This summer, Scott McCown will step down after ten years as executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank based in Austin. McCown appeared on Texas Monthly’s list of the 25 most powerful people in Texas politics in 2005 and again in 2011. McCown came to CPPP after an influential career as a state judge, during which he presided over all of the state’s school finance cases between 1990 and 2002, and made a name for himself as an advocate for abused and neglected children. He is moving on to become the director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. We asked McCown to reflect on the last decade in Texas politics and CPPP’s role at the capitol.
Nate Blakeslee: Your tenure at CPPP roughly coincided with Governor Perry’s time in office. Can you give us your take on the Perry years?
Scott McCown: I’m a fifth-generation Texan on both sides of my family tree, and I’ve been all over this state and feel like I have a good understanding of Texas, but I never would’ve forecast that we would’ve been dragged this far to the right–I think to the detriment of the state.
NB: What’s caused it?
SM: It’s really a national trend that’s been particularly intense in Texas. I think historians will have to tell us what caused it. But you start with Proposition 13 in California [the 1978 law that drastically limited the state’s ability to raise taxes], and you just see a deliberate campaign to undermine the public’s trust in government and make the public unwilling to make public investments. This is a pendulum that’s swung throughout our history, beginning with the Articles of Confederation versus the United States Constitution, with Hamilton versus Jefferson, with whether we were gonna invest public money in canals and opening the West. In Texas, the arc of that pendulum is much more narrow: it never swung as far toward the public side as it did nationally, and it swung much further to the individualist side than nationally, and we’ve lived in a period where that’s been intensified. I think that one factor in Texas has been the changing demographics. You have an aging Anglo population that I think is very challenged, and to some extent threatened, by an emerging Hispanic majority, and how you manage that change has been one of the issues.
NB: In 1999, the Texas legislature dramatically expanded state health insurance for low-income kids. Fast forward to the 2013 legislative session, where Obama’s plan to expand Medicaid is considered beyond the pale in Texas. How did we get from there to here in such a short period of time?
SM: It’s important to understand that this strain of “everybody’s on their own” runs very deep in Texas history. Our state constitution, for example, has a limit on how much we can spend on aid to dependent children. I mean, think about that: We were so frightened by aid to dependent children that we put a constitutional limit as to what percentage of the budget could go to it. There’s just been this kind of unwillingness to see the public’s role in helping people and to have a sense that we’re all in this together. You know, the problems I have in life are circumstances, and the problems you have in life are because you lack character [laughs].
NB: You are a fifth-generation Texan yourself. Why do you feel the way you do about what the government’s proper role should be?
SM: Actually, it’s Methodism. There are a lot of serious historians who credit John Wesley with averting an English revolution because he focused society’s attention on the needs of the poor and the working class in England. And Methodism has a social gospel that’s coming out of a Christian faith that understands that we’re all in this together. You can’t have the kind of income inequality and create the sort of underclass that we’re creating and live in a stable, prosperous democracy. You can’t do that. These trends have to be reversed.
NB: Your organization has grown in size and influence at a time when the state’s main conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has also flourished. What was it like doing battle with them for ten years?
SM: Well, we’re both tax-exempt organizations engaged in public education and we both seek funding from the public. And I think if you’re a philanthropist and you’ve made a lot of money and you give to TPPF to keep your taxes low [laughs], that’s an easy sell. Whereas if you’re a philanthropist and you’ve made a lot of money and CPPP asks you for an investment to educate the public about how we need higher taxes, that’s a tougher sell. So I would say if you’re picking a job, they have the easier job.
We do have differing perspectives, and what we try to focus Texans on is how you build a strong economy for everybody and how you move the state forward economically. We really work hard to ground our work in rigorous analysis and data, and I think we’ve established our credibility, so that even those with a different perspective respect our work. So I feel good about where we are.
What’s frustrated me about TPPF is that assertions they have made have been proven to be demonstrably wrong by organizations like Politifact, and yet they continue to say the same things over and over. But we have different perspectives, and other people will have to judge.
NB: Let’s talk about Texas’s tax structure: What should we be doing differently long-term?
SM: We’ve got a serious problem where our economy is growing while our tax base is shrinking, and that’s because we rely mostly on a sales tax on goods. When I started this job over ten years ago, it was with a campaign to get Texas to adopt a modest income tax, and now