Generational Differences Point to a Changing Texas

Hobby School Survey Found Split Opinions on Taxes, Social Issues

Millennial voters are more likely to support a state income tax than older voters, and more likely to support higher state spending for school districts with a high number of low-income students.

A survey by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs found that while Texas voters agree on major school finance issues facing the Legislature – “yes” to increased state spending and limiting property tax increases, “no” to paying for that with a higher sales tax – there are sharp generational differences, suggesting a possible shift in key traditional Texas attitudes. 

A majority of voters born after 1981 oppose a state income tax, but the opposition is muted compared with that from older generations.  While fewer than 20% of millennials support implementing a state income tax, support among baby boomers and members of the silent generation doesn’t reach double digits. Fewer than half of millennials strongly oppose an income tax, compared to almost four out of five of the oldest Texans. The full survey is available on the Hobby website.

“Millennials were hit so hard by the recession in 2008, and their priorities are very different,” said Pablo Pinto, director of the Center for Public Policy at the Hobby School. Previous Hobby School surveys have found a similar split on issues ranging from access to education and healthcare to public funding to rebuild after a storm, he said.

Newcomers to the state also tend to be more progressive than longtime residents, Pinto said.

Still, the latest survey of registered Texas voters, focused on school finance and property tax reform, found broad support across generations, racial and ethnic lines and even across partisan affiliations. More than four out of five said the state should pay a substantially higher percentage of operating costs for public schools, and almost that many support capping the revenue cities, counties, school districts and other entities can collect from property taxes.

More than half oppose raising the sales tax, a measure Republican leadership had proposed to cover money lost through capping local property taxes.

“People want to fix school finance, and they are serious about getting the state to contribute more money,” said Mark P. Jones, a Hobby School research associate and a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “While some ideological and generational divides show up in the responses, by and large people support spending on education, and they want the state to finance it. They aren’t, however, willing to pay out of pocket for that through increased sales taxes and property taxes.”

The strongest generational divide surfaced in questions relating to social issues, such as increased spending for programs serving low-income students and legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School, said the shifting attitudes suggest a different Texas than the one in which many of the older long-time residents grew up.

“If turnout continues to increase among younger voters, who tend to favor Democrats and more progressive policies, the legislative landscape of Texas of tomorrow will look quite different than the one found today,” she said.

Other areas of generational difference include:

  • Bilingual education: 57% of younger voters say increased spending is a high priority; just one in three of the oldest voters agree.
  • Schools with high enrollment of low-income students: 75% of millennials support increased spending; Gen X support is 31%; baby boomers, 64%; silent generation, 61%.
  • Legalizing and taxing marijuana: 70% of millennials support the policy; Gen X, 62%; baby boomers, 60%; silent generation, 41%.

Hobby School economist Man Chiu “Sunny” Wong noted that the survey found wide partisan splits, as well.  Almost nine out of ten Democrats ranked more funding for low income schools as a priority, but just half of Republicans did the same. Just 37% of Republicans strongly support closing tax loopholes for large companies, compared to 70% of Democrats.

“Substantial partisan differences continue to exist in support for areas such as the legalization and taxation of casino gambling and marijuana, more funding for low income schools, and the expansion of bilingual education,” Wong said. “That suggests that shifting voting patterns could influence public policy in the future.”