Go and Sin No More
When it comes to sinnin', the Yellow Rose has nothing on the Lege
It was an entertaining week in State Wobegon, where the comptroller is strong, the governor is good-looking, and the children are all above average.
Actually, that last issue remains unsettled, since the question facing the special session of the Legislature is whether the state of Texas can afford to provide sufficient schooling to our children so that more than 55% of them can pass a test the Texas Education Agency considers the standard of minimum essential learning and skills. This week the TAKS test is being administered across the state perhaps you received a robo-call informing you that your child's presence is eagerly anticipated and while the students chew their No. 2 pencils, the Lege continues chewing over how to pay for more of those pencils without actually collecting any money that taxpayers haven't eagerly volunteered.
That was the crux of the headline argument last week between Gov. Rick Perry and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who now communicate only via press conference and let their staffs catch the ensuing heat at the Lege. Strayhorn blasted Perry's school finance plan as preposterous and certain to drive the state deeper into deficit; Perry responded that Strayhorn's accountants can't manage simple arithmetic and their boss only wants to "blow up" the special session so she can pick up the political pieces. Strayhorn, having momentarily seized the high ground, just as eagerly abandoned it, abruptly deciding not only that the governor can't add, he's determined to drive her "five granddaughters" to despair by the knowledge that somewhere in Texas women are dancing naked for money. Not content with laughing off Perry's dubious approach to school finance without much fanfare, even the Lege has largely moved on to more useful pursuits Strayhorn denounced Perry's proposed "sleaze tax" and vowed to shut down topless bars by legislating away their liquor licenses.
It was left to "Rio" of the Yellow Rose to provide some common sense on the issue. The 32-year-old mother and dancer told The New York Times, "This is the lowest thing they could do. The governor wants to give the owners of the biggest houses a tax break, and he wants women who have to take their clothes off for money to pay for it."
The controversy did serve to remind us that one man's sin is another man's profit, in spades. Although the topless tax seems to be receding rapidly into the smoke-filled background, other "sin taxes" remain front and center, most notably the proposal to try to raise a billion or 2 by allowing "video lottery terminals" the polite euphemism for electronic slot machines of various sorts into the state's handful of racetracks and Indian casinos. It became apparent immediately that the proposal has as much to do with giving a boost to the state's staggering "horse industry" as it does with providing funding for public schools. Even Ag Commissioner Susan Combs was trotted out to suggest that rural Texans would be abandoning their pickups and SUVs for horseback once again, if only the track operators were allowed to add some 40,000 24-hour slot machines to their outdoorsy recreations. Somehow I don't think many of these "gamers" will be getting much of a tan while they're taking an electronic bath.
Sin, Abomination, and Balderdash
Houston Rep. Ron Wilson, among those floating slot legislation, cheerfully acknowledged that some of the winnings would have to be set aside to treat problem gamblers. "We do have studies that show," he said, "that VLTs are one of the few gaming operations that actually does create compulsive gambling." And my guess is a study would show that plenty of legislators have an addiction to using any excuse to provide for the care and feeding of the business lobby, in this case the Texas "gaming" crowd, who have descended on the Capitol like $2 Saturday bettors, determined to show that the way to save public education in Texas is by giving the lion's share of VLT payouts to the operators. We're all expected to politely forget that only a few years ago it was pari-mutuel betting that was going to save the state budget, and that once granted that boon, the horse operators would be rolling in dough and would never return, hats in hand, to the Lege.
It took Fort Worth Rep. Lonesome Lon Burnam to suggest that as long as we're taxing sins, we might consider the various ways industry fouls the Texas air with unregulated waste and expects the rest of us to clean up the mess, pick up the tab, or just inhale the consequences. Burnam's House bills 34 and 35 would impose taxes on coal production (currently scot-free in Texas, despite its status as the dirtiest and most toxic fuel available), on inefficient power plants (spewing smog-generating nitrogen oxide by the wagonload), and on heavily polluting SUVs. "With the focus on sin taxes," declared Burnam, "I'm proposing we also tax those who sin against the environment and public health."
The Odor of Corruption
Despite the fact that we all presumably learned to clean up after ourselves in kindergarten, there was not a groundswell of Capitol enthusiasm for Burnam's proposals, and they raised barely a smoke signal in the state dailies. But the bills did serve to highlight how narrowly morality is defined at the Legislature, where gambling, smoking, and stripping are settling in for a few weeks of thunder and damnation, but industrial waste, official negligence of the health and education of children, and enthusiastic corporate welfare are eagerly embraced as the virtuous costs of doing business in Texas.