Capitol Chronicle

Hit and Run: Surveying the Texas Wreckage of George W. Bush

Capitol Chronicle
By Doug Potter

In an apparent return to the 19th-century practice of exiling incorrigible felons to what was then considered this godforsaken country, other states have recently been sending what they don't want to Texas. Of late the refuse has included sewage sludge, silicon millionaires, snowbirds, and (before too long) nuclear waste. It seems only fitting that in return, Texas has given something back to the nation.

Take our governor -- please!

If we needed an official indicator that the George W. Bush era of Texas politics has officially ended -- not with a bang, but a whimper -- a likely choice would be Senate Joint Resolution 36, filed last week by Arlington Republican Chris Harris. Harris's proposed constitutional amendment would roll back the 1997 school property tax homestead exemption, and dedicate the additional tax revenue (an estimated $1.3 billion this biennium) to health insurance for public school teachers and employees. It's not at all clear that SJR 36 has much chance of passage -- there were immediate grumbles from the GOP leadership -- but it's worth remembering that the homestead exemption, the "$1 billion tax cut!" (which passed easily only four years ago) was an early centerpiece of the Bush presidential campaign. Now a prominent state Republican has officially admitted that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all, while the Legislature is tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to fund essential state programs. Budget chairmen Rodney Ellis and Rob Junell are looking for the insurance money in the Permanent School Fund, and lonesome Glen Maxey has once again filed an income tax bill.

What's the problem? Well, in addition to insurance for schoolteachers, many of the state's other priorities -- children's health care, state employee pay, higher education, even highways -- are also going begging. It has occurred to more than one legislator, as to frat boys on Sunday morning, that maybe that little ol' billion-dollar binge wasn't worth the hangover.

In this diminishing light, it seems a good moment to examine the Texas legacy of the Boy Wonder from Midland-Houston. What else did he leave us, now that he's gone?


The Mad Slasher Moves to D.C.

Where's the perpetrator? Hiding in plain sight: President Bush is currently stumping the nation in support of his $1.6 trillion federal tax cut (without benefit of a budget), marketed to "jump-start" a lagging economy, even though its effects wouldn't be felt for at least a year. (Texas taxpayers were promised a princely $140 a head; Bush now promises the nation's taxpayers a munificent $180.) The pitch is an entertaining reversal from the Texas two-step -- then, since we were supposedly rolling in dough from a booming economy, we needed to "give back" the surplus. (Political Lesson No. 1: It's always a good time to cut taxes.) The cuts are also promoted under a ritual conservative mantra: "It's your money, not the government's!" In a democracy (admittedly that notion has also received a considerable bashing from the recent Florida coup), it's also your government, and the whole point of pooling community resources is to be able to do things -- little things, like social security or public health or interstate highways or environmental protection or public education -- that we can't do as well or as cheaply or at all, on our own.

But one important consistency between the Texas tax structure and Bush's federal proposals is their regressivity: That is, they give to the rich and take from the poor, and poor people end up spending a much higher percentage of their income in taxes than the wealthy. Gov. Bush didn't invent the idea -- Texas, because of its heavy reliance on sales and property taxes, has traditionally ranked among the 10 most regressive states, and is currently No. 8. But Bush did nothing to equalize the burden, and this year's figures from the comptroller's office confirm the sorry state of Texas taxes: A person making $10,000 a year or less can expect to pay 17.6% of his income in state taxes, a person making $40,000 a year will pay 8.2%, while a person making $140,000 a year or more will pay 5.1% (see "Who Pays Texas Taxes?" Center for Public Policy Priorities, www.cppp.org.)

The Bush federal tax plan cheerfully takes this program nationwide: According to independent analyses, 40% of the benefits of Bush's proposed tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of taxpayers, and more than two thirds will go to the top 20%. Less than 1% will go to the poorest 20%. "The shape of the Bush tax program," wrote The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, "represents a seismic shift in the overall tax burden toward the bottom of the economic scale." We can only guess that in the White House someone is humming, "That's the way we do it in Texas."

CPPP policy analyst Anne Dunkelberg says that from her perspective -- working to improve the desperate conditions of low-income Texans -- the Bush tax cuts represent his most dismal legacy. "They have resulted in very limited state revenue, making it very difficult to maintain current social services, let alone expand them." Does she find it ironic that Gov. Bush has moved to D.C. to sell the same tax policy? "I don't find it ironic," she said, "as much as painful."


