Point Austin: Removing the Mask

Hard times reveal the way things actually work

Point Austin
On just what planet does pulling a half-billion dollars out of the state economy help Texas business?

On Planet Rick Perry, I guess, where the governor decided last week to fly with the prevailing winds from the hard GOP right – they start in Carolina and flow around the Deep Southward horn to Texas – and recommend rejecting the $555 million in federal stimulus funds that would be dedicated to unemployment insurance. The state only receives the funding if it broadens its unemployment-insurance eligibility requirements in keeping with contemporary work patterns (spousal dislocation, part-time work, etc.). That hardly seems extravagant when you consider that currently only about 20% of Texas workers eligible for unemployment-insurance payments receive them.

Make no mistake, if the $555 million is indeed rejected, Perry is in fact "spending" it to other states, and his extravagance will cost both employees and employers. Workers will go without necessary help to get through the current recession, they will have less money to spend on necessities (hurting those same businesses), and cooler Republican heads have already been pointing out that without this federal funding, the state unemployment insurance fund will go into deficit by October at the latest. That deficit will in turn automatically trigger an increase in unemployment taxes to state businesses – returning us to our opening rhetorical question: On what planet is this supposed to help Texas business?

The counterargument, amplified mightily across the Fox and Limbaugh broadcasting networks, is that accepting these stimulus dollars will unfairly obligate these recalcitrant states – thus far South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – to continue to share the unemployment wealth after the federal dollars are exhausted (estimated at five to seven years). This sort of argument for turning down a gift horse in hard times is roughly akin to a child refusing to accept his allowance because it will eventually have to be replenished, perhaps even by his own efforts. Maybe that's how they do things back in Perry's hometown of Paint Creek – but in most parts of Tex­as, it's called cutting off your nose to spite the feds.

Let's hope, while Perry campaigns for re-election, cooler heads at the Lege figure out a way to prevail on this one.

Fiddlin' While Texas Burns

On the other hand, based on the ongoing voter ID shenanigans in the Senate, relying on legislators to remedy the governor's shortsightedness is probably its own fool's errand. The voter ID theatrics, much like the governor's unemployment insurance posturing, is one more example of the triumph of ideology over self-interest – and I'm talking about Republican self-interest here, quite apart from any benefits to ordinary Texas citizens. In the GOP calculations, the only hope of holding off the political effects of ongoing Texas (and U.S.) demographic changes is to find ways to 1) energize the white/Anglo base and 2) suppress additional minority turnout.

That may well work in the short term, which right now means the 2010 census. But as many a demographer and political consultant has pointed out, beyond the next few voting cycles, it's a doomed strategy. As longtime GOP political consultant Royal Masset told The Dallas Morning News this week, voter ID plays well to the party's base, "But it is also the kind of issue that could lose the Latino vote for the Republican Party for the next 30 years." Maybe Michael Steele's neo-hip-hop can save the day for the elephants, but more likely they're stuck with their ancien régime of old white men and will ride that exhausted horse until it expires.

At the 81st session, that has meant spending a great deal of time and rhetorical energy – with more still to come on the House side – on the largely mythological problem of voter impersonation, and relatively little on figuring out how to address the burgeoning economic crisis, the primary local evidence of which is growing ranks of the unemployed.

What's Sacred?

That's where we began: with the governor's insistence that accepting federal money to help the unemployed now is less important than protecting businesses from higher taxes five years from now – making it absolutely plain who has the ear of the state's rulers. It's a small comfort, but economic crisis has a way of exposing actual social relations that in good times are better disguised. The same is true in Washington, where it's been explained to us this week that the bonuses promised to the traders and managers of AIG – who aggressively drove the insurance company into the ditch we're now digging them out of – are absolutely sacred under the "rule of law," and so taxpayers have no recourse but to pay up.

I'm all for the sacredness of contracts and the rule of law. But I'm also curious where all this official and media breast-beating, teeth-gnashing, and hair-pulling over the helplessness of government to intervene was hiding when the issue was the automakers' bailout and most specifically the question of the sanctity of autoworkers' contracts. U.S. autoworkers are horribly overpaid, we were told, and before General Motors and the others could hope for government help, those labor contracts would have to be broken and renegotiated, those employees would have to be laid off by the thousands, and those retired workers would have to have their pensions yanked. As far as I can remember, none of those autoworkers was expecting millions of dollars in bonuses, let alone on the government's dime.

As it went with the autoworkers in Mich­i­gan, so it goes with the unemployed in Texas. Millions for Toyota or high tech start-ups or, for that matter, filmmakers looking for another nonunion labor haven. As for the less glamorous unemployed – in construction or housing or retail or restaurants – you can all just wait at the back of the line.

By now, you should be used to it.

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state politics, Rick Perry, 81st Legislature, voter ID, AIG

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