AUSTIN, Texas — After Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick forcefully defended the merits of controversial election bill Senate Bill 7 - at times scolding the bill's critics as well as members of the media - the Texas House of Representatives are stuck trying to pull off the high-wire act of balancing what could soon be competing platform priorities: new election laws versus maintaining the health of the state's business communities.
If passed in the House and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, SB 7 would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting, and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify. These were measures taken this election as safety precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic, and mostly responses to actions taken by Harris County elections officials.
Additionally, the bill requires all countywide polling locations to have an equal number of voting machines based on number of eligible voters in each House district, which eliminates large voting centers commonly seen in major cities in the state. Civil rights groups and state senators in opposition when this bill was debated last week point to this provision as potential voter suppression, because this would disproportionately limit voting machine availability largely in communities of color while increasing supply in largely White rural areas.
Another sticking point for Democrats was the provision allowing poll watchers to record video of activity they deemed suspicious, with lawmakers apposed to this part of the bill expressing concern this could lead to voter intimidation.
As a result of this bill passing the Texas Senate early Thursday morning last week, Texas-based companies Dell Technologies and American Airlines released statements opposing this legislation.
On Tuesday, Patrick criticized the critics, taking offense to the charges of voter suppression.
"Well, let me tell you what, Mr. American Airlines, I take it personally. You're questioning my integrity, and the integrity of the governor, and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this. When you suggest we’re trying to suppress the vote, you are - in essence, between the lines - calling us racist, and that will not stand," Patrick said as he wagged his finger at the members of the media in attendance as well as at bill critics through the camera lenses of the criticized media filming the press conference.
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Patrick singled out American Airlines, claiming they did not read the bill before releasing their statement.
Ironically enough, the lieutenant governor went on to criticize Major League Baseball's decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to the much maligned Georgia elections bill that was signed into law, despite admitting to not reading the piece of legislation.
"Major League baseball ought to be embarrassed. I don't know what the Georgia law is. I've read about it. I don't know if that's all true, but you can't believe everything you read," Patrick said.
Texas experiencing the loss of major sporting events like Atlanta did will be something state representatives will have to consider when discussions on SB 7 begin.
Over the next four years, Texas will host the following major NCAA championship events:
If the NCAA decides to pull these events out of Texas, it could cost the Lone Star State hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity combined across these games.
The 2019 Men's Final Four, which is the last Final Four before the COVID-19 pandemic hit America, brought $143 million into host city Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune. Even with closures still in place for the pandemic, the Indianapolis Star reported the economic boon of this year's Final Four in their city would be at least $100 million.
On the football side of things, U.S. News & World Report found the 2020 College Football Playoff landed Louisiana between $150-175 million.
Restaurants, bars, and other hospitality and entertainment industry businesses financially hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic would have the most to lose if these events are pulled, since these games lead to a massive surge of customers to the Downtown areas near these stadiums.
However, College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock provided the following statement, stating the 2024 championship game in Houston is safe, for now:
Our focus is on the game of football as we provide opportunities for young people to achieve success in college and in life. We look forward to playing our games as planned.
CBS Austin reached out to the NCAA to ask if they are considering pulling the Final Four games out of Texas as a result of SB 7, but they have not yet responded.
James Henson is the Director of The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, and said these staggering figures make it an especially tough balancing act on Republicans who campaigned on both changing election laws and maintaining a healthy business environment in the state in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic leading to so many financial struggles or outright closures.
"On the one hand, there's a political advantage for Republican candidates and Republican leadership to shaping the electorate in their favor by using these new electorate laws, but they also get a big advantage by claiming they're the party of business and the party of prosperity and growth in Texas. If this seems to be at odds with that, I think there is a possibility that will feed into some trimming of their sales on the election legislation, and perhaps on some of the other legislation. But again, the politics of that on both the corporation and the elected officials are going to involve a lot of push and pull over the next month as we get into the real final game here," Henson said.
This balancing act does not seem to be a task for the state's top two in command.
Abbott provided a preview of Patrick's press conference Tuesday by getting on Fox News and bashing businesses speaking up against SB 7.
Before heading to the floor for Tuesday's session, Patrick went on to continue the onslaught of criticism against businesses and sports leagues that dare speak out against the bill.
"We’re not going to put up with this nonsense anymore. Corporate America does not run this country," Patrick said. "All of these businesses in Texas, it used to be you would come into the legislature to talk about policy that may have impacted your business: regulations, financial issues, tax issues. Stick to that because let me tell you something: you keep meddling in issues that people have elected Republicans or Democrats to address. You keep meddling in these issues without any understanding."
This shocking stance opposite certain businesses from both politicians comes just a little more than a month after Abbott framed Texas as the most business-friendly state in the country, naming this the primary motivator behind allowing businesses to operate at 100 percent capacity despite the state's vaccination rates being among the very worst in the nation.
Now, the decision on whether or not to pass this election bill that may trigger loss of events similar to what Georgia has already experienced is left to the House.
Henson said the lower chamber historically has served as a filter of sorts for some of the more extreme bills that come out of the Senate, which is opposite of what's typically seen in other state houses. However, it's too early to tell how strong this filter will be this session, with election security as a top Republican priority born out of the 2020 election, despite there being no proof of widespread voter fraud either in Texas or across the country.
"We have gotten to a point where the more ideologically-driven bills from the right have an easier time in the Senate than they do in the House," Henson said. "But, I think we're going to probably see a bit less moderation in the House than we've seen in the past, though I suspect we see some moderating influence. If you think about it as a filter, we don't know how fine the filter will be, yet."
Despite the balancing act Henson said Republicans need to achieve with SB 7, Patrick seemed to have thrown that out the window during his Tuesday press conference.
After berating businesses that have spoken out against the bill, the lieutenant governor sent out a warning shot, though slightly walked it back.
"Don't insult us with, 'We don't want you to take this personally.' You know why they said that? Because they may come down the street next session they may want us to pass for them. Good luck," Patrick said. "This is not a quid pro quo. We don't punish people because they disagree with us."