It's a good thing Ben Barnes isn't running for office. If he were, his opponents would hammer him over his plans to raise taxes and increase government spending. But Barnes, the former lieutenant governor of Texas, doesn't mind. The tall redhead, who has seen his share of booms and busts, believes Texas is on the verge of a crisis. On Monday afternoon during a speech at the LBJ Library, Barnes laid out a proposal that would increase state gasoline taxes by 10 cents a gallon over the next four years. The revenue, about $1.2 billion per year, would be spent on research, education, roads, and mass transit.
"No 20th-century state ever became great by cutting taxes and no 21st-century state will either," said Barnes. Though he said his remarks were not aimed at Gov. George W. Bush, they certainly weren't complimentary toward the governor. Without naming Bush, Barnes talked about the recent tax refund granted by the Legislature. "Well, we got our tax cut," said Barnes with a slight smirk, "something like $60 a year for each of us. How much good did that really do? How much of it found its way into education or research or teacher salaries or highways or mass transit?"
The speech could have been titled "The Great Society, Part 2." With a bronze bust of Lyndon Johnson a few feet away, Barnes said Texas is "drifting toward mediocrity when it should be striving for greatness." He then ran through a litany of problems facing the Lone Star state: Texas is dead last in government spending per capita, 35th in teacher salaries, and 44th in 18-to-25 year-olds who have high school degrees; meanwhile, 78% of the state's roads need repair. "In terms of importance to our economic future, transportation is second only to education," Barnes said, calling for the construction of a high-speed rail system to connect Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Barnes was one of the principal backers of a high-speed rail plan that failed in the early 1990s.
Barnes wants to start a "crusade for greatness" that will take Texas into the 21st century. It's a bold plan offered by one of the state's last Democrats with the willingness and the credibility to stand up and oppose the Republican stranglehold on state government. After the speech, Barnes said he is going to start traveling the state to promote his tax package. "I don't really want to do it," he said, reminding listeners that he isn't running for anything. "But I'm going to do it anyway."