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Businesses Need to Re-Engage in the Republican Primary

Guest column: Don’t keep Texas on the same dangerously anti-business, discriminatory path.

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Jeff Moseley, with Texas Association of Business, joins other Texas business and tourism representatives who gathered on the south steps of the state capitol on Monday July 17, 2017 to urge lawmakers not to approve bills to regulate transgender bathroom access.
Photograph by Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP

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.

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  • Miguel

    TL;DR, BUT
    Did you not realize the irony of bemoaning the loss of local control AND the lack of state financing of local schools?
    Do you know where the state’s money comes from? It’s all “local.” If I live in the DISD, the state takes taxes from me, then the state turns around and distributes that money back to the DISD, what was gained? State money for education doesn’t come from some magical bucket–it comes from the citizens. It’s better to cut out the middle man (state), and let the districts raise and spend their own money. THAT’S local control.

    • St. Anger

      No, that’s separate but equal.

      • Miguel

        I disagree. It has nothing to do with race or other special classes. By that argument, you could say that it’s not up to the states to fund schools, but the Federal government. After all, isn’t funding at the state level “separate but equal?”
        Why stop there, though? Why not find schools directly out of some UN agency? Wouldn’t want countries to be separate but equal.

        • St. Anger

          Sounds good.

          Meanwhile, my head just exploded at your contention that school districts don’t differ by race or class. Leave your basement much?

  • anonyfool

    You are doomed if you think businesses participating in the state elections is going to change the trajectory. What we saw on the GOP side nationally was that money won, and the big money was from a couple of big donors and lots of small donors for Trump. They really care about the issues in the state legislature now, too, so that’s not going to change until the likely voter turnout changes as per this site, in a generation, maybe two.

  • Andy

    It’s rhetoric like this that scares businesses away from Texas. Stop it.

    • Alice

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    • St. Anger

      Scare away, please.

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  • SeeItMyWay

    Great perspective. The pendulum is going to swing back from crazy to moderate. Not sure how long it will take. As stated, business has to quit funding the radical blowhards with all the trite expressions and skewed priorities, and start funding a PAC to neutralize Empower Texans rhetoric, and contribute to candidates who are not chest beating ideologues.

  • igloo

    “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” James Madison