FUNERALS ARE AN OCCASION TO reflect upon the ravages of time, upon all that mattered once but is no more. So it was at the December 2 service for George Christian, the former LBJ hand and wise man of Texas politics. His death seemed to symbolize the changes that are taking place at the Capitol, where he spent most of his professional life. His career—as a newsman, as an adviser to two governors, as White House press secretary, and as a political consultant spanned the evolution of Texas from a one-party Democratic state to what is now virtually a one-party Republican state. The audience included former governors Dolph Briscoe, Mark White, and Ann Richards and a throng of state officials, current and former legislators, lobbyists, and friends. Although erstwhile Republican rivals Governor Rick Perry and U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison were prominently in attendance, along with other Republican leaders, the crowd was heavily Democratic, and one had to wonder how many of them mourned not only for Christian but also for the era that had come to an end.
Christian himself was more intrigued by the future. He had hoped to live through the legislative session that begins this month; as he told me a year ago, when I wrote about his decision to forgo chemotherapy for lung cancer (“Onward, Christian,” February 2002), “Watching the Republicans, now that they have their teeth on the tire, is going to be fun. I’ve got to . . . see if the tire rolls over them.” What he wanted to know, in essence, was, Can the Republicans govern? Now everybody else (including the Republicans) wants to know too.
To some, the question may seem condescending. But rookies always have to prove themselves. The Republicans have never had control of the entire process before. They have never had the sole responsibility of preparing a budget, of determining the state’s priorities, of finding a balance between politics and policy. They have never felt the kind of pressure they are about to get from their long-frustrated constituencies, whose expectations are sky-high. These things would be contentious enough in good times, but the GOP’s ascension coincides with a fiscal crisis, the second-steepest budget shortfall in Texas history, conservatively estimated at $5.1 billion. And that’s just the start of the problem. New public-school enrollment will precipitate a $1 billion increase over the previous budget. The ever-growing Medicaid rolls will cost another $2.7 billion, if fully funded. Getting rid of the Robin Hood school-finance plan, loathed by Republicans because it forces property-rich schools to give part of their local tax revenue to poor districts, would add at least another $1 billion in new spending. Options that might have been available, such as tax increases, have been taken off the table by no-new-you-know-what campaign pledges. It won’t be easy.
The Republican leaders—Governor Perry, Lieutenant Governor-elect David Dewhurst, and Speaker-in-waiting Tom Craddick—know this, of course. Indeed, one of their first acts following their electoral victories was to seek advice. But Karl Rove is in the White House, so they all turned to lobbyists. Perry chose Mike Toomey, who would be high on anybody’s list of the Capitol’s premier business lobbyists, as his chief of staff (formalizing a role many felt Toomey had been filling all along). Dewhurst recruited Bruce Gibson, of Reliant Energy, for his chief of staff. Craddick turned to two more prominent lobbyists, Bill Messer and Bill Miller, who quickly became known as the Dollar Bills, to help run his transition team. The leadership’s entrustment of the henhouse to the foxes did not play well in the media, but then, who knows the mysterious workings of the Capitol better?
Well, how about George Christian? He isn’t here to speak for himself, but most of us who have been around Texas politics for a while have a pretty good idea of what he might say about how the Republican era of Texas politics could get off to a good start. Okay, George, over to you:
Do what’s best for Texas. As a governing philosophy, that sounds simple enough, but here’s the catch. The concept of what’s best for Texas, while eternally elusive, is something separate and distinct from what might be best for a particular political party or a particular ideology. The leaders who went before you—George W. Bush, Bob Bullock, and Pete Laney—all understood this ideal and embraced it. Hew to this standard and you can’t go too far astray.
