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The war in Iraq has diverted our attention from other important matters, including a truly destructive proposed federal budget, mirrored by Texas' very own fiscal abyss.

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Among the many unfortunate consequences of the Iraqi invasion has been to obscure all other important news. As Congress prepares a truly destructive budget and our own Legislature faces a fiscal abyss, people are focused on the war. In this atmosphere, it is no surprise the first two major pieces of legislation tackled by state lawmakers involved insurance and tort reform. The former, according to The Dallas Morning News, is an industry-win sell-out of consumers, the latter (even if you support some kind of tort reform) a polarized mess, more about business Republican political power than curbing lawsuit excesses. Concern is raised over not simply the faulty legislation but the leadership's arrogant and oblivious strategy of beginning with such contentious topics, splitting legislators along partisan lines, leaving them angered and dysfunctional as they must work together on crushing budgetary questions.

During our radio show, The Chronicle Hour (Fridays, 5-6pm, on 1370AM), we get a lot of calls, almost all negative (the show is entertaining, though -- don't call in to agree with us). There is something perversely intriguing about having right-wing talk-show fans parrot the party line at you, adding that you are a liar, a coward, and a Communist. More often, their points are intelligent, informing our disagreement by helping to shape how we make our point. Sometimes a caller's arguments result in rethinking a position.

One caller last Friday forced me to really think about the consequences of the state's dramatic budget shortfall. I had fallen into the classic talk-radio position of offering criticism of those I disagree with as a solution. The governor has failed us all by proclaiming there is no problem, assuring that there will be no new taxes and offering zero-balance budgeting as a strategy. Any number of legislators are talking about one-time money raids that will adversely impact on Texas for decades -- including selling off the LCRA, raiding the rainy-day fund, and short-selling our future tobacco settlement money for a quick fix.

"What is my solution?" Well, first, leaving some new taxes on the tables as options. "Given the economy, won't taxes on either businesses or individuals be counterproductive, hurting economic recovery?" Brought up sharp, I was forced to face the state's reality.

The current budget (2002-03) totals about $117 billion, but only about $18 billion is discretionary, with the rest allocated as mandated by law. Outside of the federal contribution, the state is spending about $61.5 billion. Current proposals for 2004-05 have the state spending $54 billion to $58 billion to maintain most current state services -- more or less. Without taking into account any growth in population or inflation, this is at least a $3 billion to $7 billion shortfall (officially, because we're already in the hole $9.9 billion). Unlike the feds, under the Texas Constitution the state can't have a budget deficit. Even the best-intentioned legislators are going to have to carve a lot of meat from the bone of state services to keep things functioning. There are no easy solutions. There are some targeted taxes that will work (the state will especially look at businesses' property and franchise taxes). But the bottom line is severe cuts with devastating consequences in state services, and there is no way around it. Given the economy, property values will continue to shrink, negatively impacting already cash-starved public education. A major solution will be severe job cuts that will have a ripple effect throughout the weak economy. In a state where we already rank so low in social spending in many areas, the future looks very bleak. Just blaming those I don't agree with improves the picture not at all. Texas is in trouble.

One listener e-mailed me to point out that this crisis was a result of state spending increasing more than revenues. In 1996, revenue was $40.5 (all numbers are billions) and the budget was $39.7, leaving a $0.8 surplus. 2003 expects to see $55.7 in revenue, the budget at $61.7 resulting in a deficit of $6 (that was before the comptroller issued diminished revenue estimates, so the deficit is now worse). Chronicle News/Politics editor Michael King responded: "While your raw numbers on spending and revenues are accurate, standing alone they fail to account for the forces driving increased expenditures -- which have never included any extraordinary liberality on the part of the Texas Legislature, except for corporate tax exemptions (i.e., 'economic development'). Rather, they reflect primarily: 1) a federally mandated expansion of the state prison system, which had been entirely inadequate to house human beings; 2) the explosion of health care costs nationwide; and 3) a major growth in state population (in education, for example, currently, the equivalent of an Austin-sized school district every year). Meanwhile, on the revenue side, sales tax collections (which are quite regressive in any case) have gone down as a proportion of state income. The state tax system remains both inadequate to expenses and regressively unfair, and the revenue has simply not kept up either with the increase in population or the increase in per capita income.

"In sum, what those numbers show is that we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem. As a state and as a community, we need more money just to maintain where we are, near the national bottom in virtually all significant categories: education, health and human services, environmental protection, you name it."

Texas has long had misplaced priorities and a reluctance to tax equitably. We are about to drown in the consequences. Fiscal problems are compounded by the federal government's focus on war and addiction to fantasy economics (promised funds for federally mandated programs have been forgotten). Those who advocate smaller government are about to get their wish. Time will tell how happy they, as well as the rest of us, will be with the real-life results.

Setbacks aside, the war will be over relatively quickly, and anybody who finds pleasure in even the possibility of a prolonged conflict, with more deaths and destruction, should look in the mirror. We all support the troops and pray for their safety and well-being, even those of us who think the consequences will be long-term and tragic. The freedom-of-speech defense of protests, made by all sides, is beside the point. As citizens, we are obligated to disagree with our government when we think it is wrong. Certainly none of the anti-Clinton crowd found any national-interest limitations. Still, it is time for the protesters to move on.

Let me ask a truly difficult question: If you could stop this war tomorrow, would you? Leaving Hussein and/or his government in power with the oil resources largely intact would result in how many Iraqi deaths, especially of Kurds and Shiites? What about humanitarian aid throughout the country -- would the government care? Regardless of how directly involved in terror it was before, would that not be the focus of a surviving Iraqi government? Wouldn't Middle East peace be an even more distant possibility? It turns my stomach to make these arguments, but rather than supporting the war, these questions indicate what a brain-numbing, extraordinarily short-sighted, absolutely indefensible decision it was not only to invade, but to drive to invasion so quickly. Iraq is a quagmire that will symbolically define much of this century -- politically, diplomatically, militarily, financially, and morally -- for our country.

The peace movement is already shifting attention and must continue to do so. Ending this war is barely an option; it took years before we left Vietnam (despite conservative revisionism, that war was lost in their territory, complemented, but not dictated, by what happened in the streets of this country). It is time to build a political movement that ensures the humanitarian rebuilding of Iraq, to work for peace in the Middle East and a saner international diplomatic policy, and to stop the next war well before it starts. Toward this end, support of the troops is crucial, but the focus must shift from attacking Bush to promoting America's long-term sensibility and values. Clearly, this is a political war, but the place to lay blame is at the ballot box. I was probably less critical and more supportive of Clinton because of the unending, inane right-wing assault. Success in peace means a broader coalition. Americans who were opposed to the war but now support it out of patriotism, those in the middle but alienated by protest tactics, or even blind supporters whose minds may well be changed by the painful international and national, political, and economic consequences are all potential, necessary allies. Protesting can be exciting, and long-term coalition building frustrating, but the future demands we get over being self-righteously "right" and start building the mechanisms to force our country to do right.

Finally, it is really insulting to have the pro-war supporters chastise those against the war for not caring about the Iraqis' human rights. Most of those I know who have spent the past several decades confronting our government's relationships, alliances, and support for politically aligned but morally corrupt regimes oppose the war. Talk-show hosts, media pundits, political leaders, and elected officials who have long chided human rights supporters as knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberals oblivious to international diplomatic realities now adopt their rhetoric. May all those who support the "liberation" never forget that human rights neither begin nor end in Iraq. end story

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