Texas is wide open for business, former Texas Governor Rick Perry used to say. It was the unofficial state motto. Texas racked up awards from Forbes to Site Selection magazine and CNBC, which all fawned over the Lone Star State and our “Texas Miracle” of economic prowess. Well into the aughts, state leaders plugged along with low taxes, a predictable regulatory environment, and plenty of incentives at the local and state level to attract corporate relocations and expansions at a frenzied pace.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and an increasing percentage of the Texas Legislature strayed from their pro-business, small government roots into something that looks a lot more like a populist, divisive, Trumpian Texas. That far-right social agenda plays well with the GOP base, after all: The relatively small portion of the Republican and general electorate that actually take the time to show up at the polls in March.
Low taxes became an ongoing push to reduce the state’s share of costs for things like public education and roads, saddling local taxpayers with the burden. Instead of small government and local control—long the mantra of Texas Republicans—some in the GOP began pushing the antithesis of those ideas. Instead of solving school finance and reducing local taxpayers’ burden in funding public schools, we got a bathroom bill. Instead of solving the state’s transportation woes, we got a sanctuary cities bill. As more Texas voters start to see their property tax bills spiraling higher, and that “tax cut” that the state’s top leadership likes to tout fails to materialize, is the gig up?
It’s around the bathroom bill that businesses really started to realize how far the Legislature and its state leaders had strayed from the pro-business mantra that lifted the GOP into its dominant position in the state, dating back to 1998 when it took every single statewide elected office.
The bathroom bill’s defeat twice in 2017—once in the regular session and a second time when Governor Abbott included the issue in the special session call—was driven by a high level of corporate and business lobby engagement, along with vocal opposition from the mainstream faith community, public education leaders, law enforcement, and sexual assault victims’ rights advocates.
State Representative Byron Cook, a Republican from Corsicana who spoke out forcefully against it this year, recently warned in the Austin American-Statesman that the lingering bathroom bill debate could dash our hopes of landing the highly sought-after second Amazon headquarters. Not so long ago, it would be easy to see Texas as the leading candidate for such a prized expansion.
There’s no sign that social conservatives are ready to give up, nor are they willing to focus on the real priorities that can make or break the state’s long-term economic strength. A strong energy sector, low taxes, and light regulation won’t provide immunity when businesses and families start to consider the state of the state around them and see a Legislature increasingly fixated on division, rather than infrastructure, workforce concerns, and public education.
There are certainly rumblings of businesses re-engaging to back pro-business candidates, with a renewed charge being led by organizations like the Texas Association of Businesses. These groups would be wise to cultivate credible, pro-business candidates on the GOP or Democrat primary ballots, being strategic in their financial and grassroots support of a more moderate slate of candidates on the ballot in 2018.
The public education community is also rising up and preparing to aggressively engage in House and Senate races in 2018, eyeing the Texas Senate, which has been downright adversarial to public schools since Patrick knocked out moderate incumbent David Dewhurst in 2014. Kristin Tassin, president of the Fort Bend Independent School District Board of Trustees, recently announced her GOP primary challenge to incumbent Senator Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican.
It’s easy to see these two constituencies crossing over or jointly driving greater voter turnout. Businesses that relocate and expand in Texas choose to do so in communities with high-quality public education for the families of their employees.
It’s also going to take a show of courage by businesses’ political action committees and their C-suite executives to change the way they vote with their pocketbooks. Venting angrily at Patrick or Abbott over sanctuary cities, bathrooms, or tax reform while writing the same-sized checks to fund their campaigns and curry favor doesn’t change their leadership, their priorities, or the dangerously anti-business, discriminatory path they’ve placed our state on.
I’m hoping the anger and frustration both business and public education voters have felt in recent years translates into actually showing up to the primaries in March. Let’s take the Republican Party out of the pulpit and put them back into business.
Jennifer Waisath Harris is a Republican and the owner of JWH Communications. Earlier this year, she represented Keep Texas Open for Business, the umbrella organization opposed to the bathroom bill. This article first appeared in Graceless. Opinions expressed by Texas Monthly guest columnists are their own.