Point Austin: What Do They Conserve?
The 82nd Legislature sets a new standard for official recklessness
I guess the award must go to the anti-"sanctuary city" bill, yet another Hispanic-bashing solution in search of a problem, brought to you by small-town boobs like Tyler Rep. Leo Berman, suburban panderers like sponsor and Carrollton Rep. Burt Solomons, and political cynics like Gov. Rick Perry, who thought reassuring racist know-nothings (rather than deferring to urban police chiefs, who hardly need another headache) sufficiently important to declare the bill a legislative emergency. The House passage did evoke one of the most moving moments of the 82nd session, as Houston Democratic Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna took the front mic for a personal privilege speech on the subject of undocumented immigrants – as she and her parents had been for eight years, until the 1986 federal immigration reform (under then President Ronald Reagan, no less). "You may prefer to use the word 'illegal alien,'" said Hernandez Luna, "but I'm not an alien; I am not a problem that must be handled; I'm a human – a person standing before you now as a representative for the Texas House."
Fighting back tears, Hernandez Luna delivered her speech before a mostly empty chamber – fitting, I suppose, since two-thirds of the House was not interested in hearing her nor in acknowledging the millions of Texans like her who are the primary drivers of the state's population explosion. The same predominantly Anglo majority will soon attempt to make those folks disappear politically as well, by drawing redistricting maps designed to maintain GOP Anglo hegemony for another decade. It can't last forever – but in the short-term minds of our current state leadership, forever is a very long way away.
It was just another depressing moment in the dismal record of the 82nd session, and it's hard to know what to designate as the worst thing these guys have come up with. Like the "sanctuary cities" hysteria, the high-profile push for voter ID (just what the republic needs, more discouragement to vote) was a largely symbolic exercise in Hispanic-bashing, and the worst effects will in fact not be on turnout but on community harmony – way to go, reps, make it more difficult for us to live together!
Still Not Raining
Then there's the session-long assault on women (both symbolic and real) in the form of hysterical anti-abortion bills and draconian cuts to health care that hit hardest against women, children, and the elderly. Equally outrageous has been the wholesale abandonment of the public schools, already weakened by the bait and switch of the 2006 property tax cuts. The defense that "we just don't have the money" because of the recession imploded last week in the wake of the Senate's capitulation to the "No Rainy Day" mantra of such economic visionaries as Houston Sen. Dan Patrick, who refused to vote for a budget that acknowledges that, yes, indeed, it's raining in Texas. You can't claim economic emergency at one stroke and simultaneously hide the emergency funds at the next.
Where does that leave Texas? The outcome has been obvious for weeks, but was confirmed this week in a statement from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which has fought tirelessly and in vain for a more rational result. "The House's budget would spend just under $78 billion, leaving the state short $21 billion. The Senate's budget would spend about $83 billion, leaving the state short $16 billion – $5 billion of which would have gone to public education," said CPPP's Scott McCown. "At this point, though, we must rally around the better budget."
In the May issue of Texas Monthly, Paul Burka was wanly hoping for some leadership from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who instead made it clear last week that he would not defend the budget of his finance committee chair, Sen. Steve Ogden, and its partial use of the Rainy Day Fund. Now in conference committee, all hopes rest on simply moderating the worst effects of the House budget, which those radicals at the Legislative Budget Board concluded would result (in Burka's summary) in "more than 600,000 jobs lost, a $34.2 billion decrease in gross state product, and a $29.8 billion decline in personal income."
Does anybody still believe the Republicans are the party of "conservatism," let alone "fiscal responsibility"? This scorched-earth approach to economic reality does not qualify.
From Bad to Worst
Dewhurst's predecessor, the sane and therefore former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, told The Dallas Morning News' Robert Garrett that the state could certainly expect to be back in federal court again feebly defending its abandonment of public education. But courts are painfully slow, and Texans will feel the results long before any justice is restored. "There's going to be a backlash once this budget goes into effect," Ratliff said, "and the prison system starts having to let people out, as they did in 1988, or when the mamas see their kids in a class of 30 or 35 children, or all the local teachers start being laid off. It's going to be a bloodbath."
Travis County's share of just the public school bloodbath, according to the estimates of the CPPP – and that's under the best scenario, the Senate budget as it stands – is $182 million in cuts, thus 2,238 Austin ISD jobs lost, with a consequent 3,134 jobs lost in the private sector. The county's health and human services funds (which would require major increases just to keep up with current needs) under the Senate budget is slated for a 10.6% cut.
The results will actually be worse, of course, because the Senate proposal will not escape its even more shortsighted House conferees intact. Those disastrous effects will be multiplied all across the state. Yet our state leadership insists that there is no financial exigency severe enough to use some or all of our savings to stave off the worst damage to our public institutions: to our schools and hospitals, to our children and families, to our communities.
In short, this budget will be the ultimate disgrace of the 82nd Legislature. You could almost stomach it, if they'd only stop pretending that this reckless disregard for the actual state of the commonweal is, by any stretch of the imagination, "conservative."