Point Austin: The Governor's Principles
Perry prefers sloganeering to governing
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the political water, up pops Rick "Land Shark" Perry. You might think, after his recent embarrassments as a presidential candidate, the governor would have the good sense – or at least the mercy – to remain invisible for another few months while the state of Texas recovers from our national shame.
No such luck.
For political commentators, Perry is the gift that just keeps on giving. Unfortunately, for the citizens of Texas, it's a different matter, and the latest Perry eruption is a characteristically lamentable mash-up of political calculation and fiscal faux conservatism. Last week, before the Greater Houston Partnership (that's high-church for "Chamber of Commerce"), Perry unveiled his Texas Budget Compact, a five-point set of slogans aimed at next year's legislative priorities. Why five points, you might ask? That way Perry can keep track of them on the fingers of one hand.
It's a brace of unremarkable slogans – "truth in budgeting," more Constitutional budget limits, "no new taxes," squeeze the Rainy Day fund, cut unnecessary programs and agencies – that confound the obvious with the outrageous. (Who objects to cutting what's unnecessary?) But in Texas, it's all in the meaning of "necessary" and who gets to define it. So, for present example, the last Legislature decided, for the first time in state history, not to fund population growth in public schools, making a mockery in advance of Perry's pledge to restrict new spending to "population growth plus inflation" (by Constitutional amendment, no less). Health care was worse, yet Perry resumed scaremongering about rising Medicaid costs.
The state's major dailies sniffed the new compact and found it wanting. The Houston Chronicle noted that Texas already has one of the lowest tax burdens of any state: "Meanwhile, our schools suffer." Statesman reporters Kate Alexander and Chuck Lindell took a look at the numbers and concluded, "If Perry's budget parameters had been in place last year, legislators would have had to enact at least an additional $11 billion in cuts in the $81 billion general fund."
No Grownups Here
Equally interesting was the reaction of Perry's presumed legislative allies, who balked at his Grover Norquist-like request for a "pledge" from GOP legislators. Lite Guv David Dewhurst, on the campaign trail, jumped at the chance, but House Speaker Joe Straus and other veterans shrugged and declined. But Perry is explicitly relying on ignorance: He told the Texas Tribune that over half the House will be greenhorns (one term or less), with possibly several new "more conservative" senators: "I'm going to be the senior statesman. ... This is the time."
Perry & the Tea Party Kids – now there's something to look forward to.
While it's inevitable that inexperienced politicians will defer to the governor's strong-arming, where are the state's supposedly responsible business interests when state government slashes and burns without regard to the state's future, even from an economic perspective? In the wake of Perry's compact announcement, the Houston Chronicle's Patti Kilday Hart reported that it had received the photo-op support of the Greater Houston Partnership leadership – sight unseen – even though the GHP has supported more spending on infrastructure, public and higher education, and health care, along with the taxes to pay for it, if necessary.
"You are exactly right," CEO Jeff Moseley told Hart after the cameras had departed. "The specifics [of the Perry plan] have not been approved by our board. We've got positions that go in another direction." So will the Perry-burned GHP and chamber members elsewhere go to their legislators and say, "Look – you're undermining the state's future by refusing to fund basic services, especially education and health care, and we're willing to pay for them"? Even if they were to do so, with the current makeup of the elected officials they've endorsed and funded, it would fall on deaf ears.
Working and Waiting
So where does that leave the rest of us, watching the gridlock in Washington and the juggernaut at the Capitol? Certainly people have been angry in large numbers, as the ongoing Save Texas Schools movement has shown on an issue that gathers nearly as many suburban Republicans as urban Democrats. The waves of cuts to women's health care and the naked political assault on Planned Parenthood have galvanized another surge of opposition (with a rally against the war on women Saturday afternoon at the Capitol, www.wowtex.org). No single rally will turn the tide, nor – after GOP redistricting and voter suppression – do we have much near-term tactical advantage in the voting booth. Patience, persistence, and cunning are the order of the day, plus the kind of long-term institution-building that's short on headlines but more lasting in its effects.
Meanwhile, our governor marches on, offering Gingrichian bumper stickers in place of a real program for all Texans. "People are either going to be for them or they're not," he told the Tribune. "There's not a lot of gray area." He may actually have meant "gray matter," and (for a change) he would be right. There's precious little of it under that carefully dyed and sculptured mane.