Sunday, January 19, 2014

How Did Texas Get Into This Mess and Who Will Lead Us Out?


(from a speech to the First Unitarian Church of Austin, Jan. 19, 2014, a revision and updating of "What's the Matter with Texas")

When I moved to Texas 42 years ago to attend the University of Dallas, you could tell when you were entering the Lone Star State because the quality of the pavement improved.

Since then the state's dedication to highway quality has deteriorated along with its road surfaces, to the point where the American Society of Civil Engineers last year found that 38% of Texas roads are in poor or mediocre condition. The state has not raised fuel taxes from the 20 cents a gallon dedicated to roads since 1991, so the Texas Department of Transportation under Republican Gov. Rick Perry has had to contract with foreign financiers to put the cash up front to build and operate state tollways and the state has floated plans to convert at least 80 miles of paved roads in South and East Texas to gravel because it lacks the funds to repair damage done by oilfield vehicles. 

The Texas economy grew by 13% from 2009 to 2012, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis reported last June. Much of the state’s job growth came due to the revival of the state's oil fields with the environmentally dangerous fracking process, but the state also saw large gains in service jobs, which tend to be relatively low-paid and less likely to offer insurance benefits. The state’s jobless rate topped out at 8.5% in August 2011, when the national unemployment rate was 9%, but by November 2013 the Texas unemployment rate had dropped to 6.1%, compared with 7% nationally.

Austin has led the high-tech economic boom, which was due to the state’s investments in the University of Texas and high-tech research centers in the 1980s. It's important to remember that Texans used to be proud that university costs were kept low enough that the children of working-class parents could pursue a college education. In 1970, when Rick Perry attended Texas A&M, the state paid 85% of the cost of running the state's institutions of higher learning.

A student in those days could get a bachelor’s degree while accumulating little or no debt. Tuition and fees for the regular workload of 15 hours was $104 per semester for Texas residents in 1970. (A student could work that off in just 65 hours at the minimum wage of $1.60 per hour.) Tuition and fees rose to $2,357 a semester by 2002 (that works out to 458 hours at the $5.15 minimum wage). But a student could still pay tuition and fees at a Texas university by working 20 hours a week, not counting room and board.

After Republicans gained control of the Texas Legislature in 2003, with Rick Perry as governor, the Legislature “deregulated” tuition. Since then the Legislature has cut appropriations for the state’s universities to less than 15% of the costs, the opposite of its share in the '70s, with students picking up most of the balance. In 2012, the average cost for a semester for a state resident was $7,533, an increase of 55% since deregulation. (That’s the equivalent of 1,039 hours at the minimum wage of $7.25.) The estimated cost of undergraduate education at the University of Texas in 2013, including campus housing, was at least $25,704. 

The Texas Legislature should step up to restore the state's share of the cost of higher education and make it affordable to students working no more than 20 hours a week. At the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, that means tuition should be no more than $3,625 a semester (or $7,250 a year).

Instead, Texas legislators in 2011 cut $5 billion from public schools and $1 billion from universities, choosing not to draw from the state's $8 billion "Rainy Day Fund" to support education during the Great Recession. Instead, the state's public schools lost 21,000 teachers and staff while Texas universities also faced cutbacks. The Legislature restored most of those cuts in the 2013 session, but the indifference to education as a budget priority could make it harder to find qualified teachers and professors in the next decade.

The proportion of adults without a high school diploma is projected to increase from 12% today to 30% in 2040, if current trends continue, the state Comptroller’s office reported. That report also predicted another 30% of the 2040 labor force will have only a high school diploma and no training for high-tech jobs.

Rick Perry also brags that Texas has generated 37% of the country’s new jobs since 2009, but he is less forthcoming about the 25% of Texas residents who lack health insurance. That ranks Texas dead last among the states in the percentage of insured residents. Texas has a high number of retail and service jobs, as well as a large agricultural sector, and those are industries that are less likely to offer health benefits. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 71% of Texas uninsured are part of a family that includes a full-time worker. Put another way, 63% of uninsured, working-age Texans have a job — they just don't have a job that provides insurance.

Texas' 25% uninsured compares with a national average of 17% uninsured. Those 6.3 million uninsured Texans amount to a population nearly equal to the entire state of Massachusetts.

