In Step with Policymakers? New Survey Tracks Voter Attitudes

UH Hobby School Survey Covers Pensions, Sanctuary Cities, Vouchers, Other Topics

A survey of registered voters in Houston and Harris County suggests a lingering conservative streak in the state’s largest city and county, finding that a majority of voters are in step with Texas Legislators on some of the most contentious issues to arise this session.

The survey, conducted by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs between May 1 and Monday, May 8, asked voters about public policy issues currently debated at City Hall, in the state Legislature and in Congress.

Attitudes about so-called sanctuary cities, transgender people and public restrooms, the Affordable Care Act and use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund reflect the polarization that has driven debate in Austin and in Washington D.C. Other policies – including the Houston drainage fee and a proposal to use general obligation bonds to pay down the city’s pension debt – drew strong support.

“Houston has a reputation as a progressive city, and in many ways it is,” said Bob Stein, a research associate with the Hobby School and a political scientist at Rice University. “Hillary Clinton carried both Houston and Harris County in the presidential race last fall. But a strong streak of conservatism remains, and the county and even the city is surprisingly in step with the Legislature on some issues.”

He noted that there are significant differences between the general population and those who vote, and voters are older, more likely to be Anglo and more conservative. “Consequently we often get policies that don’t match the general population’s preferences,” he said, because policymakers are more responsive to voters.

Survey questions included two of the most divisive issues to come before the Legislature this year. A majority of voters support both a ban on sanctuary cities and requiring transgender people to use the public restroom that corresponds with their birth gender.

More than 83 percent of voters said it is very important or somewhat important for the Legislature to pass legislation that will lower property taxes for homeowners. Just 12 percent said that is not important.

Jim Granato, executive director of the Hobby School, said the survey provides a snapshot of voter opinions as politicians decide on controversial issues. Even issues where legislation has been signed by the governor, such as the ban on sanctuary cities, will remain in play through expected litigation.

“It is often difficult to know how voters feel about issues that will be decided by their elected representatives,” he said. “This survey offers both the policymakers and the residents themselves a valuable look at local attitudes with important implications for forthcoming policy initiatives.”

Among the findings:

  • 42 percent of Harris County residents favor repealing or repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. 39 percent favor keeping it as it is or strengthening it. Responses split along partisan lines: 70 percent of Republicans favor repealing and/or replacing the act, while 68 percent of Democrats favor keeping or strengthening it.
  • 52 percent of county voters oppose sanctuary cities, in which local police and city employees do not automatically turn someone in the country illegally over to federal immigration officers. Support for policies giving cities more discretion was highest among Hispanics, at 55 percent; African-Americans, 50 percent; and Asians, 53 percent. Just 30 percent of Anglo voters said they support sanctuary cities.
  • 50 percent said transgender people should have access to public restrooms based on birth gender, while 31 percent said it should be based on gender identity. 15.5 percent were undecided. 54 percent of men support using birth gender, while 55 percent of women say it should be based on gender identity.
  • 53 percent of city voters said they support use of $1 billion in general obligation bonds to reduce the city’s debt to public employee pension funds. And 45 percent said they believe the defined benefit plan currently offered to fire, police and municipal employees should be replaced by one based on investment earnings.
  • The city’s drainage fee drew support from almost 70 percent of voters, rising to 80 percent among those who think the city has better prepared their neighborhoods for future flooding.

 The full report is available on the Hobby School website.

 The survey was conducted via landline phone (66 percent) and cell phone (34 percent) and weighted to reflect the composition of Harris County registered voters who live inside and outside the city of Houston. Margin of error for questions involving Harris County residents is plus/minus 4 percent; the rate for the Houston sample is plus/minus 4.7 percent.