Volunteer Not to Breathe

Texas also ranks near the bottom in virtually every measure of environmental protection: air quality, water quality, toxic discharges, hazardous waste incineration, cancerous air and water emissions, ozone pollution exposure, environmental civil rights complaints ... the list goes on. George W. Bush did not create these problems, but while the state marked its first budget surplus since the early Seventies, he did almost nothing to ameliorate them. He continued and reinforced the Texas tradition of using the state's environmental protection agency, the TNRCC, as a co-conspirator with the industries it supposedly regulates against those concerned citizens trying to protect public health and welfare. With the state's explosive population growth and expanding economy, efforts should have been redoubled to clean up and protect the environment. Instead, we steadily slipped backward, and now face looming federal deadlines to take action -- unless, of course, the new Bush administration can turn the EPA into a Texas-style regulatory agency. (Their preliminary federal budget proposals suggest that environmental protections that can't be undone by legislation will be undone by cutting EPA enforcement.)

The classic instance of the Bush environmental policy is his Voluntary Emissions Reduction Program (VERP), supposedly intended to repeal the permanent license to pollute granted 30 years ago to "grandfathered" industrial facilities. More than a third of the state's current air pollution is attributable to this generation-long public subsidy to major industries (mostly oil and gas and big utilities). Knowing he would need some greenwashing strategy to run for president, Bush directed handpicked legislators and the TNRCC to officially sponsor the VERP program, while covertly inviting industry representatives not just to consult on the program, but to write it. The result, as you might guess, was a little less than onerous (unless you need air to breathe): CEOs barnstormed with the guv and promised to reduce emissions, and several years later, according to the TNRCC's own calculations, no reductions have been delivered.

Now the state is under the federal gun because all our major urban areas are either in or approaching "non-attainment" to national standards for reducing smog -- not just a nuisance, but a major public health problem, especially in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Even Sen. Buster Brown, who carried the VERP program, has just introduced new legislation designed to help the cities comply with federal standards (with programs to be paid for by consumers). Yet Brown still stoutly defends the VERP. "Companies are still preparing to apply for that program," Brown told me, "and I believe we will eventually get significant reductions from it." (Other legislators have drafted legislation which at long last would require the grandfathered exemption to end.)

Tom Smith of Public Citizen is less sanguine than Sen. Brown about the Bush record. "Bush has put us years behind," Smith said, "and it's going to cost us billions in health care and clean-up. The policy for years has been 'deny, delay, and distort the truth' on air pollution. Those tactics have all failed, and the Supreme Court has ruled [last month] that the EPA standards [under the Clean Air Act] were correctly promulgated ... now we're going to have to make a great deal of progress in a very short time."

Erin Rogers, an environmental organizer with the Sierra Club, was more blunt. "Bush left us in a disaster zone. His commissioners have gutted our supposed regulatory protection agency, and people are dying because of the Bush administration."


'Please, Don't Kill Me!'

Probably the most notorious legacy of the Bush governorship is in the realm of criminal injustice: not just locking people up in record numbers, but strapping them down to the execution gurney. Again, Gov. Bush did not inaugurate the Huntsville assembly line. Texas politicians have been raising the ante on capital punishment for a couple of decades, and it was the Clinton/Gore administration in Washington that -- under the guise of fighting "terrorism" -- so "streamlined" capital appeals procedure that the already lopsided conviction process became an official fraud, with defense attorneys required to file federal appeals based on state proceedings that were still in progress. Yet Bush will forever be remembered as the governor who set the modern record for executions, establishing his home state as far and away the national leader in capital punishment, as a supposed deterrent to capital crimes. (After executing a Canadian national without due process, Bush declared proudly, "If you come to Texas, don't kill anybody.") Yet Wisconsin -- which abolished the death penalty in 1853 -- has a murder rate roughly half that of Texas.

In Texas, the capital process is cumulatively flawed from the ground up: Prosecutions are arbitrary, indigent defense imaginary, the appeals process (culminating in the hanging Court of Criminal Appeals) politically and structurally biased, and the clemency procedure an official fiction (as recently confirmed by a federal court). At the very end of the line comes the governor, who (for high-profile executions only) steps to the microphone, looks to the heavens, and suggests to God that She make right what the rest of us would rather not consider too closely.

