Now What?

Illustration by John Green

So you think the presidential election in Florida lasted a long time? Try Texas. We’ve been living with it not for weeks, not for months, but for years. Here the campaign began two years ago with the 1999 legislative session and Governor George W. Bush’s program that was tailored to win him the Republican nomination. And here, long after the next president of the United States is inaugurated, the campaign and its aftershocks will go on and on.

Texas, after all, was a conspicuous issue in the presidential race. Al Gore attacked Bush’s record on health care and the environment, and the national media chimed in on capital punishment. Some of Gore’s attacks were exaggerated (Houston does not have dirtier air than Los Angeles), but enough were on target—Texas ranks forty-ninth among the states in the number and percentage of insured children, for example—that we ought to consider seriously whether the kind of government we have is the kind we ought to have.

The place to have this debate is in the legislative session that begins on January 9. This is not a partisan issue. It predates Bush’s governorship—and Ann Richards’, and you can substitute any other name you like. Texas has traditionally embraced a low-tax, low-service philosophy with the intention of creating a good climate for business. Except for executions and highway miles, the state has long ranked near the bottom in just about every category in which state government can be measured. Columnist Molly Ivins has built a career around lines like “Texas is Mississippi with good roads.” The trouble is, even our roads aren’t so good anymore.

The lesson of the presidential race is that for Texas to fail to make an effort to address its shortcomings is to choose to be forty-ninth. That choice will have consequences. A good business climate carries a different meaning today. Houston’s reputation as Pollution City will deter businesses from moving to town. The Rio Grande Valley’s reputation for poor health care will discourage investment and economic growth in an area that desperately needs it. Perception is reality, and the perception of Texas today is not altogether different from the perception of opponents of annexation 156 years ago, one of whom described us as “an unprincipled population of adventurers.”

The question now is what the Legislature can do. Let’s start with capital punishment, because the fixes are easy and cheap. Despite Bush’s insistence that the state’s method of handling death penalty cases is fair,

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