Point Austin: Give Perry a Brain Scan

Governors who reject federal stimulus money need their heads examined

Point Austin
It's no secret that much of what passes for official politics is more accurately described as political theatre. Next week, for example, state Senate Republicans will raise the curtain on their "voter ID" bill, part of a national GOP crusade against virtually nonexistent fraudulent voting. This pointless exercise not only required bending Senate rules to reach the floor; it is certain to die an ignominious death in the closely divided House. But in the meantime, it will provide a handy rhetorical stick for beating the already powerless, most especially Hispanic immigrants.

Last week, state GOP officials indulged in an even more vulgar melodrama, recruiting a pregnant woman for a public ultrasound procedure, in support of their determination that any Texas woman seeking an abortion undergo a mandatory ultrasound – condescension and humiliation being the latest Republican contributions to the Hippocratic oath. Let me suggest a friendly amendment: Any legislator voting for the measure should first be required to publicly undergo either a gynecological or prostate exam. Their choice.

Unfortunately, shameless political theatrics also have real consequences, and not only the waste of time and public resources that would be better spent on useful matters. Where voter-ID laws have been enacted elsewhere, for example, they have already prevented eligible voters from exercising their rights, not to mention discouraging unknown numbers of others from the attempt. And every artificial, political obstacle placed in the way of women seeking medical attention results in poorer health outcomes, as well as cynically contributing to the state's disgraceful teenage birthrate, of children Texas then largely refuses to insure for health care.

Let them eat ultrasounds.


Crackheads Rick and Bill

But this week's performance is Gov. Rick Perry's tap dance on the question of unemployment insurance and, more specifically, his suggestion that he may refuse $555 million of federal stimulus funds if accepting the money would first require Texas to upgrade its unemployment insurance accounting methods and expand its eligibility standards in order to cover more people – that is, people who are indeed out of work but whom the Texas Workforce Commission either fails to count or else refuses to consider (for example, people seeking part-time work or spouses who've had to relocate). Perry has joined such progressive Southern thinkers as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Mississippi's Haley Barbour in their grumbling that should they provide workers a federal bridge payment to their next jobs – which is all unemployment insurance is – they'll expect it the next time, when only state money is available. Or, as Perry (channeling that jokester Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business) put it so elegantly to the applauding editors at The Wall Street Journal: "If this money expands entitlements, we will not accept it. This is exactly how addicts get hooked on drugs."

Yet even Perry-appointed Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken, hardly a spendthrift, has acknowledged that without the federal money, the unemployment insurance trust fund is likely to be exhausted by the fall, automatically triggering the very business taxes that Perry and Hammond claim they want to avoid. Political theatre is seldom about actual facts; the point is to rile up the groundlings, get them howling about "taxes" and "state sovereignty," and distract them from noticing there's nothing onstage but smoke and mirrors.

Syndicated columnist Tom Teepen nicely skewered the posturing of these gallant South­ern governors who are scoring political points on the backs of their most desperate citizens. "If there is anyone in politics who is admired above all others by folks who have lost their jobs, and maybe have lost their homes and health coverage, too," Teepen wrote last week, "it is the politician who will stand on principle to keep them from receiving help." Make no mistake – despite all of Perry's boasting about the relatively strong Texas economy, there are plenty of Texans right now who need help. In mid-February, the weekly rate of new unemployment claims had more than doubled over last year (26,071 vs. 11,226), is steadily getting worse, and under current rules, roughly one in five of the actual unemployed are approved by the state for benefits. So much for "entitlements."


First Rule of Holes

The UI funding is only a small portion of the $16.9 billion stimulus for Texas, but it's the easiest to demagogue because it involves direct payments to beleaguered citizens ("welfare!"), and would require Texas to join most of the country in modernizing its system. Like the equally phony GOP campaign against the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act, it's another battle in the endless war of capital against labor. As Hammond's TAB certainly knows, the more desperate a worker is to find a new job, the less likely he'll be to buck management, seek higher wages, or even (horrors!) join a union.

Even Perry's complaint that accepting the money now will obligate the state down the line is false; the Lege has a long tradition of yanking benefits of all kinds when more important priorities – like property-tax cuts – get in the way. The Wall Street Journal inadvertently exposed this bogus logic in describing South Carolina, where Gov. Mark Sanford is rhetorically toying with the notion of rejecting not just federal unemployment insurance funds but money for such programs as "Head Start, child care subsidies and special education [to which] the state will have to enroll thousands of new families." The outraged Sanford wailed, "There's no way politically we're going to be able to push people out of the program in two years when the federal money runs out."

Sanford needn't worry that succumbing to federal blackmail to improve the lives of South Carolinians might get in the way of his simmering presidential ambitions. In recent years, Texas has cheerfully found ways to kick kids off Medicaid, block enrollment in children's health-care insurance, even make it nigh impossible for the severely disabled and mentally ill to enroll in state health-care programs. Once the federal money runs out, state officials will undoubtedly find new methods to re-ration unemployment insurance and maintain the state's reputation as a paradise for cheapskate bidnesses.

In the meantime, cooler heads at the Lege should take the federal funding and distribute it to those who need it, ASAP. Like all our national neighbors, Texas is in a hole right now, and it's only getting deeper.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Rick Perry, 81st Legislature, federal stimulus, Tom Pauken, Texas Workforce Commission, unemployment insurance, Bill Hammond

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