Jones, Ph.D., James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s political science fellow, join us this semester to analyze the final weeks of the Texas State Legislature’s session. Dr. Jones is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Rice University and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs. He is also a regular guest on NPR programs such as “Houston Matters” and “The Texas Standard,” and TV such as KPRC “Houston Newsmakers” and KRIV “What’s Your Point?” We asked him a few questions on the current political scene to find out a little about what we have to look forward to in his class…

WIH: What do you see as the key issues in this year’s Houston mayoral race and what is your assessment of the field, especially now that Sheila Jackson Lee has announced?

Dr. Jones: The issues that will dominate the Houston mayor’s race will run the gamut from public safety and property taxes to social justice and values.  While Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s candidacy had been a topic of public discussion for quite some time, this week it became a reality, and changed the dynamics of the race.  Prior to the Congresswoman’s formal campaign launch, announced candidates such as Amanda Edwards, Robert Gallegos, Gilbert Garcia, Chris Hollins and Lee Kaplan all had a plausible pathway to victory: finish second to State Senator John Whitmire in the first round, and then defeat the Dean of the Texas Senate in the runoff.  

With Jackson Lee in the race, this task has become much more complicated for these five candidates, and next to impossible if all five remain in the race.  At the present time, the most likely scenario is Whitmire and Jackson Lee finishing in the top two, but both below 50%, and the contest going to a December runoff.  At the present time Whitmire would have to be considered the likely victor in any runoff since, while Jackson Lee has a solid base of supporters that make her a strong favorite to finish among the top two, she also has a lower ceiling than Whitmire due to both her progressive policy positions as well as her personal behavior and style as a public official over the past thirty years.

WIH: What do you see as the most important legislation being passed at this year’s Texas session? Will Securing the electric grid be part of it?

Dr. Jones: The most important legislation passed in any session is always the biennial budget.  That is especially the case this year with a record $33 billion surplus for the current biennium and an expected increase in revenue for the upcoming biennium to the tune of around 25%.

This legislature has more than its share of red meat for the all-important spring Republican primary voters as well as bread and butter for the fall general election voters.  The Texas Senate run by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has tended to prioritize the former while the Texas House run by Speaker Dade Phelan has tended to prioritize the latter, with both chambers have portions of red meat and bread and butter bills however.

Some of the higher profile and potentially divisive bills this session will revolve around transgender rights, the content of curriculum in public schools, and the effort to create educational savings accounts (i.e., vouchers/school choice).

Other more consensual legislation that is likely to pass include an extension of Medicaid coverage of prenatal care to 12 months (up from six months), a sales tax exemption for family care products (e.g., baby wipes, diapers, feminine hygiene products, maternity clothing), the construction of additional mental health hospitals, enhanced funding for school safety, and significant investments in broadband internet infrastructure and water development projects.  We also can expect legislation that would increase backup generation capacity to insure there is never again a repeat of the debacle of February of 2021, although the different plans being debated would have widely varying consequences for consumers’ future electric bills.

WIH: Do you expect a special session for this years’ legislature?

Dr. Jones: Most political leaders prefer to avoid special sessions, since they disrupt the legislators’ personal and professional schedules and also put pressure on the governor in particular to put different groups’ favorite issues on the special session agenda (the governor determines the thematic content of the special session agenda).  That said, I would expect Lt. Governor Dan Patrick to use the potential threat of a special session to pressure the Texas House to pass at least some of his priority legislation if he believes that absent that pressure the House will kill the legislation (most commonly by never letting it get out of committee or sending it to the floor at too late a date).  The House leadership can utilize similar tactics, but since Patrick’s control over the Senate is much stronger than Phelan’s control over the House, pushing the legislature into a special session is a riskier gambit for Phelan than it is for Patrick.

WIH: Who are the upcoming political leaders in Texas – will they be allowed to take the field or are we to expect many more years of the status quo?

Dr. Jones: Neither Governor Greg Abbott nor Lt. Governor Patrick has ruled out running for re-election in 2026, and I would expect them to keep the prospect open at least through the end of the 2025 legislative session, lest their power be diminished by the status of being a lame duck.  And, Attorney General Ken Paxton is likely to continue to seek re-election for the foreseeable future (unless a felony conviction prevents him from doing so at some point).

That said, on the Republican side of the aisle, at the top of the list of rising stars would have to be Houston Congressman Dan Crenshaw and potentially former Congressman Will Hurd, the latter in the case that Republicans begin to find themselves in more competitive contests in November than has been the case over the past two cycles (absent that pressure Hurd has little hope of victory in a statewide GOP primary).

On the Democratic side, running for statewide office is potential career suicide for rising stars as long as Republicans hold an approximately 10 percentage point advantage.  But, waiting in the wings are a hose of talented younger politicians such as Collin Allred, Joaquín Castro and Veronica Escobar.

WIH: On campaigning and voter turnout – Is there a way to energize and reach voters to improve participation? 

Dr. Jones: There are three principal ways to improve participation: institutional, electoral, and mobilizational.  At the institutional level, Texas could lower some of the current barriers to participation by permitting online voter registration and allowing all Texans to vote by mail.  However, while legislation has been introduced to adopt these reforms this session, the prospects for passage are dim at best.  At the electoral level, more competitive elections would boost turnout, but partisan gerrymandering has reduced competition in legislative races considerably, and the lack of competitiveness of congressional, state legislative, and county commissioner races is unlikely to change notably during the next few election cycles. At the mobilizational level, Texas civil society could engage in more robust registration and get out the vote campaigns, especially among groups who have historically turned out at lower than average rates (e.g., younger voters, lower income voters, Latino voters, Asian American voters).

Join Dr. Jones and register for The Complex State of Texas: Politics and Government
Tuesdays | 6 weeks | April 18 – May 23 | 1:30 PM – 3:30 | $200