Texas Matters
3:09 pm
Fri October 19, 2012

The State Legislature, Budget Cuts, and Pre-Election Opinion Polls

The Texas Legislature will be back in a few months facing a budget deficit. Will the next round of state budget cuts clip Texas high school football? Or could expanded gambling in the state help solve education funding shortfalls? Nate Silver writes the New York Times political blog about polls and political probability, Five Thirty Eight, and talks about how useful (and reliable) pre-election opinion polls can be.

Texas State Legislature reconvenes to duke it out

When the state legislature convenes again in Austin in January 2013, it will seem like déjà-vu from the last session. Although the Legislative Budget Board has yet to pronounce the expected growth rate for the state and Susan Combs, the state comptroller, has not yet revealed the estimates for state revenues for the next biennium, state legislators will be welcomed back to Austin needing to cut billions from the budget.

This week the influential Texas Public Policy Foundation held a press conference in the state capitol building already urging lawmakers not to give in to the temptation to raise taxes to offset the expected budget shortfall – in order to keep Texas economically competitive.

Unless there is an unforeseen change in the voter patterns of Texans, do not expect lawmakers to restore the multi-billion dollar education cuts.

"Texas has done, as you know, especially well during the last decade compared to the rest of the country, but other states are starting to catch up by adopting Texas conservative policies so we must continue to move forward if we want to stay ahead," said Arlene Wohlgemuth, the executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Rookies on the legislative floor

There is going to a be one major difference between this coming legislative session and recent previous ones – it’s expected almost half of the members will be attending their first or second session so there will be a shortage of seasoned lawmakers who understand the finer points of how to craft public policy. Legislature watchers predict this will give extra influence to corporate lobbyists - ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s vice president Bill Peacock explained what direction they will be herding lawmakers.

"Build a higher-quality more efficient education system," said Peacock. "One of the things we want to do with that is enacting parent triggers at the campus level and then allow voters within any particular district to enact what's known as a 'home rule' school district. It's already in Texas statute, but it's not as accessible to voters as it should be. We want to strengthen parental choice in those and other ways."

The foundations director for fiscal policy Tallmadge Heflin laid out his plan for phasing out the unpopular business franchise tax, but not replacing the lost revenue. Instead, he said economic growth will fix that in addition to cuts for more state programs and departments.

Cut football to save Texas public schools?

The overall forecast is grim for the next legislative session, and unless there is a dramatic and unforeseen change in the voter patterns of Texans on Nov. 6 do not expect the state lawmakers to restore the multi-billion dollar education spending cuts from 2011. Instead, it’s likely that more multi-billion education spending cuts are in store for Texas, and groups like Progress Texas are already trying to fight them. The group is predicting that the next round of cuts will be so severe that a cherished Texas institution will be in danger – High School Football.


Progress Texas has created the website savetexasfootball.com to raise awareness about the possibility of Friday night lights going dark. Director of the Progress Texas Political Action Committee Jim Moore says that when budget cuts like the ones made in the last legislative session are so big, everything is on the table, and for those districts like Premont ISD (who has already had to cut extra-curricular activities like football) there is a widening gap with districts like Allen, who have a multi-million dollar football stadium.

Is legalized gambling the best way to fund education?

On Monday, Oct. 22, the court battle over education inequality gets underway. Lawyers representing about two-thirds of Texas’ school districts will stand in an Austin courtroom and argue that the Legislature has once again failed to meet its constitutional obligations.

However, this will be only another scene from what will be a long and protracted legal tussle over whether Texas is providing school districts what they need to provide constitutionally-required education.

Texas will be looking to makes those austere education budget cuts because there isn’t enough income and the Republican leadership has sworn not to raise taxes, but there could be another solution to increase state revenue: legalize casino gambling in Texas. There is a push to allow Texans to vote on the question.

"We feel like the people of Texas are smart enough and independent enough and capable of making their own decisions. We simply want the legislature to give us a referendum to allow the people of Texas to decide if they want to expand gaming in Texas or not. Let's get it out there and let's get it decided once and for all. We are hemorrhaging billions of dollars to our neighbor states, and frankly my hat's off to them; they have totally outsmarted us on this one," said John Montford with Let Texans Decide, a group pushing for expanding gaming in Texas.

How do you feel about polls?

Nate Silver's new book about finding meaning in numbers.
Nate Silver's new book about finding meaning in numbers.

On Monday, early voting begins in Texas and while there’s lots of hot races down ballot, the top of the ticket is what’s sucking up most of the oxygen; the race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger former Governor Mitt Romney. While political junkies fret and wait for Election Day there are the political polls.

These polls tell different stories daily about who’s is going to win, but there is one man who has been crowned king of the poll watchers, Nate Silver of the New York Times' Five Thirty Eight blog.

"Five Thirty Eight is the number of electoral votes. Whichever candidate wins 270, wins the Electoral College. If you have a 269 tie then you have an awful mess on your hands... This election is close enough where the Electoral College math - these scenarios - could actually matter. People think, yes technically the votes catch the electoral college, but if one candidate is up by three or four or five points nationally, it's almost impossible for things to go so badly for him in individual states that he will actually lose. Now, with the race being within a point or so, this bread and butter, nitty-gritty stuff about who's ahead in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Virginia really matters."

"We're literally getting in now, I think on a typical day about 20 or 25 polls. If you follow twitter from minute to minute, then every time a good Romney poll comes out you'll have people tweeting, 'Oh, Obama's doomed,' and then two minutes later there will be an Obama poll showing him up seven points in Ohio or something and people will overreact to that one as well. People, I don't think, realize how noisy polling data can be, both between the statistical margin of error and the fact that pollsters are applying different techniques and different methodologies. Right now only about 10 percent of people actually respond to pollster surveys."

Nate Silver is the author of, "The Signal and the Noise" a book about data and finding the true value in the bombardment of the information age. Silver is also the writer of the New York Times political blog about polls and political probability – Five Thirty Eight.

For more information on Five Thirty Eight go online to: fivethirtyeight.com

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