And Perry and state Attorney General Greg Abbott have done worse than nothing to make health insurance more affordable for working Texans. They promoted a 2003 law that caps medical malpractice awards, making it harder for injured patients to recover damages from negligent physicians. That arbitrary $250,000 limit on punitive damages gives lawyers little incentive to take malpractice cases. But so-called “tort reform” has not controlled health care costs — since 2003, Texas Medicare reimbursements have actually been rising faster than the rest of the country, Public Citizen reported in December 2009.

It's ironic, to say the least, that Abbott, who is now running for governor, supports these limits on damage awards. He got a $9 million settlement in 1986 from a property owner and a tree service in Houston after a tree fell on him, paralyzing him and requiring him to use a wheelchair. 

Perry and Abbott also have taken the lead in opposing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact that Texas has 22 of the 30 counties in the United States that would benefit most from implementation of the health reform. Perry has refused billions of dollars the federal government is offering to pay nearly the entire cost of expanding Medicaid to cover the working poor — that's up to 133% of the poverty level — for the first three years. A study done for the Commonwealth Fund reported in December that Texas would pass up $9.6 billion in federal matching funds in 2022 if it continues to refuse Medicaid expansion.  As attorney general, Abbott led the efforts to block the health reform law in the courts. Now he is working to block “navigators,” many of whom work for non-profit organizations, from helping potential customers find the insurance plan and federal subsidy that’s right for them.

Texas always has been stingy in its Medicaid program. Texas Medicaid in 2012 covered 3.6 million Texans, mainly children, pregnant women, seniors in long-term care and disabled Texans, mainly sticking with the federally mandated minimums. And Perry would like to do away with those requirements. Now he and Abbott are trying to prevent as many as 1.5 million people earning poverty wages from getting health coverage paid by the federal government.

As if to add a cruel twist to the obstruction, the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011 cut $73.6 million from family health services. The cuts were supposed to be targeted at Planned Parenthood abortion services, but they ended up defunding 22 public health clinics that provide a broad range of services in Texas and they have reduced health care options for low-income Texas women.

Rick Perry boasted that the state had targeted Planned Parenthood. “There are 12 abortion clinics that aren’t open in the state of Texas today because our members of the Legislature had the courage, the wisdom to do that,” he said, referring to the defunding.

Jordan Smith noted in the Austin Chronicle that Perry’s bragging may have pleased his hardcore base, but it was false. In fact, 11 Planned Parenthood clinics had folded operations in Texas because of the budget cuts — including six near the Mexican border, where the need is great and there are few other options for care — but none of those clinics provided abortions. Instead, those clinics provided health exams to 20,565 clients, including screenings for cervical cancer; screenings for breast cancer; and screenings and treatments for sexually transmitted infections. But not any more.

The Legislature in 2013 appropriated $71 million for family planning services, nearly reinstating the money the Legislature had cut in 2011, but the state also lost $60 million from the federal government because it defunded the clinics that were affiliated with abortion providers, reported. The state Family Planning Services Program is expected to serve 100,000 women in 2014, down from 220,000 women before the 2011 cuts, the Dallas Morning News reported.

The state has low tax rates, as the average Texan spends just 7.9% of his income on state and local taxes, compared with 9.8% nationally, according to the Tax Foundation. That 7.9% is up from 7.1% when Perry became governor in 2001. But only five states have lower tax burdens. And you get what you pay for.

Texas has relatively low housing costs, ranking 40th in median home prices. Texas was not hit as hard by the collapse in housing prices as other states where housing prices were inflated by speculators. A large part of the credit goes to Texas' relatively strict regulation of home equity loans. The state limits “cash out” refinancing, where homeowners could take advantage of higher house prices to refinance their homes and pocket the difference. 

Texas had a populist mistrust of bankers since the days of the Republic. The state did not allow home equity loans until 1997 and then Democrats, in one of their last populist stands before the Republicans took over, insisted on limits that made it harder for bankers to misuse home equity loans. (Perry was agriculture commissioner at the time and was not a leader in the home equity debate.) In Texas, cash-outs and home equity loans cannot total more than 80% of a home’s appraised value and borrowers cannot use the refinance to pay other debts.

Many people confuse the demagoguery of politicians such as Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz and the Tea Party movement with populism. These faux populists have turned the definition of populism on its head and it’s time that progressives reclaim the good name of populism.

