Point Austin: Whoop, Whoop, Hooray!

When legislators sneeze, Texans catch colds – or worse

Point Austin: Whoop, Whoop, Hooray!

The temptation is strong to treat the Texas Legislature's whooping cough scare as a revealing symptom of a broader political malaise. If you missed the miasma, legislators were recently informed that they may have been exposed to highly contagious pertussis via an infected page, and were advised to consult their doctors or avail themselves of vaccinations from Capitol nurses. The greater worry was not over public officials – whooping cough among otherwise healthy adults can be quite nasty but is generally not fatal – but over hundreds of children visiting the Dome, including young children of legislators.

How many of those children remain unvaccinated against pertussis, and other serious but preventable diseases – polio, measles, diphtheria, etc. – might depend on bills pending before the current session. Sophie Novack of the Texas Observer recently reported on a handful of bills that would make it even easier for Texas parents to "opt out" (for reasons of "conscience") of vaccinations for their children, as well as require doctors to provide misleading information about the ingredients and risks of vaccines. Texas legislators love to play doctor – similarly nonsensical laws mandate misinformation to pregnant women about abortion ("In Texas, Three More Measles Cases and Four New Anti-Vaccine Bills," Texas Observer, March 18).

Austin was recently identified as one of several national "hot spots" for parents rejecting vaccination, with particularly high rates among students in certain expensive private schools. Vaccination resistance is one of those popular follies where the anti-government right meets the sentimentally naturalist left in mutually credulous ignorance, with the inevitable results of putting the most vulnerable among us – infants, the elderly, or others unable to be vaccinated – at greater risk. Diseases previously minimized by vaccination (e.g., measles and pertussis) have been steadily increasing nationwide, and one suspects it will require a major outbreak – perhaps among a group of pandering legislators, or their constituents – before the public once again comes to its senses on medical science.

Varieties of "Freedom"

My current favorite among the anti-vaccine bills is Rep. Tony Tinderholt's HB 3857, which would forbid doctors from "discriminating" against patients who have refused vaccinations – even though those refuseniks might be endangering other patients at greater risk. Tinderholt, R-Arlington, among the more clueless members of the House "Freedom Caucus," is better known for his fervently unconstitutional attempts to outlaw abortion entirely. With any luck, his anti-vaxx bill might similarly die in committee.

These are the same folks, of course, who enthusiastically promote discrimination against LGBT Texans (and others) on the grounds of "sincerely held religious beliefs" (see here). As these ideologues understand "freedom," doctors shouldn't be free to protect their patients from communicable diseases, but under SB 17 (currently a GOP priority), they (and a long list of other "licensed professionals") would feel free to deny needed services to customers they simply dislike on religious grounds.

First, Do No Harm

Every other year we find ourselves hoping that this legislative session won't be quite so bad as the last one, and every other year our elected representatives remind us that we ain't seen nothing yet. As I write, the House is stolidly marching through hundreds of proposed amendments to its omnibus budget bill, after initially voting to spend $9 billion for past-due expenses, such as Hurricane Harvey recovery and underfunded Medicaid costs. (The Senate hasn't gotten this far, although eventual reconciliation between the two promises to be a real wrestling match.)

The biennial budget is the Legislature's only constitutional obligation, and in these congested, 140-day sessions, there's a perennial magic-trick misdirection away from the primary responsibility (funding genuine public needs) to the ideologically driven sleights-of-hand, like telling doctors how to practice medicine, designating certain Texans as undeserving of human rights, and of course denying health care to Texas women. The latter examples are particularly appalling: Instead of expanding the state's Medicaid program and thereby drawing down billions in federal funding for otherwise unavailable care, the GOP majority has spent weeks attempting new methods of undermining health care provided not by taxpayers, but by Planned Parenthood ("Lege Lines: Taking Aim at Planned Parenthood ... Again," March 22).

We're some weeks away from a decisive showdown between public school finance vs. property taxes – under a rational legislative agenda, subjects that would be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than considered in structural opposition – so it's too soon to tell if some sanity will prevail and Texas schoolchildren (and all those who serve their educations) will be provided the attention and support they actually deserve. Judging from some legislators' eagerness to callously expose those same children to deadly diseases a saner republic had virtually exterminated decades ago, I'm not terribly optimistic about the 2019 prospects.

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