Point Austin: Perry's Farewell

Nothing in his tenure became him like his leaving it

Point Austin

We've already had our "Adios, Mofo" moment – last July, when now-former Gov. Rick Perry announced that he would not run again in November – although it remains difficult to resist the impulse to let the door bang him on the behind as he takes his leave ("Point Austin: Adios, Mofo," July 12). Instead, in the spirit of bipartisanship Perry invoked briefly last week, I'll start by noting an area of agreement in his farewell address to the Legislature: "My fellow Texans," he said, "we must remember when it comes to the disease of addiction, the issue is not helping bad people become good, but sick people become well." Perry pointed to the success of diversion programs instead of prison for alcoholism and drug addiction – citing an unnamed Dallas Democratic judge for the innovation of drug courts "that treat alcoholism and drug addiction as a disease, and not a moral failing" – and credited the change with not only cutting the crime rate but allowing prison closures.

It will be news to far too many Texas inmates and their families that the illness model of addiction now dominates the state's approach to drug crimes. It's also worth noting that opening and closing prisons is an ideological pendulum that depends as much on the state's cyclic budget situation as it does on either addiction theory or progressive jurisprudence. Nevertheless, it's real progress that a governor can publicly acknowledge what has been obvious about prohibition since, well, Prohibition. If more of that progressive approach indeed filters out into the state's courts and law enforcement, maybe we can close a few more prisons. Perry's past statements on the possibility of marijuana decriminalization hold some of the same promise.

Of course, it's always easier to make such empathetic declarations when you're not actually campaigning – few Texas politicians ever won an election by promising to be softer on crime. But this is one of the handful of issues on which progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans can find common ground. Anything deserves applause that serves to undermine the wholesale madness of the War on Drugs.

Constitutional Responsibilities

Alas, drug diversion courts are pretty much where the good news ends. While praising "job creation" and "unlimited opportunity," Perry had almost nothing to say about the state's primary obligations beyond public safety: public education and access to health care. These are fundamental responsibilities that have steadily gone backward during Perry's record 14 years in the Mansion. Texas has been in court over inadequate and inequitable school funding literally for decades, and this year is no exception – the latest litigation will provide yet another excuse for the 84th Legislature to ignore its constitutional responsibilities and prioritize highways, dams, and pipelines over schools. Even as he praised his Paint Creek schoolteachers for giving him a leg up on success, he had little to say about how that idealistic model can play out for millions of Texas schoolchildren assigned to underfunded school districts.

On health care (unmentioned other than in the nod to addiction), the picture is worse. Purely for ideological reasons, Texas continues to reject the expansion of Medicaid – the one step that would mean more for millions of uninsured Texans than virtually any other public policy – simultaneously rejecting billions for the state economy that would easily dwarf the "job creation" of the temporary surge in hydrocarbon production. Instead, under Perry and the "pro-life" agenda, the Legislature has steadily cut back on basic health care programs for women, undermining children and families in the bargain, while singing a hypocritical refrain: "Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance."

God Bless Texas

Nevertheless, there's ample reason to believe that Perry is, in fact, campaigning – for another shot at the GOP presidential nomination, and some redemption of his reputation after his spectacular 2012 flameout. That likely explains the fairly abstract and "bipartisan" tone of the farewell: the ongoing pretense that Texas succeeds at compromise where Washington has failed. That would be more persuasive if the national economy was not also on the upswing, and doing so largely by ignoring national Republican priorities. In the already-crowded field, who's to say that a re-branded Perry can't make headway – if he avoids stepping on his own tongue, and doesn't express too much apparent "compassion," he certainly exceeds the benchmark set by Michele Bachmann.

As he departs, he leaves the rest of us with Greg Abbott. Granting the new governor his honeymoon, thus far there seems to be little that will distinguish him from his predecessor, although he doesn't reflexively ooze the ambition that marked both Perry and Bush before him. Abbott's inaugural address was even more bluster than substance – I suspect he meant "hallowed" rather than "hollowed" ground (as in his prepared text). On the same big issues – education and health care – he said nothing that gleams of progress, although he does say he wants to build more highways and dams. Maybe not quite as many prisons.

Following Texas politics over the decades, it pays not to have too-high expectations.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas politics, Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, public school funding, health care, drug courts

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