My general reaction to the governor’s speech is that it was not his best work. His delivery was off and his message was predictable. Indeed, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, I predicted most of it. In my post before the speech, I wrote that he would back off from the Trans-Texas Corridor (which he did by embracing an eminent domain constitutional amendment), and tuition deregulation (which he did by proposing to freeze tuition for four years of college). That he would push for a tougher cap on state spending (which he did by suggesting that the cap be based on population growth plus inflation), that he would ask for more funding for his economic development funds (which he did). That he would propose higher education reforms such as funding based on incentives (which he did, tying funding to graduation rates), that he would come out for the Voter ID bill (you betcha), and that he would wave the pro-life flag (which he did by endorsing adult stem cell research and a requirement that women seeking an abortion view ultrasound images).
I would like for readers to comment about how smart and clever I was, but I fear I wait in vain for such confirmation. I suspect, rather, that readers, shrewd folk that they are, will tell me that anyone who has watched Rick Perry for the last eight years, or is it eighteen, would know exactly what he would say, because it is what he has always done: pander to the Republican primary voter. Or they will remind me that I forgot to mention that he would backpedal from the margins tax by raising the small business exemption.
Perhaps it will be more useful to look at his proposals. Let’s start with an easy one: the tuition freeze. This will work great for students who graduate in four years. But most students do not, and since tuition will rise every year, as new classes come in, students who need a fifth year will be greeted by a sudden rise in tuition costs. Let’s say that I go to UT for four years, starting at $6,000 per year. In the second year, the regents raise tuition by $1,000, but my tuition remains frozen. In the third year, the regents again raise tuition by $1,000, but mine remains frozen. The same thing happens in the fourth year. When I enroll for my fifth, and hopefully final year, I will have to pay those three incremental $1,000 increases, for a total of $9,000, a 50% “graduation penalty” for failing to graduate in four years. I’m not against a tuition freeze, of course. I just think that won’t be a real freeze for students who change majors or can’t get their course schedules arranged so that they can finish in four years.
What about the governor’s proposed spending cap of population growth plus inflation? The current cap is population growth plus personal income. That’s a good standard because personal income is a measure of the ability to pay. If, instead, the cap is based upon population growth plus inflation, the increase in population (which may well be attributable to the immigration of poor people) creates a demand for social services that cannot be met, whether inflation is low (keeping the cap down) or high (reducing the buying power of money). The proposed cap is a solution in search of a problem.
Another issue was the proposal to tie funding for colleges and universities to graduation rates. The problem with this attempt to extend accountability to higher ed is that it penalizes entry-level institutions that attract students who are not the sort who attend UT and A&M. I heard testimony about this at the House Appropriations Committee hearings in 2007. The students who attend colleges like UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American, and UTEP, are not the sort who drive their BMWs to Austin. Many of them have to work. The president of UTEP said that UT is like an express train: students get on, stay in school, and get off at graduation. UTEP is a local. A student gets on, may get off to work for a year, and may get back on for a year or two. Incentive funding based on graduation rates just doesn’t work for entry-level schools.
Perry had many more proposals, of course. You can find the entire speech on his web site. What you won’t find in the speech itself was leadership or inspiration. It was basically a repeat of what he has said before: economic growth, low taxes, low spending, less regulation, and consequently, less government. He didn’t even mention health care, or the lack of it, even though it’s the largest area of the budget. Perry has his strengths—foremost of which are dealing with emergencies like hurricanes and throwing the weight of his office behind economic growth—but after all these years he still is more about politics and ideology than governing.