Point Austin: Capitol Craziness

April Fools' can't compete with this year's legislative follies

Point Austin
It's a hallowed April tradition at the Chronicle to brainstorm (although not always execute) elaborate pranks for our own enjoyment and that of at least some of our readers (others, duly hornswoggled, leave us entertainingly outraged voice mails).

In that spirit, the News staff truly tried to come up with some baroque trickery on a sufficiently grand scale to outdo the foolishness currently on view at the Texas Capitol; as you can see by this week's News feature (see "April Fooles"), we failed to come up with anything approaching the spectacle of our governor and his legislative allies doing their absolute best to throw the state back into both economic and social recession.

Slashing and burning schools and nursing homes, magically transforming election day into racial profiling day, and mandating ultrasounds for everybody: Welcome to the New Texas!

We just can't make this stuff up. Every time we think we've found a bill that could only be an April Fools' joke, another comes along to top it. Some folks would nominate Rep. Debbie Riddle's (R-Tomball) anti-immigrant employment bill (House Bill 1202) – it would ban the employment of undocumented immigrants, except for one yard man or domestic servant. You must admit that at least the bill makes clear whom Riddle actually represents – and getting the laundry washed and folded is certainly worth the risk of one or two terrorist anchor babies per suburban household.

Then there's Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arling­ton, whose HB 2454 would ban workplace (i.e., university research) discrimination against creationists (aka, ignorance is bliss). The threat of such discrimination is apparently a big problem in Texas, where Baptist preachers are always worried about mobs of atheists sneering at them in disdain or else monopolizing all the best seats at Friday night football games. Asked by Mother Jones whether, since he was suddenly so fired up about discrimination, Zedler would file bills to stop much more common discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status, he said he would "have to think about it."

Fools Rush In

It hardly ends there. Last week a House committee considered Pasadena Republican Ken Legler's HB 126, which would require Texans applying for unemployment compensation to submit to a state-funded drug test. Since the House-proposed budget – according to the state's own experts on the Legislative Budget Board – would create hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed, Legler's bill should qualify as a textbook definition of adding insult to injury. (Then again, it's not quite as outrageous as Florida Gov. Rick Scott's latest proposal, mandating random drug tests of all public employees; now there's a fellow who needs his head examined.) Mercifully, Legler's bill was left pending in committee, but don't be surprised if it rises like an April Fools' zombie in this session or another.

Drug tests and voter IDs are, of course, a politically useful sideshow to this session's main April folly: a House budget so radical that it will strip what the LBB estimates to be 335,000 jobs from the Texas economy. That's a conservative number, since it presumes that only 45% of the losses will be private-sector jobs. It's more likely that the private-sector numbers will be greater and that, for example, the draconian cuts to rural school districts (often a small town's major employer) will create dozens of new Texas ghost towns. Even should the Senate draft eventually serve to moderate the final budget, this ideologically driven approach to government spending (that is, to Texas investing in Texas communities) is quite likely to trigger a statewide double-dip recession. Folly indeed.

Believe in Magic

Of course, our governor insists that state government isn't laying off any teachers in Texas school districts. Instead, it's those dim-witted school board members who just can't seem to distinguish between necessary schoolteachers and unnecessary employees like, oh, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, librarians, janitors, whatever. Bureaucratic featherbedding, you know. And when the LBB issued its numbers, Talmadge Heflin (House GOP bean-counter emeritus, who now holds a cushy sinecure at the Texas Public Policy Foundation) and multimillionaire Lite Guv David Dewhurst were quick to counter that the LBB hadn't estimated the job losses that might follow imaginary tax increases. Despite a century of hard experience, these guys never learn that in hard times, government is the employer and spender of last resort.

A few months ago, I drove back to Austin from Shreveport, La., down through a Northeast Texas that had already been devastated by recession – town center after town center dotted with boarded-up storefronts. On various errands, I've made that trip perhaps a half-dozen times over the last 20 years, and I've never seen the small-town landscape so visibly under siege by hard times. Of course, I didn't have as passengers such economic geniuses as Heflin and Dewhurst, who no doubt could have marveled at the wonders of the creative destruction powers of modern capitalism. From the backseat, they could have let me know that the foolish economic theories of an earlier day – e.g., the 1930s – have been superseded by the ideological clarity of supply-side economics. All government need do is slash taxes and regulation – especially on such luxuries as workplace safety, minimum wages, environmental protection, water conservation ... you know the list. Once government gets out of the way, a magic wand called "free enterprise" will float all boats, from the luxury yachts on Galveston Bay to the two-seater rowboats on Lady Bird Lake, from the mansions of Highland Park and River Oaks to the shotgun shacks of Odessa, Nacogdoches, and East Austin.

Keep your fingers crossed, and keep believing. The trouble with April Fools' pranks from the likes of Heflin, Dewhurst, Perry, et al., is that when the punch line is finally delivered, it always seems to fall on the rest of us.

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Legislature, Rick Perry, Debbie Riddle, Talmadge Heflin, state budget, David Dewhurst, Bill Zedler, immigration, creationism

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