Point Austin: The Cloudy Crystal Ball

If you're wondering what the new Lege will do, look to its predecessors

Point Austin
If you needed any additional seasonal foreboding heading into the new year, you might look no further than Harvey Kronberg's "On the Agenda" last week, in which the editor of online Capitol newsletter the Quorum Report cautiously addressed the dilemma faced by legislators hoping to find a way to balance the state budget while not simultaneously destroying the still fragile Texas economic recovery. "Yes, the economy is growing again," Kronberg told his Channel 8 audience, "but tax revenues are at a 2006 level despite the state's addition of close to a couple million new people since then.

"While the jobs picture is somewhat better here than in the rest of the country," he continued, "the Texas unemployment rate ticked up after an unusually bad jobs report. The big loss? Six thousand manufacturing jobs disappeared. The big gain? Government hired 7,000."

Kronberg is as middle-of-the-road as they come for political commentary and as such is a useful barometer of the current thinking among veteran Capitol hands about realistic 2011 legislative options. It's all well and good to campaign, in the popular clichés, against "waste and fraud" while demanding that "government live within its means." But when it comes to putting together an actual biennial budget, Kronberg says, "serious lawmakers are keenly aware that the largest customer for private business in Texas is government – which includes the state, city, school districts, and more.

"They also know that the largest employer in Texas is government."

That means when you slash government spending, you're inevitably slashing private business growth, and when you lay off public employees, you're inevitably undercutting consumer spending. "The kinds of budget cuts we are facing," Kronberg continues, "mean job losses for tens of thousands of public employees and teachers just when the economy is getting its legs back under it. That means fewer consumers buying goods and services."

Even setting aside the business stimulus (or in this case, de-stimulus) argument, Kronberg continues, there is the simpler reality that closing prisons, firing teachers, and cutting mental health care all have real consequences, and most directly at the local level. For example, he writes, "It means more poor people losing even minimal health care, which transforms a $50 earache into a $500 taxpayer-funded emergency room visit."

Good for the Goose

Since Texas has been on a stark austerity budget at least since 2009, we've been seeing the local consequences for some time, many of them predating the national recession and a direct consequence of the state property tax giveaway of 2006. School districts are anticipating additional hits this year, and Austin ISD is now surveying the public about how best to absorb an estimated shortfall "that could reach as high as $100 million" (reports its website) for the 2011-12 academic year. Those kinds of numbers are more than daunting and not readily resolved by the predictable strategies: "increasing teacher work­loads, eliminating teacher planning periods and cutting teaching positions," as summarized in the Statesman's Sunday feature on the situation ("School finances look grim").

There will be plenty of time (and merit) to argue the wisdom of the various cuts that will be proposed through the spring, but it's undeniable that (in the words of AISD Superintendant Meria Carstarphen) "it will not be possible to avoid reductions at the campus level for the next school year."

Tuesday's Statesman published an eloquent description ("Just another goose with her neck on the line") of what that will mean in practice, by Elizabeth Hudson, who teaches eighth graders at O. Henry Middle School. The current district proposal to cut both staffing and planning time would mean for Hudson "more than 200 students rather than the current 175 teenagers entrusted to me each day while my time to prepare for those students will be cut in half."

After 10-hour weekdays starting at 6:45am, and featuring six classes and (currently) two planning sessions, Hudson heads home to grade 300-500 papers and to draft lesson plans on the weekend: "Despite this 55- to 60-hour work week, I am never caught up." Increasing Hudson's and her colleagues' workloads while cutting their prep time, whatever else it does, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality (or the "accountability") of the public schools. Since the Lege won't be providing any additional resources (to a district, remember, classified as "wealthy" under state allocation standards), perhaps leg­is­lators can design a new cut-rate standardized testing scheme to maintain the illusion that little Texan heads are still being stuffed with Texas-friendly factoids, on the cheap.

The Next Wave

Hudson's apprehensions are but one small scenario of the sort of effects we will see reverberating throughout the Texas economy as the combined results of the national recession and of decisions made at the Capitol. Who will feel those effects? Schoolteachers and schoolchildren, college students and their families, nursing homes and their residents, uninsured Texans, and emergency room staff, and yes, laid-off public employees and their local communities, like Austin's, that they help sustain. And, judging from history, the new Legislature will likely exacerbate those effects; the 2006 special Lege, knowing full well that the business franchise tax would not sufficiently compensate for the property tax cuts they were determined to enact, made the cuts anyway – Elizabeth Hudson and her students are now bearing the consequences.

I wish I could believe there will be sufficient numbers of "serious lawmakers" – to borrow Kronberg's quixotic phrase – who will arrive at the Capitol fully understanding that campaign rhetoric is one thing, responsibly governing a state of the size and needs of Texas is quite another. There is precious little historical evidence on which to rest those fond and foolish hopes.

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More Point Austin
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Harvey Kronberg, public education, Texas Legislature, state budget, Meria Carstarphen, Austin ISD

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