State’s top business group boosts political activity ahead of primaries

The state’s most powerful business lobbying group has been beefing up its political donations, in keeping with a vow to be more proactive after spending much of 2017 on the defensive as social conservatives in the Legislature pushed measures — such as the so-called bathroom bill — that it viewed as bad for the Texas economy.

The rift between the Texas Association of Business and some leaders of the socially conservative faction of the state’s Republican Party was laid bare anew recently, when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick canceled a scheduled appearance at its annual conference and took swipes at the organization while speaking at a conservative policy foundation.

Patrick lumped the business group — traditionally considered a bastion of mainstream Republicanism — among the “moderates, liberals and progressives” that he said are out of step with Texas, noting in his speech that the word “business” in a group’s name “does not necessarily mean they’re being run by conservative Republicans.”

Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Association of Business, declined to respond directly to Patrick’s comments. Wallace has previously dismissed such criticism, saying, “We pride ourselves that we are a conservative business organization,” with about 4,300 individual Texas businesses and 200 local chambers of commerce as members.

But the ongoing discord points to the rationale behind the business group’s heightened political activity in advance of the March 6 primaries, which it has been viewing as an initial step toward reasserting its influence over the state GOP and the Legislature in general.

As of last week, the political action committee of the Texas Association of Business had about $243,000 available for political donations leading up to the primaries — more than 10 times the sum it had on hand at the same point in the 2016 election cycle. The group spent about $120,000 on donations and other political activity from late October 2017 through Jan. 25, according to its most recent campaign finance reports, compared with just $500 during the comparable period two years ago.

“We are gearing up more than we ever have before,” Wallace said in a recent interview, noting that the group expected to add to its haul. “The goal is how can we, over this election cycle and the following election cycle and the following, begin to change the makeup of the Legislature” to head off what the group views as a recent anti-business drift among some lawmakers.

To be sure, business interests around the state scored plenty of wins last year, and the Texas Association of Business has called the 2017 legislative session successful overall. Victories included a measure to rein in lawsuits against property insurers in the wake of natural disasters, new legislation usurping local municipal ordinances regulating ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, in favor of a statewide framework, and a prohibition against a new kind of municipal fee on construction.

But the fervor surrounding the bathroom bill, which would have restricted where transgender people may use the bathroom, surprised many business leaders and other opponents. Fearing the measure would lead to a backlash that would hurt the state’s economy, the Texas Association of Business took a leading role in helping defeat the bill, despite vigorous backing for it from Patrick and other social conservatives.

Meanwhile, the business group was on the losing side in the debate over a so-called sanctuary cities ban targeting undocumented immigrants, which the Legislature approved over the group’s objections that a provision in it was discriminatory. Business leaders also spent significant amounts of time and resources fending off ultimately unsuccessful efforts by some lawmakers to eliminate a number of state incentive programs for economic development.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said it makes sense for the Texas Association of Business, as well as other traditionally Republican-leaning groups that have found their influence waning amid the ascendance of more ideological social conservatives, to get involved early in the election cycle.

“This is relatively new territory for (the Texas Association of Business) — having to fight for an overall position in the party,” Henson said. “The more business-oriented groups are in a reactive mode … and to some degree are trying to reassert a more traditional status quo.”

Still, he called the amount raised so far by the Texas Association of Business only “modest” compared with the overall level of spending that’s likely to take place during the primaries, although he said it could be enough to help sway some targeted primary races.

The organization’s strategy appears to be in keeping with that view. While it hasn’t weighed in on Patrick’s re-election bid — in which the lieutenant governor recently reported a campaign war chest of more than $12.6 million and is heavily favored to defeat GOP challenger Scott Milder — it has thrown support to challengers in four contested Republican state legislative races.

It is backing state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvalle, in her bid to oust incumbent GOP state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood. Hall earned a score of 53 out of 100 from the Texas Association of Business for his 2017 voting record on business-related issues, compared with a score of 94 for Burkett.

The group also is supporting GOP challengers attempting to unseat three freshman Republican state House members — Mike Lang of Granbury, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg and Valoree Swanson of Spring.

The three are members of the Texas Freedom Caucus, a block of socially conservative state lawmakers. Lang received a score of 47 from the business group for 2017, Biedermann a 63 and Swanson a 53.

Otherwise, the Texas Association of Business has donated to and endorsed mainly incumbents in the state Legislature — the bulk of whom supported either the bathroom bill or the sanctuary cities bill, which the group fought against last year. The organization has issued endorsements in about half of the 165 state House and Senate races on ballots this year, with nearly 90 percent going to incumbents.

Wallace defended the endorsements of incumbents who sometimes voted against his group, saying isolated issues — even if high-profile — aren’t necessarily indicative of a lawmaker’s overall business leanings.

Incumbent members of the state Senate and House endorsed by the Texas Association of Business have collective lifetime average grades in the mid-80s on the group’s legislative scorecard. The average grades dipped for the 2017 session, however, and Wallace acknowledged that is among the reasons his group is attempting to be more assertive.

“We think this sets us up for a better session next time,” he said. “We want to focus on jobs and paychecks for fellow Texans, and we feel that the candidates that we endorsed will do that.”

In addition, most of the candidates who received the endorsements, including incumbents, were interviewed beforehand, he said, and the group came away “cautiously optimistic” that the bathroom bill won’t be resurrected as a major issue.

“Hopefully,” Wallace said, “the issue is dead.”

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