Less Than Hero

The budget crisis is severe, but with challenges multiplying all around, Texas faces an even more serious shortfall: a deficit of leadership.

May 2011By Comments

Perhaps you were among the thousands of Texans who answered their phones on the evening of the Ides of March and were surprised to hear the voice of the governor of Texas. “Good evening,” the voice began. “I’m sorry I missed you. Texans elected a Republican supermajority to cut wasteful government spending, not to raise taxes or grow government.

“But right now, some are pressuring lawmakers to do just that.

“Your voice is needed in Austin. But your voice can only be heard if you are engaged. Please make sure your legislator knows where you stand.”

Robocalls like this one are standard political tactics. But Perry’s script represented a significant departure from the norm. It was designed not to support members of his own party but to undercut them, to portray them as wavering under pressure. (Perry finished by directing people to the website of Empower Texans, where they found another attack on Republicans: a post taking to task the House Appropriations Committee, with its 18–9 Republican majority, for “stopping at $800 million in cuts.”) Though Perry didn’t say so directly, the clear implication was that Republican lawmakers were contemplating raising taxes and growing government. In fact, the opposite was true. Even as Perry’s voice was echoing across the state, GOP budget writers in the House were putting the finishing touches on a bill that proposed far less spending than contemplated in a similar bill in the Senate. So why did the governor feel it was necessary to record this message to voters?

The answer is, this is what passes for leadership in Texas today. Most Texans by now are well aware of the budget deficit the state faces. But another deficit threatens to do just as much harm: a leadership deficit. In the face of monumental challenges (a national recession, exploding population growth, faltering schools, border security concerns), our state leadership has been largely indifferent, starting with the governor, who excels at consolidating and maintaining power but not at using it to move Texas forward. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, and Comptroller Susan Combs have not been much better. Political leadership involves taking risks, but none of these politicians are willing to stick their neck out.

Texas has produced its share of leaders over the years—from Sam Houston to George W. Bush—and nearly all of them possessed two characteristics: the courage to speak unpopular truths and a willingness to compromise. On the first point, few have matched Houston. When all of Texas was aflame with secessionist passion in 1861, Houston, as governor, refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, thereby ending his political career. Houston’s greatness was that he told the people what he knew to be the truth, even when they didn’t want to hear it. “Let me tell you what is coming,” he said to a hostile audience in Galveston after Texas had seceded. “You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasures and hundreds of thousands of precious lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence, if God be not against you. But I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union.”

Compromise is too often regarded as a sign of weakness in our ideological age, but Lyndon Johnson was acknowledged as a master of the art and Bush practiced it successfully as governor. In his first term, Bush faced a pivotal decision in a battle over tort reform that forced him to decide whether to govern by force or by negotiation. When he decided on the latter, he cut a deal with Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and the rest of his years as governor were smooth sailing.

Perry is a different kind of politician. He would never dream of taking the sort of risk Houston did, and he compromises only when forced to. He appeals to people’s fears, having more or less given up on their better natures. Look at the robocall. The most remarkable word in this message is “wasteful,” which is how he chooses to characterize government spending. This is just plain bizarre. Texas ranks dead last nationally in state spending per capita, is close to the bottom in spending per public school student, has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens, and so on. In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, Texas was the only state in which per capita spending averaged below $4,000. All of this is taking place in a state whose population grew by 20 percent in the past decade—that’s 20 percent more people who will be using our aging highways, our overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, and our schools, whose revenue has been frozen since 2006. Wasteful?

But voters don’t know this. The dynamic of our current politics is this: Perry stirs up the GOP base; the base responds by calling their representatives; the representatives, fearful of the voters’ wrath, cave in. One of the basic issues of democratic government is how to ensure that the voters can make informed decisions with good information. During Perry’s year-long race for reelection, which included a primary race against Kay Bailey Hutchison and a general election campaign against Bill White, he hid the ball on the state’s budget situation, repeatedly insisting that the current budget crisis was just another fiscal hiccup, something like the $10 billion shortfall that the Legislature overcame in 2003. Voters who heard this message last year are now likely to conclude that cuts to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes won’t really do much damage, that the fear of fiscal Armageddon is exaggerated, and that spending from the Rainy Day Fund would be profligate.

But a report by the Legislative Budget Board—loudly condemned by the state’s leadership because it told the ugly truth—estimated that the House’s version of the budget, if it became law, would result in more than 600,000 jobs lost, a $34.2 billion decrease in gross state product, and a $29.8 billion decline in personal income, among other bad news. Considerable effort has been made to, as the saying goes, “put lipstick on a pig,” but the shock waves created by the LBB’s numbers continue to roll through the Capitol.

The roots of the current shortfall can be traced back to 2006, when the Texas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to reduce its reliance on local school property taxes to fund education. Lawmakers responded by cutting school property taxes by a third. To make up for the loss of local property taxes, the Legislature enacted a new business tax. The state’s leaders at the time—Perry, Dewhurst, and then-speaker Tom Craddick—were warned by then-comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn that this “tax swap” would not provide enough revenue, but they ignored her. Strayhorn told the Houston Chronicle that Perry’s tax plan would cost the state a cumulative $10.6 billion by 2011. The leadership has known about this problem for five years, and they have done . . . nothing. Sure enough, here we are in 2011, and the state budget is now permanently saddled with this structural deficit.

A great leader who found himself in this situation would do two things: Tell the people the truth about our fiscal situation, and look for ways to fix it, even if they involve compromise. Don’t expect Perry to try either. He is a born non-compromiser. He takes his cues not from Houston but from that other hero of the revolution, William Barret Travis. Travis was extremely valiant on the battlefield. He is most famous for drawing a line in the sand at the Alamo and declaring, “I shall never surrender or retreat.” Sound familiar? Perry is constantly drawing lines in the sand. No taxes. No fees. No Rainy Day Fund. No, no, no. When it comes to leading troops into battle, Travis is the man you want, but politics is about negotiation. Perry doesn’t give an inch unless forced to. I attended a budget hearing concerning the use of the Rainy Day Fund for the purpose of complying with the constitutional requirement that the state’s current bills be paid before the end of the fiscal year, on August 31. Perry stalled for two days before agreeing to let the House draw $3.2 billion from the fund. This was a phony compromise, though. The governor was always going to have to agree to this—or else the state would have literally run out of money.

It’s time for somebody else to step forward, but who? Perry has already made it clear that he is satisfied with a bargain-basement budget. Speaker Straus hasn’t indicated any desire to lead; rather, he allows the members to run the House while he presides. This leaves us with the light gov. Dewhurst has the capability to be a take-charge leader, but the will to address the state’s problems that was so much in evidence during his first session as lieutenant governor, in 2003, has slowly ebbed away. Dewhurst is a pretty good wonk when he is fully engaged; in 2009, for example, he got deep in the weeds of health care, but time ran out on the session before his bills could make progress. This session he has shown glimmers of leadership; he has come down on the side of finding more revenue in this excruciating fiscal climate by establishing a committee to find up to $5 billion in non-tax revenue. But the fact that he has expressed interest in running for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat clouds the picture. Will Dewhurst be willing to take political risks with a campaign looming? Or will he play it safe and pander to the far right? The House has effectively handed him the ball by passing a widely detested budget bill that has no chance of becoming law. Everyone with a stake in services (from public schools to nursing homes to state parks) is counting on Dewhurst and the Senate to save the day. That will take real leadership—and it starts with telling the people what they don’t want to hear.

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