Point Austin: News Not Fit To Print

Trying to find a silver lining ... anywhere

Point Austin
Heard any good news lately?

It's an occupational hazard of course, here at the Chronicle News desk, to be convinced daily that the world is steadily going to hell in a handbasket, but even allowing for that professional bias, it ain't a great moment for social optimism. I spent much of Tuesday afternoon working while monitoring the "debate" over voter ID in the Texas Senate, which in its second session had an even more ritualized quality than the first go-round. As Lee Nichols live-reported the episode online, sponsoring Sen. Troy Fraser spent much of his time punting Dem­ocrats' questions to staffers at state agencies. When those staffers (e.g., Department of Public Safety administrators) were duly summoned to testify, they either said they'd have to "check on it" or else explained that they didn't know how they were going to pay for any of this new ID stuff. (Slight budget crunch, you know.)

Fraser himself was unperturbed on the money side, saying the bill didn't need a fiscal note but in any case there would be federal funds – I kid you not – to pay for it. Would Gov. Rick Perry come thundering down from his rented mansion to protest that D.C. money always comes with too many "strings attached" to allow Texas to get its hands dirty? Nah. It was Perry, after all, who designated this legislation as an "emergency" in order to let it take precedence over everything else on the Lege agenda. Then last week, pandering to the anti-abortion crowd, he added to the list Sonograms for All – any woman seeking an abortion must be subjected by her doctor to amplified fetal evidence, in order to make her medical experience additionally miserable.

The state of Texas is in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in modern history – it may have slipped the governor's mind, he's a busy guy – and this is what the state GOP leadership considers our most urgent public business. I can't take credit for the joke (caught it on Twitter from Austin political consultant Katherine Haenschen), but why don't they save time and effort while they're at it by legislating voter IDs for fetuses?

The Numbers Don't Work

Eventually they'll have to get back to the budget – admittedly, it's not reassuring to contemplate – and try to figure out exactly how they expect to fulfill the oleaginous campaign promise to "balance the budget without raising taxes" or accessing the Rainy Day Fund. Even if they bend on the latter, fully half of the $9.6 billion will disappear into the deficit of the current biennium; the other half won't go very far to plug a $27 billion hole in the next.

My colleague Richard Whittaker, who's bravely paying even closer attention, is convinced that House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, who laid out the no taxes/no reserves budget to his stunned colleagues last week, was engaging in "brinkmanship" intended to shake some sense into those reps who still believe you can run a state this size (and growing) on ideology and air. As evidence, Richard notes that longtime Capitol observer Dave McNeely reported this week that after the draft House budget reflected the closing of four community colleges, four GOP reps went home to tell their constituents they would not allow that to happen (and the Senate draft retains the colleges).

Signs of backstage realism? Maybe. But just because the more rational Republicans understand that these kinds of cuts are simply too devastating to their own districts, that does not mean they'll find the money to sustain the actual institutional needs of Texas. There is some talk that they'll "fix" the franchise tax to collect nearer its original projections, but the amounts described do little about the structural shortfall. They can slap fees on this, that, or the other – seems unlikely you could get people to pay for their precious voter IDs – or tax smokers until their lungs bleed. But the Texas financial crisis is staggering, has been a decade in the making, and it's likely to take at least that long – and a dramatic shift in the political culture – to get things to a stage in which the state, counties, and municipalities are in fact adequately providing for basic public needs, from roads to schools to public safety to parks (pick your priority).

A Wake-Up Call

In Austin, we've been stunned and gratified to watch the public outcry against a draft (and frankly bungled) Austin ISD proposal to close the budget gap by closing some neighborhood schools. Don't think we're alone – similar outrage has already risen elsewhere at similar proposals, and school districts everywhere are trying to imagine where the axe must fall if the Lege proceeds with its initial Draconian scheme. Yet did you notice any rallies, or even much angry response this week, when the AISD board announced it would likely need to eliminate at least 485 positions for next year, and began the triage planning among teachers and librarians?

If I didn't know better, I'd suspect the AISD administration of "brinkmanship" in threatening (by proxy) to close schools, backing down, and then, without missing a beat, shifting the conversation to layoffs and other cuts. From long experience, I believe they're not that savvy – and in truth, they have now been charged by the Pharoahs of Texas with the impossible task of making school bricks without financial straw. Wealthy suburban districts and poor rural ones, where the GOP generally reigns, are feeling the same crunch, and the polls are saying: That's not what we meant in November. Not our schools! The polls say the same about Medicaid and nursing homes and mental health care ... and so on.

Well, what in God's name did they think they were voting for? It's very bitter comfort, but maybe it will take this kind of statewide shock to wake Texas voters to the realities of "cheap, limited government." You're not just depriving those other people's kids of education and health care, but your own; you're not just closing somebody else's colleges, but your own; you're not just throwing somebody else's grandma out in the street, but your own.

You're not just rejecting "big government" – but the very idea of community, of shared values, of shared burdens, and of shared rewards.

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legislature, Rick Perry, Toby Fraser, Jim Pitts, Austin ISD, state budget, school budget, Austin Independent School District

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