Capitol Chronicle

From the Owners' Box: Count on the Texas Legislature to Remember the Gold Rules

Capitol Chronicle
Illustration By Doug Potter

"You've got to look at what the core purpose of government is," Gov. Perry's chief of staff Mike Toomey recently told Texas Monthly. "It is not to do everything. The core element of government is to help people who can't help themselves. Beyond that, it's not a high priority."

That would explain why, in these very difficult times, the governor and Legislature have needed to devote so much precious time and energy to helping the truly helpless: insurance companies, housing manufacturers, pharmaceutical giants, HMOs, hospital and nursing home chains, and other destitute corporate persons whom tort reform will save from the poorhouse. That would also explain why the governor declared the rising cost of homeowners insurance an official state emergency, while the inability of more than a million Texas children to acquire health insurance is not even an inconvenience. Rather, it's a cost-saving measure, to be handily deployed to balance an overburdened state budget. And it also makes it easier to understand why we would ask teachers and other school workers to give up their health insurance and schoolchildren to go without textbooks so that the governor can dispense additional financial lagniappes to indigent corporations like Toyota, Sematech, and Boeing.

As Mike Toomey says, government must first help those who can't help themselves.

Too many Texans have previously failed to comprehend this, in those long, dark decades between the 19th century and last November when, according to Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, we elected "the first pro-business Legislature since the Civil War." Indeed, until this session, one Legislature after another devoted itself to making certain taxes were high and wages even higher, profits were unattainable and industries regulated into extinction, and those of us who didn't live in a workers' paradise were greedily relying upon the opulence of the Texas welfare state. You remember, don't you?

Indeed, when he was helpfully educated on the subject by Hammond's Statesman op-ed of a few weeks ago, one longtime state officeholder declared, "And here I thought I was whoring for business all my life."

For Richer for Poorer

Hammond's refrain was taken up at the close of the House budget debate by Tyler Republican Leo Berman, who informed the handful of beleaguered Marxists holding out for human services that under the new Republican ascension, the Legislature's philosophy has moved from "the extreme left to the extreme right." "Eighty percent of the people are paying the taxes for the 20% that are receiving the services," Berman argued, adding that in his own district there are plenty of charities to fill the widening abyss in state assistance. Actually, in real terms Berman's numbers are almost precisely backward. The Texas revenue system, dominated by sales and property taxes, is so regressive that the poorest people in the state pay about twice as much in taxes as they receive in services -- and four times as much, in percentage of their incomes, as do the richest Texans.

Earlier Berman had claimed that "middle-class" people, earning as much as $45,000 a year, were dropping their private health insurance to put their children on the C.H.I.P. gravy train. That did beg the question why so many Texas children are so foolishly doing without health insurance altogether. Maybe Berman just wouldn't know; in his Smith Co. district, the median household income hovers at about $34,000. One-third of the families receiving emergency food assistance have at least one working adult, and about 21% of Smith Co. children are poor. More than half of those getting food aid are children or elderly, and less than 1% of those people are receiving state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (i.e., "welfare").

With Berman's help, we'll soon get those slackers off the dole.

Jerry's Team

Amid all the sounding gongs and clanging cymbals of legislative histrionics, as often as not it's the little things that serve to confirm who owns Texas. Last week, the House passed SB 1111, under which Dallas Co. will be allowed to hold an election for a tax increase to underwrite a new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. The bill, of course, was trumpeted as "economic development" by its author, Democratic Sen. Royce West, and anyone who questioned the need for a new "tax bill" was asked, "Would you deny the citizens of Dallas County the right to vote whether they want to raise taxes?"

But when the bill reached the House floor, Dallas Democratic Rep. Yvonne Davis defied at length her own local delegation, desperate for pork. Davis asked why legislators were so eager to enable a tax referendum to benefit a football team and its allied corporate mendicants, yet absolutely refused to allow consideration of taxes for health care, for public education, for environmental protection, or any of the myriad state needs that are going much worse than begging this session. Davis asked the question and attempted to amend the bill several times, to little avail. The bill passed easily, and (Dallas Co. willing) Jerry Jones will get his new toy box.

So this week, the Senate passed HB 804 by Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, intended to fix the glaring omission in state law that (as the bill analysis helpfully puts it) "there is no provision preventing a municipality from establishing its own minimum wage" above the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour. "Although no city in Texas has established its own minimum wage," the analysis continues, "recently there was a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in Houston to $6.50." That impertinence was defeated, thanks largely to an overwhelmingly negative vote in the precincts in and around River Oaks, where it's always hard to get cheap help.

But we can't be too careful. Who knows what might have happened to the Houston economy if dishwashers or maids were to earn the princely sum of $6.50 an hour? Happily, we can rely on "the first pro-business Legislature since the Civil War" to put an end to such nonsense, and to forbid uppity Texans the right to vote to raise the local minimum wage.

Before the Civil War, of course, plenty of Texas employers didn't have to pay any wages at all. Now that was a government that understood business. end story

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Mike Toomey, Texas Monthly, Rick Perry, 78th Legislature, Texas Association of Business, Bill Hammond, Leo Berman, C.H.I.P., children's' health insurance, House Dist. 6, SB 1111, Dallas Cowboys, Royce West, Yvonne Davis, Jerry Jones, HB 804, Charlie Geren

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