“Read My Lips: No New Texas”

He calls Texas his adopted home state. So what has George Bush done for us lately? Not much.

August 1992By Comments

Welcome home, Mr. President. It’s great to have you back for the Republican convention. How’s it going with you? Things could be better, you say? Well, that’s how it is in Texas. Maybe we could help each other a little. . . .

Let’s be fair about this: George Bush has to worry about the whole country, not just the problems of one state. Still, there is a lot a president can do to help a place he cares about. He can fight for funding major projects that benefit both the state and the country. He can try to solve regional problems with policies that are good for the nation. And he can ease the inevitable bureaucratic snags that every state runs into so that everybody gets fair and equal treatment from his administration. The president can’t be involved in every decision, of course, but he can make it clear to subordinates in the White House and the Cabinet that his home state really matters to him.

Lyndon Johnson understood all this. “People in his administration wanted to help Texas projects,” recalls George Christian, LBJ’s press secretary who now lives in Austin. “They knew that’s what the president wanted.” Of course, times were different then. The economy was good, and the government had money to spend. What the press and the public think of as pork barrel today was thought of as progress in the sixties—space projects, dams, Padre Island National Seashore, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and countless smaller projects, from a regional IRS service center for Austin to a rebuilt Fort Davis in West Texas.

Even allowing for the way government has changed in the quarter-century that separates the two Texas presidents, George Bush’s record for helping Texas is spotty at best. Banking, real estate, and oil—all heavily affected by federal policies, all vital to the state’s economy—remain in the doldrums. The lack of vision and personal commitment that have plagued his entire administration are reflected in his record toward Texas. On the few occasions when he has embraced a policy that matters to Texas—full funding for the supercollider, for example—he hasn’t followed through with speeches and lobbying efforts. Most of the time, Bush’s attitude toward Texas must be judged on the basis of decisions made by subordinates and his own indifference to the consequences. Here’s a look at Texas’ wish list and how little of it has come true.

Science and Technology

Two months ago George Bush was getting high marks from Texas congressmen on both sides of the aisle for keeping the supercollider and the space station in his budget. But that was before the House vote in June to eliminate all funding for the supercollider, which physicists say is the most important high-energy research project in the world. White House lobbyists had promised to deliver at least 105 Republican votes for the project; in fact, GOP lawmakers split, 79—79. The vote to eliminate funding passed by 51 votes. Had the White House delivered the 26 extra votes it promised, that would have been a swing of 52 votes—just enough to keep the supercollider alive. Now it can be saved only if the Senate funds it and persuades House negotiators to go along. Bush has promised to have one-on-one conversations with wavering Republican senators. But where was the telephone at the crucial moment in the House?

Bush’s critics now say that he didn’t do enough to make the project his own. “On issues like technology and energy,” says Democratic congressman Mike Andrews of Houston, “the president has to define national goals and drive a program toward those goals.” The supercollider lost—and the space station is now in jeopardy—because its opponents were able to characterize it as pork barrel for Texas when it should be regarded as scientific research for America.

Defense

Bell helicopter’s V-22 Osprey is supposed to be the aircraft of the future. But George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, has been determined to make it the aircraft of the past.

The tilt-rotor V-22 is designed to take off and land vertically but otherwise fly like an airplane. If perfected, it could carry more passengers at higher speeds for longer distances than any helicopter. This military project is more than a boon for the Fort Worth area; it has obvious long-term civilian benefits. Yet Cheney has done everything in his power to kill it. He has refused to request any money for the V-22, and when Congress funded it anyway, he refused to spend the money. Only when the U.S. comp-troller general declared Cheney’s action illegal and began proceedings to release $790 million did Cheney grudgingly give in. But the credit for keeping the V-22 alive went to Congress, not to George Bush.

Why has Cheney gone to such lengths to eliminate the V-22? A theory prevalent among Texas Democrats in Congress is that Cheney’s animosity for former speaker Jim Wright is behind his animosity for Wright’s onetime pet project.

Environment

Part of Lavaca Bay is contaminated with mercury—so badly, in fact, that the state health department won’t let people keep the fish they catch. State officials have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to classify the bay as a Superfund site, a designation that would make it eligible for federal clean-up funds. The EPA is taking its time.

Highways

Texas has never gotten its fair share of federal highway trust funds. In fact, it is the biggest loser in the country. Between 1956 and 1990 Texas paid $2.5 billion more into the highway fund (through gasoline taxes) than it got back. California and Florida are other big losers. And who are the winners? New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont, which together show a “profit” of almost $7 billion during that time.

