Charter Schools and Chain Saws
Conservatives shouldn't be afraid to be conservatives, even if it loses them debates and candidates. That was the message South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford brought to the Texas Public Policy Foundation's sixth annual "policy orientation" for the Texas Legislature.
The two-day meeting, held Jan. 9-10 at the Sheraton, was an opportunity for the conservative think tank to tell Texas legislators what they think real conservatives care about. The assembled crowd of politicians, staffers, agency heads (e.g., Public Utilities Commission Chair Barry Smitherman and state Comptroller Susan Combs), and delegates from business lobbies and pro-deregulation think tanks heard the key theme summed up by closing speaker Gov. Rick Perry. "My philosophy of life, leadership, and governance," he said, "has pretty much boiled down to one word: 'competitiveness.'"
Steering clear of some more controversial issues, like abortion and prayer in school, the foundation pointed to ways to get business into government (more fiscal openness, more private contractors) and government out of business (deregulation, private health insurance, and school vouchers). While the meeting was nominally for the benefit of legislators, the first major legislative proposal for next session came from Attorney General Greg Abbott. In his kickoff keynote, he combined two policy areas that he has used to define his term in office: funding of health insurance and rigorous child-support collection. Under his new proposal, if a child who receives child support does not have health insurance, the support-paying parent could pay for insurance, via a state-run group pool, from private insurers. If the parent did not buy insurance, he or she could have his or her wages garnished.
While Abbott's proposal received applause from much of the audience, others in attendance were looking for insight on the conservative agenda, from the other side. "John Stuart Mill once said, 'He who knows only his own side of the argument knows little of that,'" said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. The co-author of last session's government fiscal openness law, House Bill 3430, took part in a panel with Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, on government transparency. "I represent a district with a lot of fiscal conservatives, and transparency is something on which we can agree," said Strama, although that agreement may be limited. "Like Norquist said," Strama added, "he doesn't have any delusions that he and Ralph Nader want to do the same thing with the money they free up."
Rep. Scott Hochberg was blunter. "You get to know what the other guys are doing," the Houston Democrat said after a panel on public education that moderator Jamie Story of the Center for Education Policy euphemistically called "exciting." After homeschooling advocate Bruce Shortt told the assembled crowd the kindest thing to do to a child in a public school was to take him or her out, Hochberg and former Houston Democratic state Rep. Ron Wilson (now former assistant parliamentarian to Speaker Tom Craddick) broke the general mood of consensus with a heated exchange about urban charter schools. Wilson charged they are failing because they're underfunded, overregulated, and the public school system uses them as a dumping ground for problem students. "I think that's baloney," said Hochberg after, noting that they are less regulated than public schools.
There were attempts at bipartisanship. Perry noted that, whatever side of the aisle, legislators want what is best for Texas. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, called it a rare interim opportunity to re-establish working relations with other representatives. "We work with the other 149 members very closely during the session, and then we don't see each other except at events like this," she said.
Many conservatives came to see Sanford, a tax-slashing, tort-reformist darling who was briefly a rumored contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Following an invocation from Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who made a point to thank God for the TPPF's work, Sanford tried to rally loyalists. Comparing conservatives variously to troops in Iraq, Rosa Parks, and Spider-Man, he said they are in a conflict equal to either World War. The enemy, he explained, had been revealed in the ruins of New Orleans. "Katrina," he said, "did not unearth poverty but something more unsettling, particularly as a conservative, and that's dependency."
Advocating personal responsibility, he claimed the American approach to such disasters was "a neighbor helping a neighbor with a chain saw." When asked later whether the lesson from New Orleans may be that badly funded levee repairs failed – while the success of the massive Delta Works flood protection program in Holland might derive from its central government funding, Sanford replied: "I'll let somebody else talk about paying for dikes. The point I was making was that people are looking to government for an answer, and that's historically not the default in this country."
So how did it play to the small-government base in attendance? "The program was very good," said Dick Mills, national director for Ron Paul Friends USA, "although a few speakers were kind of out there on the fringe."