Point Austin: A Tale of Two States

How you see Texas depends where you're standing

Point Austin
They might as well have been talking about different places.

There was Gov. Rick Perry last week, in his biennial address to the Legislature: "By any meaningful measure, the state of our state is strong."

And there was Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat this week, among a group of Demo­crats representing the Legislative Study Group: "We've earned a reputation as first in jails and last in schools."

Whatever else you might think about the governor's "unwavering optimism" about Texas, surely "by any meaningful measure" is a recklessly callous exaggeration. As Naishtat summarized a report just issued by the LSG, "We continue to have the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the country, the lowest percentage of residents over 25 with a high school diploma, and the dirtiest air in the nation."

Those were three quick lowlights from "Texas on the Brink: How Texas Ranks Among the 50 States," the fifth biennial edition of a project initiated by now-retired El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who "wanted to unveil the reality behind the rosy rhetoric and make research and quality statistics available to the public," said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

In point of fact, once upon a time the state of Texas (specifically, the comptroller's office) compiled such official statistics as part of the ordinary course of business, regularly issuing a report titled "Texas: Where We Stand." But after several years of reporters and the public pointing out that Texas – by many meaningful measures – was consistently standing somewhere in the neighborhood of Mississippi and Louisiana, the agency quietly ditched the project. The official state posture, like that of the governor, is that accurate information equals "pessimism": "As this session gets rolling, some folks are painting a pretty grim picture of our situation, so we need to balance their pessimism with the good news that continues to flow from our comparatively strong economy."

Nevertheless, it's worth noting that, as currently proposed, the state budget is doing its level best to turn good news into bad, and a "comparatively" strong economy into another recession.

Consider the Numbers

"Texas on the Brink" covers a good deal more territory than Perry managed in his address, as he largely rode the mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" and the state's marginally lower unemployment rate. The sorts of jobs readily available here are harshly reflected by these statistics:

• 4.26 million Texans (17.3%) live in poverty.

• 5.5% of Texas workers are union members.

• 47% of Texas children – very nearly half – live in low-income families.

Texas is also ninth in income inequality between the rich and the poor, fifth in income inequality between the rich and the middle class, and 34th in median household income.

One might believe the standard of education might have some influence on future Texas employment. Yet on education, Perry proposed cut-rate diplomas (while simultaneously supporting tuition deregulation), would not use the Rainy Day Fund to save the crashing public school budgets, and called both the Historical Commission and Commission on the Arts "non-mission-critical" (as though Texas were a military march). Consider these relevant state rankings:

• State and local expenditures per pupil: 44th

• SAT scores: 45th

• High school graduation rate: 43rd

• Per-capita spending on arts agencies: 43rd

Although he predictably sneered at the "mainstream media," Perry is happy to cite Newsweek, Forbes, et al., when they trumpet the state's "business climate" – the ability to operate free of public responsibility or interference. As Naishtat pointed out, there are statistical categories in which we do lead the nation:

• Percentage of population uninsured: 1st

• Percentage of nonelderly population uninsured: 1st

• Percentage of uninsured children: 1st

And we are similarly near the bottom in employer-based health insurance, per capita spending on mental health, and per capita spending on Medicaid (and proposing to cut both the latter). We are also near the bottom in indicators for women's overall health (insurance, dental care, mammograms). What's Perry's initiative for women's health care? Subject any woman seeking an abortion to a mandatory ultrasound, with narration.

Shame or Inspiration

The Texas health care indicators are indeed dismal, and they also reflect negative rankings in which Texas has traditionally been a leader. What did Perry propose to change that sorry situation? "Repeal Obamacare."

Similarly, the governor complained about the "activist" Environmental Protection Agency, which has finally found the gumption to enforce federal anti-pollution laws that Texas has long ignored. As Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam noted sardonically, "We're not in the bottom in every category."

• Amount of carbon dioxide emissions: 1st

• Amount of volatile organic compounds emissions: 1st

• Amount of toxic chemicals released into water: 1st

• Amount of carcinogen emissions: 1st

There's much more of this sort of thing in "Texas on the Brink," but I suppose I've already ruined your breakfast. Nevertheless, the report is an indispensable corrective to the governor's Pollyannaish "state of the state," which, while relentlessly singing Texas' praises, seemed perversely detached from the actual conditions under which most Texans live. I encourage you to read Perry's speech [PDF] and "Texas on the Brink [PDF]" – and upon reading and reflection, ask yourself which document more accurately reflects the conditions of life in Texas circa 2011.

Call it simply a reality check, to continue as the legislative session proceeds.

The members of the Legislative Study Group were not terribly grandiose in their expectations for the report. Coleman noted the domination of Perry's party, especially the House supermajority, and said the role of the 49 House Democrats has largely been reduced to education on "the impact budget cuts will have on the lives of Texans," with the intent "not to shame Texas, but to rather inspire us to do better." As the introduction notes, "If we do not change course, for the first time in our history, the Texas generation of tomorrow will be less prosperous than the generation of today."

I'm hardly confident that the party in power is willing to heed that warning. But at least other Texans can be armed with an understanding of the consequences.

Follow "Point Austin" at www.twitter.com/PointAustin.

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Rick Perry, Eliot Shapleigh, Garnet Coleman, Texas on the Brink

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