This is not happenstance. Highway money is distributed according to an enigmatic formula crafted to benefit northeastern states. One factor used in figuring where the money goes is the amount of “postal route miles” in a state. Postal route miles? Whatever they are, they have been part of the formula since 1916—and they count far more than interstate highway miles. The 1990 census doesn’t count either. For the next five years, the population factor in the formula will continue to be calculated according to the 1980 census—thus shielding northeastern states against their population losses during the past decade.

These formulas are not the fault of the Bush administration; they were written by Congress. But during the negotiations over the 1991 highway bill, a bipartisan coalition of senators begged the White House to intervene with a veto threat unless the formulas were made more equitable. After all, it is the Republican South and West that lose dollars, while the Democratic Northeast wins. The answer came back: no.

The Census

While we’re on the subject of the 1990 census, where was Houstonian Robert Mosbacher when we needed him? The Secretary of Commerce (now George Bush’s campaign director) had to decide whether to adjust the census for an undercount of minorities. That there was an undercount was undisputed; the only issue was what to do about it. Mosbacher elected to do nothing. Texas will lose at least $1 billion in federal aid as a result of its lower population figure. No overt act of the Bush administration will have such a negative financial impact on Texas.

Drugs

Watch the Bush administration closely on this one. In early July Congress changed the funding formula for alcohol and drug abuse funds. The long-term effect on Texas is uncertain, but the short-term effect is clear: In an unusual move, Congress made the change take effect in the middle of the fiscal year, costing Texas $10 million in the fourth quarter and disrupting programs that are already in progress. Florida is another loser (notice a pattern here? As in the case of highways, the states with big needs are ganged up on by states with lesser needs). Because the quarter started on July 1 and the bill hadn’t yet become law, Texas wants the Bush administration to send out the checks according to the old formula and let the new formula take effect when the next fiscal year starts in October.

Energy

Utter disaster. George Bush waged war to protect foreign oil supplies, yet he has done virtually nothing to promote increased domestic oil supplies. “He has presided over the final collapse of the domestic exploration industry with no apparent remorse,” says Lufkin Democratic congressman Charles Wilson.

In Bush’s defense, the policies necessary to give a real boost to domestic drilling may just be too controversial—imposing an import fee that would provide a floor price for oil and lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. (Of course, they might not have been so controversial had Bush proposed them during the Gulf War as essential to national security.) But the Bush administration missed other chances to help the battered industry. The president’s most recent proposed budget did not include the number one priority of Texas independent producers: relief from tax laws that reduce their deduction for drilling costs and depletion. (Congress is on track to provide some relief anyway.) And the national energy bill that is working its way through Congress turned into a catastrophe for Texas when two northeastern congressmen added an amendment that gutted the Texas Railroad Commission’s power to regulate natural gas production. The White House used its veto threat to get some items removed from the bill, but on the natural gas amendment, it was AWOL.

Taxes

“No new taxes” apparently doesn’t apply to Texas. A provision in the original Medicare law allowed state and local governments to opt out of the Medicare system and provide their own health coverage to special employees such as teachers, firefighters, and police. Only a handful of states have opted out—including Texas. The Bush administration has repeatedly tried to change the rules and bring everybody under the Medicare system, only to be blocked by Congress. If the administration gets its way, thousands of Texans will have to pay a 1.45 percent payroll tax, and local governments (that is, taxpayers) will have to underwrite a matching share.

Health Care

Texas is engaged IN a running battle with the Bush administration over how much in matching federal funds Texas hospitals can receive for treating charity patients. A recent rule change by the administration puts the state in danger of losing $800 million a year.

Most of this money goes to 24 hospitals around the state, such as Park-land in Dallas, that treat large numbers of charity patients—and there are large numbers to be treated. Nearly one out of every four Texans has no health insurance, the highest percentage of any state except New Mexico. Because of arcane federal regulations, states have had to jump through some strange hoops in order to get the matching funds. In one case, private hospitals made a donation to a state, which used the donation to get federal funds and then returned both the donation and the matching funds to the hospitals. But when Texas came up with its own proposal—taxing the 24 charity hospitals and using those dollars to get matching funds—the Bush administration cracked down. It decreed that Texas must tax all hospitals in the state, not just the 24 that provide most of the charity care, in order to be eligible for federal money. Oh, sure. What is the chance that the Legislature will vote to tax around 400 hospitals that will receive little or no federal funds in return? Approximately zero. And that is how much will be left of the $800 million Texas now receives unless the state can dream up a new plan to satisfy the feds by June 1993.

Personal Pork

This is the one area where George Bush has really treated us like home folks. He gave us the Republican convention, the Economic Summit, and his presidential library. We’re glad to have them. But we’d trade them all for a healthy oil industry.

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