In a column by the Statesman’s Ken Herman last week, three “unnamed” Republican sources who have been in state government for a collective 47 years admitted to him that “a generation of Republican rule” has left Texas in “kind of a mess.” Herman identified their concerns: chronically underfunded schools; crippling water shortages; an inadequate transportation system; and other missed opportunities. Some of the worst actions taken by state leaders were the decimation of the public health system, including drastic reductions in the Medicaid and CHIP programs in 2003. Another really bad decision was the target revenue system for public schools, which choked school budgets across the state. Yet another fateful decision was Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid; had he done so, Texas’s health institutions could be on the cutting edge of modern medicine, instead of struggling to make ends meet. A decade later, here we are, still last in the country in the number of people without health insurance, still stuck in court trying to develop an equitable school finance system. All of this is happening when Texas is enjoying boom times that should encourage state leaders to address the state’s infrastructure needs, thanks to the bounty of the Eagle Ford shale, but there is no will to put the oil revenue to work by enhancing our transportation network, including oil-field roads that get heavy traffic. Perry is responsible for many of the failures, but the state’s business community has only recently awakened to the reality that without infrastructure improvements — in roads and bridges, in the generation of electricity, and in the effort to expand water supplies — commerce in the state may grind to a halt. Texans do a lot of bragging about the number of people and businesses that are relocating here, but we don’t have the ability to provide for their needs.
The Republicans in question, of course, are the candidates running against David Dewhurst to become lieutenant governor, and, as Herman writes, “They have to say this stuff because they have to convince GOP primary voters to oust three-term Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.” The point I want to make here is that state government doesn’t do much to improve the everyday lives of Texans. It doesn’t seem to worry anybody that Texas ranks last in the number of people without health insurance. This is a time bomb waiting to explode. It doesn’t seem to worry anybody that the state invests less and less in higher education every year. Most recently, state leaders decided not to issue tuition revenue bonds that would allow universities to expand their STEM programs [science, technology, engineering, and math]. These are short-sighted decisions that have long-term ramifications. Texas cannot continue to prosper if it does not fund higher education, which is essential to our state’s future.
Most of what I have written, above, is not unknown to policy makers. Most budget writers know that we are underfunding higher ed. They know, too, that the revenue from the margins tax failed to make up for the revenue that was supposed to balance out the property tax cut of 2006: that the underperformance of the margins tax created a structural deficit in the state budget, which grows by about $2 billion every year and erodes the ability to pay for state services.
And this is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that the political culture of the state took a wrong turn in 2010 or so — you can circle the date Perry first hinted about secession — and it has never regained its equilibrium. Call it the tea party, call it state’s rights, call it whatever you want, but lawmakers and voters lost interest in the normal functions of state government. Instead, they veered off into a feeding frenzy against all things Barack Obama. Good government — that is, the things that state government was supposed to be doing — dropped off the radar screen. And Texas politicians lined up for a mad dash to the right, as far to the right as they could get, and it proved to be very far indeed.
( AP images / LM Otero )