Put education first. It’s the future. If you have to cut the budget, cut elsewhere. If you have a little extra money to spend, spend it here—starting with our best universities, which have been neglected in recent years. The biggest issue in public education right now is school finance. The patches that were put on the system back in the early nineties are about to pop. Many school districts have reached or are fast approaching the maximum property tax rate allowed by state law of $1.50 per $100 valuation. Your constituents want you to get rid of Robin Hood, but the truth is, you can’t get rid of Robin Hood in a property tax-based school-finance system. Now, you’re not going to like hearing this, but the only way to do it is to have a state income—well, I won’t say the dreaded words, but you’ll figure out soon enough that it’s true. In the meantime, Perry should appoint a bipartisan committee to hold hearings across the state and come back to the Legislature in 2005 with a solution to the school-finance problem. Tom Luce, the Dallas attorney who helped Ross Perot bring about the education reform of 1984 and continues to be a leader of the accountability movement, would be a good choice as chairman.
Be fiscally responsible. Texas has a pay-as-you-go system of government. It can spend only as much money as the comptroller of public accounts, currently Carole Keeton Rylander, says is available. One way to get around the pay-as-you-go system is by issuing bonds. Perry’s ambitious highway plan, for example, calls for issuing up to $183 billion in bonds over the next fifty years and paying off the interest—roughly one third of a trillion dollars—with revenue from tolls and privatization. Is it a good idea to privatize highways? What happens if the tolls don’t cover the interest? Perry won’t be around to be held accountable if anything goes wrong, and I won’t be around to say I told you so, but it would be nice if some legislators were to take a long and careful look at the numbers before the plan gets too far down the line.
Another way to get around the comptroller’s edict is to employ what is euphemistically called “efficient cash management techniques,” more commonly known around the Capitol as “smoke and mirrors.” An example: providing enough funding for only 23 months of Medicaid in a two-year budget. When the money runs out, the next Legislature can pass an emergency appropriation bill before the end of the fiscal year to pay for the final month. It’s not the best way to conduct business, but as fiscal irresponsibility goes, smoke and mirrors is a misdemeanor, the kind of thing you try if you’re a few hundred million or so short of balancing the books. But if you’re a few billion short, all the smoke and mirrors in the world won’t help. At such times, it’s easy to lose your financial discipline. Already some Republicans are talking about “securitizing” future income from the state’s $17 billion settlement with tobacco companies. Lottery players will understand what this means: “cash option.” You won, but you elect not to take the full $17 billion, just the present value of the money. Instead of having a perpetual endowment for public health, lawmakers would elect to take $5 billion right now to balance the budget, and then it would be gone forever. It’s a terrible idea.
Don’t overreach. You won the election, and you’re entitled to try to enact your agenda. But keep in mind that some of the issues on that agenda are controversial (just as you considered some of the issues on the Democratic agenda to be controversial) and not only with the opposition party: A lot of members of your own party don’t agree with extreme positions on issues like abortion, school vouchers, and tort reform. The advantage of being the majority party is that you can do just about anything you want to do. The disadvantage is that if you start alienating folks, you may not be the majority party anymore.
Appreciate what you inherit. As you celebrate your victory, you would do well to recognize that the coalition of moderate to conservative Democrats and mainstream Republicans who ran Texas for the past quarter of a century depart from the scene having been good stewards of the state. They put public education on the path to reform twice, once in 1984 and again in 1995, and they leave our public school system much stronger than they found it. They brought accountability to public schools and equity between rich and poor school districts to school finance. When money was available, they provided significant financial support to universities and medical schools, which in turn stimulated and diversified the state’s economy. They greatly expanded the prison system and made Texas a safer place. They overcame a fiscal crisis of their own, caused by the oil bust of the mid-eighties, without robbing from the future or endangering the state’s credit. If the Republican era is as fruitful, you will have served Texas well.
Restore civility to politics. George Christian would be too modest to use himself as an example, but the eulogy given by his friend and fellow LBJ aide Larry Temple can speak for him: “George’s life teaches us that civil discourse is possible in political and public arenas—even with philosophical disagreement. . . . He was affiliated with one of the great political parties, but he gave his counsel to members of both when he believed it would advance the public good. He was a political pro who shunned and transcended political warfare.”
And while you’re at it, watch out for that tire.