With only a few weeks to go before the beginning of the next Texas legislative session, the Texas Politics Project has released the first survey of the attitudes of Texans since the midterms. The poll includes a number of surprises, including approval ratings for top leaders, trust in institutions and trust in the state government.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, says Texans’ confidence in state government has dipped significantly in the past five years. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: So you conducted this poll in early December. What did you want to find out from the Texas electorate so soon after the elections?
Jim Henson: Well, we wanted to check in with Texans in the holiday lull, after a very extended and contentious election. But before the legislative session gets underway on January 10. So we haven’t done a December poll before, but the thought was we might get some attitudes that are a little less subject to the coverage and the negative advertising at the moment.
Let’s talk about some of the top-line findings. You asked respondents which better describes your opinions about state government in Austin and then you gave them a list of potential responses, from ‘mostly address the needs’ down to ‘mostly ignores the needs.’ What did you see?
Well, that was one of those surprising results you referred to. As you said, we gave people a set of opposite phrases to choose from just to take a general heat check. In that responsiveness item about state government responding to needs, only 37% said that state government mostly addresses the needs of Texas residents, while 46% – the plurality – said that government mostly ignored their needs. Now, we asked this question a couple of times before. We asked it almost exactly five years ago in 2017. And the responses in this poll were almost the exact opposite of the responses that we got in 2017. So there’s been a marked decline in Texans perceptions of state government responsiveness, which is fascinating.
That is fascinating. What about opinions when it comes to state government and how it handles its fiscal duties?
Also very interesting in a state with a reputation for being kind of famously low-spending. 48% said state government was careless and 31% said that it was mostly careful with spending. So more people said careless. This was also a reversal from 2017 and interesting party results. Perhaps surprising, although maybe not so in political terms, was that Republicans reviewed state government spending more positively than Democrats.
Very interesting. And this going into a legislative session where there’s going to be quite a budget surplus and a lot of folks angling for those dollars. I want to shift over to confidence in state leadership in Gov. Greg Abbott, just reelected to a third term by a rather healthy margin. What did you learn about how voters think he and other statewide office holders are doing?
Well, I think now that we’re removed from the heat of what was a very contentious election, with a lot of negative advertising, everybody got a little bit of a boost in terms of their job approval rating. So Gov. Abbott’s job approval rating was actually the most positive that we’ve seen since early to mid-2020. And a lot of the other statewide officials, including the lieutenant governor and attorney general, also got a little bit of a boost. Nothing stratospheric – everyone is still under 50%. But I think with the end of the campaign – and Obviously people like winners – they got cut a little bit of slack.
You asked about several other issues, including support for reducing punishments for violations of marijuana laws. Where do Texans stand on those laws from what the poll tells us?
When we asked overall, we’ve consistently seen that there is a lot of support when you talk about, broadly speaking, decriminalization. But we also asked a more specific question about reducing the punishment under Texas law for the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana to just a citation and a fine. So no more jail terms. Really huge number of support – 82% supported essentially decriminalizing marijuana possession. And that included majorities in both parties. I think that movement among Republicans has been gradually happening for a while. But we’ve reached kind of a critical mass here, at least in public opinion. Now, whether those kinds of attitudes exist among the gatekeepers in the Legislature, I think is a separate question.