Point Austin: Left Unstated

A few omissions in the governor's State of the State

Point Austin
It wasn't really a surprise that Gov. Perry's Monday legislative laundry list was more 2010 campaign kickoff than official State of the State address. He and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison have been jockeying for position for months. But it would have been helpful to more Texans if he'd hewed a little better to the task directly at hand: informing the Legislature on the actual current economic and social conditions in Texas. He did manage a passing opening reference, "We are blessed that the state of our state is strong," and then closed with predictable sanctimony: "The state of our state is good [and] her character is strong and her people are great ... [and] our best days are yet to come."

That was pretty much it. I like being stroked as well as the next guy, but other than these bromides, Perry's executive diagnosis was essentially that Texas is better off than most other states and that most of the problems we do have can be traced to folly in other places, especially to that reflexive carpetbagging villain, "Washington, D.C." In light of the international economic meltdown, the governor's recommended response seems to be a whole lot of whistling in the dark.

Perry shares that posture with congressional Republicans, who've been dolefully telling the president and the press that there's nothing wrong with the U.S. economy that the failed formula of the last eight years – more tax cuts and less regulation – can't cure. He inveighed against higher taxes, promised "less burdensome" regulation, and insisted that thereby "playing offense" would convince employers to flee other states to set up shop here.

Buy More, Pay Less

The larger problem with Perry's speech was its internal inconsistency. On the one hand, he argued that in hard times, less spending by state government will protect the Texas economy. Even setting aside the prevailing economic understanding that in really hard times, public spending is the most effective direct market stimulus, Perry went on to list a whole series of pet projects with one central common element: They cost money. A partial list includes: the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Emerging Technology Fund, incentives for the film industry, raising the franchise-tax small-business exemption, upgrading state infrastructure (with wishes?), improving math and science education, teacher incentive pay, community college investment, nuclear power, hybrid vehicle incentives, border security, and so on.

Whatever you may think of any one of these projects, they each and all require considerable investment of public funds that the comptroller just finished telling us we don't have. Yet central to Perry's list is tweaking the business franchise tax (to lower it), although it has already failed to adequately replace the property-tax revenue he and his GOP colleagues gave away last session. Yet it will now be called on to pay for all these things, as well as such luxuries as the unemployment fund surplus that Perry also gave back in good times – so that the fund would inevitably lapse into deficit now, when thousands more laid-off Texans suddenly need it. In passing, Perry sneered at other states "begging Washington D.C. for a bailout," but if that's more than campaign rhetoric and he officially turns his back on children's health insurance or Medicaid or infrastructure money from the feds, the Lege should consider having him committed.

Where We Stand

There was a time, not too long ago, that the comptroller's office issued official reports ("Texas: Where We Stand") providing statistical comparisons with other states on such matters as health, education, environment, public safety, and so on. Unsurprisingly, the reports have quietly disappeared in recent years, making it easier for Perry to make grand, unsubstantiated claims about how much better we're doing than other states. When he complained Tuesday, for example, about "an increasingly activist" Environ-mental Protection Agency giving a hard time to the petrochemical industry, editorial writers were less likely to note that the EPA's attentions to Texas might be understandable, since of the 50 states, Texas is: No. 1 in air pollution emissions, No. 1 in volatile organic compounds emissions, No. 1 in toxic chemicals dumped into water, No. 1 in cancer-causing air emissions, No. 1 in carbon dioxide emissions ... and alas, only No. 2 in the generation of hazardous waste.

Similarly, Perry endorsed legislation to "require those wanting to terminate a pregnancy to review their ultrasound before proceeding." Could he have been so cavalier about these apparently genderless "those" if everybody in the House were aware that Texas is: No. 1 in the teenage birth rate, 50th in the percentage of nonelderly women with health insurance, 46th in the rate of adult women who receive Pap smears, and No. 6 in the rate of cervical cancers. With the governor's support, we could soon be No. 1 in faith-based ultrasound procedures.

Those are just a few selected stats, compiled in "Texas on the Brink," a state ranking report now compiled by the office of El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who noted of Perry's speech, "One in five Texas children are uninsured; tuition at UTEP has risen 73 percent; tax cuts for the wealthy have hurt public schools, forcing them to cut key programs. Around Texas, from Hous­ton to Dallas to El Paso, we share the nation's dirtiest air. Texas is number one in dropouts and number 46 in SATs. When Rick Perry values tax cuts for the wealthy over investments in our future, Texas loses."

You might think a State of the State oration by the state's chief executive officer, reporting to the legislative body, would have spent a bit more time on ... the state of the state. Perry might have noted at least in passing, for several more examples, that Texas is:

• first in percentage of uninsured children,

• first in percentage of uninsured population,

• first in the number of executions,

• second in the rate of incarceration, yet

• eighth in the crime rate.

Of course, acknowledging such problems would inevitably require the political will to do something about them, and volunteers with chain saws just won't cut it. Addressing problems on this scale requires responsible government, serious money, and real leadership. For that, Texans will need to look elsewhere.

Web Extra

The full 2009 report, "Texas on the Brink" (Fourth Edition), compiled by the office of state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, is available here.

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Rick Perry, 81st Legislature, healthcare, health insurance, Kay Bailey Hutchison, college tuition

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