Since the late 19th century, populists have believed that government should protect working people, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers from predatory corporations. Right-wing business executives such as the Koch Brothers founded FreedomWorks and other organizations that have tried to turn that populist tradition on its head in organizing the Tea Party movement to protect corporations from government regulation.

The Tea Party movement, whether its members realize it or not, is largely in the service of corporate interests in its campaign against “big government” and health-care reform.

They have embraced the right-wing dogma that big government is bad and that the free market is the best regulator. That is the opposite of progressive populism, which believes that the government should protect working people, farmers and small businesses from predatory corporations.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, provided an $800 billion stimulus to the economy. That was a good start and helped to stabilize the economy, but going forward the government needs to put people back to work building or rebuilding highways, bridges, schools and other public works. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend at least $3.6 trillion on rebuilding infrastructure just to get it back to code. In Texas, we don't even have a state fire code that allows fire marshals to inspect potentially explosive sites outside of city limits. The Republican Legislature didn't get off the dime to act, even after the fertilizer plant explosion that leveled much of the little town of West, Texas, on April 17.

Democrats should promote development of high-speed railways and a clean energy industry. President Obama's proposal for a $450 billion jobs act is the minimum Congress should approve, but they should also toughen regulations on Wall Street and help small businesses gain financing from the Small Business Administration if private lenders are not up to the task.

Recovery will be expensive, and this is no time to worry about the debt we’re passing onto our children. Those kids are better off if the government ensures that their parents have a good job with a living wage, health care, an affordable home and the kids have access to quality education from pre-kindergarten through college.

Texas is a cornerstone of Republican power nowadays, but that hegemony depends on suppressing the Latino electorate, which runs two-thirds Democratic when they get out to vote. Hispanics represent 38% of the Texas population, but they accounted for only 20% of Texas voters in 2012. In Texas, less than 55% of voting-eligible Hispanics registered to vote that year, the Census Bureau reported. That’s 12 points less than all eligible Texas voters and almost 19 points less than eligible Anglo voters.

If Hispanics had turned out at the same rate as whites in 2012, it would have meant an additional one million votes in Texas, where Mitt Romney defeated President Obama won by 1.2 million votes. Romney probably still would have won Texas, but he might have needed more money to secure the Lone Star State. And those million extra Latino voters might not have turned the tide in the US Senate race, where Cuban-Canadian Ted Cruz defeated East Texan Paul Sadler by 1.24 million votes, but that kind of movement might have lured some national Democratic money to help the cash-strapped Texas Democrat put up a fight.

It is hard to figure out how Republicans regain the White House without Texas’ 38 electoral votes and the numbers are starting to stack up against the GOP. Latinos make up 38% of the population while African Americans are 12%. White Texans voted 26% for Obama in 2008 but in January 32% of respondents told Public Policy Polling they were Democrats, with 43% Republican (1/30). Some of the organizers from President Obama’s campaign have relocated to Texas to try to replicate some of their grassroots organizing successes that helped turn around Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Meanwhile, the Republican answer is to redouble voter suppression efforts such as requiring state-issued photo IDs to vote. Just two hours after the right-wing Supreme Court majority threw out the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement in June, state Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would go ahead and implement the controversial voter ID law that the federal courts had blocked in 2012 because the judges found it would discriminate against black and Latino voters.

Some day, this contempt for the Latino vote is bound to backlash on the Republicans. Irish Americans have been voting Democratic because of what Republicans did to their great-great grandparents 160 years ago, and Republicans, with their shocking disrespect for President Obama, have finished off most of the good will African Americans had remembered for the party of Lincoln. Today the Republican vote suppressers and DREAM deniers are doing their best to turn new generations of Mexican Americans against the GOP.

Pundits are playing down Texas Democrats’ chances of getting competitive in the next few election cycles, even with state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) making a name for herself with her much-admired filibuster against the Republican railroaders and exciting Texas women with her campaign for governor. But white Texans who have been voting Republican for the past few election cycles grew up voting Democratic and they still might be receptive to a blue streak if a candidate gave them a good reason to vote Democratic again. And if Democrats can count on teabaggers such as Congressmen Steve King of Iowa and Louie Gohmert of northeast Texas with their demeaning rhetoric about immigration reform to create a whole new generation of Latino Democrats, Texas could find itself on the fast track toward turning purple.

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