Can’t Hardly Wait

We'll name our best and worst legislators next month, but with outrage and excess piling up, it's not too soon to drop a few hints.

ONE DAY DURING A LEGISLATIVE session in the mid-eighties, a freshman lawmaker walked up to me on the House floor. Without bothering to introduce himself, he launched into what was on his mind: “Why do you enjoy being an assassin?” I knew he was referring to the article that I have written every session since 1975 (recently in collaboration with Patricia Kilday Hart), “The Best and the Worst Legislators,” and I was sure he wasn’t talking about the Best list. This turned out to be one of those rare occasions when I didn’t have to realize three hours later what I should have said. “The Worst list isn’t homicides,” I answered. “It’s suicides. I just report them.”

This anecdote comes to mind whenever I see lawmakers engage in self-inflicted harm, which seems to happen with increasing frequency these days. But the Seventy-eighth Legislature has added an unwelcome variation: Lawmakers as a body are heading pell-mell toward the abyss of massive cuts in the two most important areas of the budget: health care and education. And they haven’t done much otherwise to be proud of.

Normally, I withhold my comments about the Legislature until the Best and Worst article appears in the July issue. But to borrow from the title of a 1998 movie that my teenage sons rent all too often: can’t hardly wait. The session that is now entering its final days has been filled more than most with ill will between Republicans and Democrats, ego battles among the leadership, and the failure to see beyond one’s own political self-interest to a larger public good. Much has been made of the circumstances—Republican dominance for the first time in 130 years and the largest budget shortfall in Texas history—but twenty or thirty years from now, no one will care what crises this Legislature faced. All that will matter is whether lawmakers did the best they could do.

Here are some of the areas in which the Seventy-eighth Legislature has failed to live up to its responsibilities:

Trauma centers. The debate over health care for the poor typically goes like this. Democrats say that the poor should have broad access to health care through programs like CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and Medicaid. Republicans say that the costs are enormous and look for ways to control them. Democrats say that Republicans have no heart. Republicans say that Democrats have no head. And so on.

In fact, the problem is not who receives health care; it’s who provides it. Namely, the hospitals. Under federal law, hospitals must give treatment to anyone who shows up at an emergency room, whether the patient can pay for the services or not. The poor will get their health care, one way or another. But the hospitals won’t necessarily get their money. State budget writers have proposed reducing the amount the state reimburses hospitals for Medicaid patients by about 10 percent.

The consequences are dire. Hospitals fortunate enough to be funded through a local taxing district (Parkland in Dallas, for example) will have to raise taxes. Hospitals without a tax base will lose money. A few, particularly in areas with a high percentage of Medicaid patients, may have to close. Santa Rosa, in downtown San Antonio, will be hit with a loss of at least four times its current operating margin. Houston’s two public hospitals will find their combined budgets shrunk by 25 percent. These big urban institutions are the only places capable of handling trauma cases that result from serious injury or accident. If one or more has to close or cut services, people will die. The trauma hospitals are asking for state funding to offset the loss of Medicaid reimbursements. But their request has run up against the determination of Governor Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick to make lower spending their top priority.

This is foolish and shortsighted. I’m not arguing for new taxes this session. The entire GOP leadership promised not to raise taxes. Politicians ought to hew to their promises. But Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn have proposed a number of ways of stretching the budget without new taxes (even if they don’t like each other’s ideas—or each other—very much). The trauma centers should be funded.

Tuition deregulation. The Texas Legislature is one of the great have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too organizations of all time. Nowhere is this trait more evident than in the funding—or lack thereof—of the state’s flagship institutions, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. The Legislature has been cutting back on its support for the flagships for years. The solution championed by UT chancellor Mark Yudof is for the Legislature to give universities control of their own tuition. But lawmakers currently have control and don’t have to pay for it. That’s a mighty fine piece of cake.

The debate over deregulation in the House was one of the low points of the session. (The Senate decided to put off the issue for two years.) Lawmakers spoke piously about ensuring that students will be able to afford to attend UT and A&M—but what kind of education will they get once they are there? What happened to the idea, once widely accepted in the Legislature, that great universities are central to the state’s future? They keep our brightest students at home. They import brains and federal research dollars. But today’s lawmakers are interested in only three things about the flagships: keeping tuition low so that they don’t have to listen to the complaints of their constituents, being able to use their influence to get their kids into UT or A&M, and getting free football tickets.

I have previously written favorably about tuition deregulation in this space, but I would find it equally acceptable for the Legislature to keep control of tuition and fund the flagships adequately. That isn’t going to happen. Neither, sad to say, is deregulation.

Ethics. The last time the Legislature overhauled ethics laws was in 1991. At the time, the biggest ethical issue was lifestyle. Lobbyists wined and dined lawmakers at expensive restaurants

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