2019 Legislative Conference Review: Texas' Political Landscape is Changing

Texas Tribune Chief Executive Officer Evan Smith told county officials at September’s annual Legislative Conference. 

By Roland Gilbert, Communications Specialist

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Texas Tribune founder and CEO Evan Smith, Rep. Travis Clardy and Rep. Celia Israel

After an historic legislative session in 2019, the future is uncertain for Texas because of rapidly changing conditions that will undoubtedly have an effect on the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021, Texas Tribune Chief Executive Officer Evan Smith told county officials at September’s annual Legislative Conference. 

Smith, former editor and vice president of Texas Monthly, is co-founder of the 10-year-old Texas Tribune, an online nonprofit and nonpartisan news outlet, and host of a weekly interview program, “Overheard with Evan Smith,” which airs nationally on National Public Radio (NPR).

Nearly 700 county officials and staff from 158 counties gathered in downtown Austin for the 2019 Texas Association of Counties (TAC) Legislative Conference held Sept. 4–6. This year’s annual conference followed the 86th Legislative Session — described as one of the most contentious for counties in recent memory. 

The theme for this year’s conference, “Focus on the Future,” reinforced the message that county elected officials needed to be prepared for another tough session in 2021.

TAC Legislative Services Director Michael Pichinson, TAC Board President Larry Gallardo and TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford opened the conference by urging attendees to forge bonds with their issues in the forefront.  

“It’s your county story that changes the hearts and minds of your legislators,” Pichinson said.

Smith, in his opening address, described a confluence of political events that he said signal a change in Texas politics, which has been dominated by conservatives for decades. Three years in particular — 2018, 2019 and 2020 — seemed to hold the key to what comes next.

Sen. Kel Seliger and Sen. Royce West

2018 was the most significant election cycle to date in terms of the way business is done at the Texas Capitol. It was the year of a midterm election in which U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) barely defeated U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke, (D-Texas) in a race for a U.S. Senate seat. Voter turnout was a key factor in O’Rourke’s near-successful run at incumbent Republican politician Cruz. 

When there is no presidential candidate on the ballot, turnout in Texas runs typically at about 4 million. In presidential elections, voter turnout in Texas rises to about 8 million. But, the midterm election in 2018 garnered an unprecedented presidential election-level turnout in Texas. 

The 86th Legislative Session in 2019 was characterized by notable cooperation between the “big three”: Texas  Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who, Smith said, got on the same page early on issues like school finance and property tax reform and stayed there. This cooperation resulted in passage of a massive overhaul of the school finance system, driven by Texas voters. The $11.6 billion bill boosted per student funding while reducing reliance on school property taxes across the state.

“It was historic,” Smith said. “The Legislature wasn’t forced by the courts to make the sweeping changes they did. They were forced by the voters.”
The political landscape for 2020 and beyond is still taking shape. 

“There’s a lot we just don’t know,” Smith said. Such as, who will be Speaker of the Texas House? Who will be on the presidential ballot? How will the voters turn out? Can Democrats in Texas continue to push the envelope? 

“The trick [for Democrats] is not winning at the presidential level. It’s keeping it close. Closer than it normally is. Losing, but beating a bunch of Republicans.” 

The margins are narrowing, he said. Republicans in Texas who barely won in 2018 will be the Democrats’ top targets in 2020.
Looking as far out as 2050, Smith offered three “drivers of the future” and questions Texans need to be prepared to answer.

1 — Precipitous population growth
Texas’ population is projected to double to 54.4 million by 2050. Will our transportation infrastructure be able to handle this explosive growth? Will we be able to handle health care for all Texans? What will the educational opportunities look like for this population?

2 — Rapid urbanization
Texas is now by definition an urban state. Texas has five of the nation’s 13 largest cities by population — Houston (No. 4), San Antonio (No. 7), Dallas (No. 9), Austin (No. 11) and Fort Worth (No. 13) — more cities than any other state. “You legislate differently for an urban state versus a [more rural] state,” Smith said. Issues to address include transportation, public health, housing affordability, income equality and education.

3 — Demographic inevitability
In 2000, Anglos outnumbered Hispanics. By 2040, Hispanics will far outnumber Anglos. Texas will have to be ready to deal with the challenges of an emerging majority that may have historically had less access to higher education and health care.

“Embrace diversity. Diversity is opportunity. Diversity is our destiny,” Smith said. “But it presents real challenges from a public policy standpoint that we have to get after. We cannot ignore the data.”