Capitol Chronicle

Doing without: the people advising belt-tightening never seem to have very tight belts

In mid-January, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced her adjusted state budget deficit figures -- and found that an additional $4.8 billion had been lost in the seat cushions between November and January, pushing Texas' shortfall to $9.9 billion. Since that moment, the prevailing metaphor down at the Capitol is that we all need to "tighten our belts." Strayhorn somehow managed to tie together her latest marriage announcement, her latest crash diet, and the sudden deficit double-down into a baroque policy allegory she called "limited government, unlimited opportunity," which in plainer English runs something like "the worse, the better."

Gov. Perry was caught so short by Strayhorn's new numbers that he had to make a virtue out of zeroing out his already-drafted budget -- suddenly "zero-based" (more precisely defined as "born yesterday") accounting is all the rage. Perry quickly echoed the belt-tightening rhetoric and has recently cut his own office spending so sharply he canceled several newspaper subscriptions. (Note to officeholders: That doesn't save much money, and it's a cost-cutting measure that major-daily editorial writers find awkward to endorse.)

Every session seems to acquire its own dominating clichés -- during boom times a couple sessions ago, when the Lege was looking for reasons to give money away to out-of-state corporate mendicants, "leveling the playing field" was the order of the day. This year, when legislators gather themselves together to pray over the deficit, we are all advised soberly that "in hard times we must do what all Texas families do -- they tighten their belts, they cut expenses, they do without."

Despite the comptroller's svelte new profile, the people who are giving this advice -- from the elegant committee rooms in the Capitol basement or over expense-account meals down at the Four Seasons -- never quite seem to be members of the families for whom the belt-tightening is in order.


"Will Anybody Die?"

The silliest recent version of this malign neglect was provided by Richard Vedder of Ohio University, a libertarian economist and house consultant of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the right-wing think tank that recently hosted a four-day policy conference for legislators. Vedder sang the only song in his repertoire -- "an income tax is the road to hell, and no income tax is the road to paradise" -- and dismissed the budget shortfall as "trivial." (Vedder also looked forward happily to the collapse of the public schools and noted that the only European leader who has accepted his economic advice is Vladimir Putin: "I love countries where they have secret police types [in charge]," Vedder declared, "who are also sort of libertarian conservatives.") Vedder waved away the budget crisis with the predictable cliché. "Go on a diet," he advised cheerfully. "It's liberating!"

Although it was apparent that Vedder neither knew nor cared about the extent of the Texas deficit or the state services actually in jeopardy, he cavalierly dismissed the notion that slashing programs across the board would have any serious deleterious effect. "Texas should be proud of being last in government spending per capita," Vedder declared. "It means you're delivering state services most efficiently." Of the pending budget cuts, he asked sarcastically, "Will anybody die?"

Scott McCown, director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities and on the tax panel with Vedder, had the unhappy assignment of trying to inject some ordinary realism into the TPPF festivities. Until recently a veteran Travis Co. judge, McCown has had extensive personal experience with, among other debacles, the ongoing crisis in the state's Child Protective Services department. He pointed out calmly but acidly that the state of Florida, with both fewer people and less poverty than Texas, has managed to place 40,000 neglected or abused children in foster homes. Texas has found homes for only 16,000 such children. The math, and its consequences, is easy to work out for anybody but a libertarian economist.

"Yes," concluded McCown. "People will die."


Other People's Children

A truer analogue for the state's current situation would be a family that decides to save money by making its children tighten their belts, eat less, drop out of their cash-starved school, stay well by positive thinking, and go to work at minimum wage. (Actually, despite all the talk of "incentives to work," in Texas we're not too keen on that minimum-wage notion.) In response to published reports that the Texas Dept. of Health may cut back on providing drugs for indigent AIDS and HIV+ patients -- because the program is working so well that the patients are living too long -- Gov. Perry scoffed at the "horror stories" told at budget time.

The widely advocated recomplication of the Medicaid application process -- rationing by regulation -- will, by Strayhorn's own estimate, mean that roughly 187,000 Texas children who would qualify for Medicaid will instead go uninsured (thereby adding to the burden and expense of local hospitals). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wants to return to the state the $860,000 appropriated last session for indigent capital defense -- Chief Justice Sharon Keller, who knows her colleagues well, always considered it a waste of money anyway.

If you won't miss a few more wrongly convicted inmates, how about guards? The Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice is short a couple of thousand corrections officers, and that shortfall means -- as has already happened -- people will die. Despite a growing population, the state's needs in public education, higher education, transportation, environment -- pick your favorite infrastructure -- are simply not being met.

"The budget crisis we are facing," said Judge McCown, "is one-fourth economic, three-fourths structural." If we don't face our "family" responsibilities and design a sensible and efficient revenue structure, it will only get worse. "We need to ask ourselves not what we want to do" and then cut expenses accordingly, concludes McCown. "We need to ask ourselves, who -- what kind of a community -- do we want to be?" end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Carole Keeton Strayhorn, state budget, Rick Perry, Richard Vedder, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Vladimir Putin, Scott McCown, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Child Protective Services, Texas Department of Health, Medicaid, Sharon Keller, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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