To these occasions Gov. Bush brought a certain thin-lipped piety that surpassed his predecessors (he certainly got a lot more practice). He was only seriously tested in that regard over the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a once-brutal axe murderer who in prison had become a born-again Christian, counseling other prisoners. Fending off criticism from the Christian right, in a conversation with a conservative reporter Bush mocked Tucker's clemency appeal, inventing for her a bit of whimpering, pathetic dialogue, "Please, don't kill me!" According to some reports from the Capitol, Bush's private attitude toward executions was more accurately expressed by the Tucker comment than by his public sanctimony.

John Niland of the Texas Defender Service said, "If there's one thing that struck me -- as somebody originally from Texas and then returning from out of state -- it was the apparent glee with which the executions were carried out ... on several days holding two executions, as if one had lost the impact. Sometimes it just seemed that rather than [the state] seeing the executions as carrying out an unfortunate aspect of the law, it was as though they enjoyed it."

Ironically, the national attention that the Bush campaign brought to Texas-style justice might eventually become his most lasting, if inadvertent, contribution. "I think that his apparent lack of concern for due process in Texas," said Maurie Levin, also of the Texas Defender Service, "contributed to the system deteriorating so badly that even in Texas we're realizing that it needs to be fixed." Bills to improve indigent defense (which Bush vetoed last session) and to reform capital punishment (which had no chance under Bush) suddenly seem more possible after his departure. "Much is happening nationally as well," added Levin. "The governor sets a tone for the state, but Texas is Texas. If nothing else, the Bush campaign brought the whole matter into focus."


Suffer the Little Children

Among the 50 states, Texas is at the absolute top in the percentage of people lacking health insurance (25%), and only slightly better for children without health insurance (second only to California). There are federal programs designed specifically to address these problems, and they are not "unfunded mandates" -- they provide federal tax dollars to subsidize states that participate in the programs, some of which, like Medicaid, are entitlements: That is, every citizen that needs them has a right to be enrolled. Moreover, the state's moderate contribution to these health care programs is currently underwritten by the settlements of the notorious tobacco litigation. It's not exactly free money, but it's about as close as you can get in government work.

But the state of Texas is still trying to make up for two legislative sessions dominated by the Bush presidential mania, amplified by the bipartisan national noise over "welfare reform": That is, kick as many people off the rolls as quickly as possible, and hope that the booming service economy lasts long enough to suck them into low-wage employment until the next recession, when somebody else will have to deal with them.

In the matter of children's health care, a current legislative priority is to simplify the application process for children's Medicaid, a federal entitlement program designed to reach the neediest families. The simplification should have been done during the last several years -- that's what several dozen other states did, while simultaneously enabling the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers families slightly better off. But Bush fought CHIP tooth and nail -- primarily out of fear that "spillover" Medicaid rolls for poorer children might climb during the campaign, making Texas welfare reform a public relations failure. "In straightforward, non-bureaucratic English," wrote Molly Ivins and Austin Chronicle Politics Editor Louis Dubose in their book, Shrub, "because he [was] running for president, George Bush attempted to (1) bar 200,000 children from a low-cost federal-state health insurance program, and (2) discourage poor children from receiving free health care to which they are entitled under federal law."

Bush failed to stop CHIP, but that ignominious effort tangentially prevented Medicaid simplification -- leaving an estimated 600,000 already-eligible children unenrolled. "The changes we're talking about don't increase the numbers of potentially eligible children," said Anne Dunkelberg. "They only decrease the state-established red tape and obstacles for children who are already eligible. Someone described it well as 'rationing by inconvenience.' It's a bureaucratic way of reducing the state's contribution."

Which brings us back to the Bush tax cuts. Now the legislative push for Medicaid simplification is occurring under much tighter budgetary restrictions, also a shortsighted consequence of the Bush presidential campaign. When those uninsured kids having pollution-triggered asthma attacks turn up at local emergency rooms, their worried parents can be proud: Those kids' sacrifice helped elect a president.


