"My fellow Texans," declaimed Gov. Rick Perry to the Legislature, "it is my pleasure to report that the state of our state is stronger than ever." It would be naive to expect the Governor for Life, in his seventh SOTS address, to strike a note substantially different from the first six. But Perry did seem a little off his game Tuesday, his gestures even more wooden than usual, and he stumbled now and then, as if under-rehearsed. Moving into his peroration, he declared (emphasis added), "Freedom is the best anecdote to poverty," a bumble that suggests he should rethink his proposal for a $10,000 college degree.
But the speech carried no real surprises, on the fiscal front or any other. After the dismal last session for public education, and the recent turnaround in the state's finances – rising oil and gas income remains Texas' historical life-preserver – there were no gestures at restoring the $5.4 billion desperately needed by the schools. Instead, he endorsed the leadership consensus, driven by industry's resource worries, that we should spend the Rainy Day surplus on water and transportation: "$3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs [and] ... end the diversion of State Highway Fund appropriations, which will mean another $1.3 billion every biennium for road maintenance and construction."
It's always useful to be reminded of the business priorities that actually run the state and the fact that public schools are way down on the list. After those big-ticket items of reservoirs and roads, the next thing on Perry's list is of course "tax relief" – and a series of structural changes in budgeting that will make it even harder in the future to fund anything beyond prisons and highways. First is a constitutional amendment to restrict spending to the combined rate of inflation and population growth – starting from a base far below the state's needs, and with a Legislature that didn't even fund student population growth last time around (in violation of that same constitution).
His newly proposed wrinkle is "a mechanism" (presumably the Texas equivalent of a warehouse-store rebate) to return any presumed tax surplus "directly to the people who paid it." Until that's invented, he just wants to kick back $1.8 billion this year.
Curiously, the governor didn't mention abortion once in this speech, although earlier he's made it clear that he would like to ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, the supposed (and inaccurate) threshold of "fetal pain." Perhaps he didn't feel it necessary, since a few days earlier he was in full preacher mode on the south steps for the Rally for Life. Citing Noah's flood, the temptation of Christ, and the Exodus (separation of church and state being yet another constitutional concept Perry expressly disdains), Perry once again insisted, "Now, again, my goal ... is to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past."
Whether you agree with that ultimate goal or not, you might think a public official who claims to desire it would do what he could in the short term to reduce the current number of abortions. In fact, Perry's only gesture at public health care in his speech to the Legislature is to dismiss it as unnecessary. "We have made it clear Texas will not expand Medicaid under the [federal Affordable Care Act, and] ... We won't set up a state [health insurance] exchange." This is all under the guise of saving taxpayer money, of course, but in concert, the state's refusal to expand its health care spending (heavily underwritten by the feds) and its dismantling of the Women's Health Program (in an entirely manufactured ideological war with Planned Parenthood) will have the inevitable consequence – because of the lack of access to birth control and preventative care – of increasing the number of abortions, not to mention the number of unplanned (and Medicaid-funded) births.
But that unforgiving logic is lost on our governor, who brags instead that Florida's Rick Scott and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal are following his lead of rewarding the rich and burdening the poor. No wonder Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sharply disagreed with Perry's self-satisfied litany. "The governor said the state of Texas has never been stronger," responded Ellis. "Tell that to the tens of thousands of children without health care. Tell that to the teacher who now has 35 kids in class because of the cuts from last session. Tell that to the mother-to-be who cannot get pre-natal care. Tell that to the tens of thousands of Texans who will not get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act because of Texas' short-sighted intransigence.
"We are 44th in child poverty, 1st in percentage of uninsured children, 50th in per capita spending on mental health, 2nd highest rate of families in hunger, 47th in SAT scores, and 50th in percentage of SAT scores, 44th in college enrollment.
"In Texas, everything that ought to be down is up, and everything that should be up is down!"
Ah, well, state of the state speeches – in Texas as elsewhere – are seldom occasions for sincere self-reflection, or even frank examination of the actual circumstances of most of the state's citizens. One can only hope that Governor Oops! will not get a chance to deliver another of these bromides in 2015, nor the opportunity to embarrass us all with another spectacular stumble on the national stage. Meanwhile, it would be helpful if more Texans were embarrassed by what his tenure has actually meant – in denying prosperity and opportunity to far too many of our neighbors.
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