Future of Texas panel at the LBJ Library
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The discussion of what to do about the problems facing the state of Texas shifted from the Capitol to the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library on Wednesday night, when a panel of state legislators gathered for a Future Forum, sponsored by Texas Monthly, on the subject of, “What is the most important issue facing the state?” The participants on the panel were Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio; Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville; Walter “Four” Price, R-Amarillo; Mark Strama, D-Austin; Van Taylor, R-Plano, and James White, R-Woodville. Not surprisingly, the panelists agreed that budget issues are dominating the session. Castro opened the discussion by warning against allowing the budget deficit to devastate what he called “the infrastructure of opportunity,” which he defined as public education and medical care for the indigent. Rather than balance the budget through cuts, Castro called for the Legislature to change the tax system to eliminate the structural deficit in the state’s revenue stream. Lucio related that hundreds of concerned teachers and Medicaid clients have called his office, begging him to oppose the cuts laid out in HB1. “We have historically been underserved,” he said of his district, as he pointed out that the Rio Grande Valley is the only region of the state without an interstate highway. Education programs like public pre-kindergarten are the mechanism by which poor communities try to catch up to their more affluent counterparts. “If drastic budget cuts are passed,” he said, “We’re going to feel it first, and harder than anybody else. We’re just going to fall further down the rabbit hole.” Price, one of the three freshmen lawmakers on the panel, along with White and Taylor, if you count Taylor as a freshman (he was sworn in to fill the vacancy left by Brian McCall’s retirement after he won the Republican primary last spring), expressed concern about community colleges in his district, but he reserved his greatest alarm for the proposed Medicaid cuts. His district runs all the way to the state line at the top of the Panhandle, through sparsely populated counties with significant elderly populations. Care for the elderly is one of the biggest sources of jobs in his district, he said, and the Medicaid cuts would leave hundreds of workers unemployed, perhaps forcing the closing of rural hospitals and severely damaging the local economy. Price opposes the cuts and lay-offs but also expressed opposition to new taxes. Like Castro, he believes that the state’s tax system needs restructuring. Strama told how the citizens of Pflugerville have begun to wear raingear on days with clear skies. They gather on the city’s main roads for rush-hour rallies, their garb symbolic of their desire for legislators to tap into the Rainy Day Fund to ease the state’s budget crisis. He agrees that the Rainy Day Fund should be tapped to close the funding gap. Strama works in the private side of the educational business (Sylvan Learning Centers), and his experience has reinforced his belief that the more education dollars one invests, whether in the private sector or the public sector, the greater the grade-point yield. “The point of getting more bang for your buck should be more bang and not less bucks,” he said. Van Taylor championed smaller, no-new-taxes government in the face of job layoffs and reduced public spending. His Plano constituents evidently feel the same way, because he told of sending out a survey, to which a hefty majority of them responded that they opposed raising taxes to combat the state’s $27 billion budget shortfall. Taylor believes that even if there are layoffs, public-sector to private-sector jobs shifts have historically encouraged economic growth, as was the case, he said, in post-World War II America. Despite the state’s budget woes, Taylor said, Texas will continue to spend large sums of money on its citizens. “Seventy-seven billion,” he said, “is still a lot of government.” White, a teacher, is “not ready to fret” over reduced education funding. Texas’s education system is anachronistic, according to White, who views the budget cuts as an opportunity to remodel the system. The East Texas representative believes a portion of the Rainy Day Fund could be used supplement lost revenue, but does not advocate raising taxes for fear of stunting post-recession economic growth * * * * I was the moderator for the panel. I had very little to do, just introduce the panelists and get out of the way. The original plan was to let each panelist speak for ten minutes, but Strama suggested three. This proved to be an inspired move, as the panelists engaged with each other and a lively discussion ensued. To conclude the evening, I asked each panelist to relate what they were hearing from people back home. Price was the only panelist to mention redistricting. The concern about losing influence is very strong in West Texas. [This report is based upon notes taken by intern Katherine Stevens.]