No Seat at the Table

Beyond his Texas-style tax proposals, Bush's brief presidential tenure has immediately been distinguished by another hallmark of his Texas career: utter disregard for the concerns of ordinary working people. Secure in the knowledge that the new president would approve, the Congress overturned (virtually without debate) new health and safety regulations that would have protected workers on the shop and factory floor. A week or so later, the President acted preemptively to prevent an airline mechanics' strike, saying he was defending the economy and airline travelers. That he was also acting directly in the interests of company management will not be lost on his corporate campaign contributors. Presumably most airline travelers are also employees -- they should consider themselves on notice that the new administration considers its own interests and that of their bosses as identical.

"He's already done more damage to the labor movement in two months in D.C.," said Ed Sills of the Texas AFL-CIO, "than he did in six years in Austin. His legacy is limited here because, thank heavens, the governor's office is not a powerful office." It was not for lack of trying that Bush had less impact on labor issues than he would have liked in Texas. He was instrumental in accelerating the dismal effects of the "tort reform" movement, which is a euphemism for keeping ordinary citizens and workers out of the courthouse by immunizing corporations and employers against intimidating judgments. (The conservative principle of cracking down on criminals doesn't apply to those who can afford corporate attorneys.) And Bush attempted in vain to privatize the state's welfare eligibility programs, attempting to hand those state employees over to such outstanding corporate citizens as Lockheed and EDS, whose singular interest in welfare matters is their own. Thus far, he has failed: "Nationally, we expect to be fighting with him on that issue," said Sills.

Sills also points out that what doesn't happen under an administration is often as important as what does. "We've been trying for years to raise the state minimum wage from $3.35 an hour to the federal level [currently $5.15]. There's a bill this session, sponsored by Senfronia Thompson, to do that again. The difference is, Ann Richards supported it. Bush never lifted a finger on that kind of legislation. ... On balance, he didn't set state priorities we could be proud of."


Socialism for the Sporting Set

It's not that Bush never considers labor issues at all. Recently he was asked about the historically unprecedented $252 million, 10-year contract signed by shortstop Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, a franchise in which Bush once held an ownership interest. "When you pay more for one player than you did for your whole team," Bush responded, "you know your labor costs are out of control." The reporter failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: What about when an elected governor makes a $15 million killing on a state-subsidized boondoggle using a $600,000 investment derived from other people's money?

As former Chronicle staff writer Robert Bryce reported, that was in essence the story of Bush's career as managing partner of the Rangers, as he parlayed the remnants of his subsidized career in the oil business into a major fortune, with the indispensable help of the Arlington taxpayers who built the Rangers' ballpark, and landowners who had their property condemned by the state for the benefit of the baseball owners: i.e., the governor. Later, Bush's good buddy Tom Hicks bought the franchise, ponying up the headline-grabbing dollars for Rodriguez.

A-Rod may not be worth that much, but it's a sure bet he'll do more for his Rangers salary than will the man in the White House.


The 22% Majority

It is a mainstream media axiom that Gov. Bush was "enormously popular" in Texas, that he won overwhelming majorities in statewide elections, and that in particular he "reached out" to minority voters in a fashion unprecedented for Republicans. Now, it is undeniable that Bush led a GOP wave in statewide offices -- which is to say, conservative Democrats have now been replaced by conservative Republicans. He was immensely aided in this regard by the fact that he had no serious (read: seriously funded) opposition, outspending his 1998 opponent 5 to 1: Bush spent $25 million to Garry Mauro's $5 million.

To his credit, Bush never engaged in the immigrant-bashing that so disfigured the career of former California Gov. Pete Wilson. But his nationally rumored majority among Hispanic voters was actually more like 39%, and he got stomped here as everywhere among African-Americans. What's even less noticed -- and in the long run more important -- is that Gov. Bush's "overwhelming" majority of the Texas electorate amounted to just 22% of the registered voters (that is, 68% of the 32.4% of the registered Texas voters who actually bothered to vote). That's a reachable number for the much-battered Democrats, which is why they're touting Bush supporter -- and multimillionaire -- Tony Sanchez as their next gubernatorial candidate. So it might well be said that Bush's most important political legacy in Texas was to confirm the popular conviction that our two-party electoral democracy is moribund -- having been replaced, officially, by the money primary. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Keywords: George W. Bush, Chris Harris, Rodney Ellis, Rob Junell, Glen Maxey, Permanent School Fund, tax cuts, CPPP, Anne Dunkelberg, VERP, pollution, TNRCC, EPA, Public Citizen, Tom Smith, Buster Brown, Erin Rogers, Sierra Club, capital punishment, Karla Faye Tucker

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