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The Contrarian

Perry’s Self-Defeating Secrecy

Avoiding tough questions won't fly in a national campaign

It’s common for incumbent politicians with a comfortable lead in the polls to avoid public questioning. The idea is to limit the number of debates, press conferences, and unscripted moments—and any opportunity for your opponent or the press to hit you with tough questions, and reduce the chances of an election-changing gaffe. It’s called running out the clock, and it’s a tried and true political tactic.

But Rick Perry might be taking it to new levels:

—He’s thus far refused to schedule a debate with his Democratic opponent Bill White, despite the challenger’s best efforts to goad him into it.

—The Perry campaign has also announced the governor will not meet with newspaper editorial boards during the campaign.

—And the capital press corps is getting precious few opportunities to ask questions of the governor. Most of Perry’s events these days are nowhere near Austin, where many of the state’s political reporters are based. That means anyone wanting to ask Perry an unscripted question has to travel with the campaign (and the campaign decides who gets to ride along) or trail Perry on their own, all private eye-like, as an Observer reporter did back in 2006.

The Houston Chronicle’s R.G. Ratcliffe recently scored a few minutes with the governor for a short Q and A. And Perry met briefly with reporters after his speech to the Texas Broadcasters Association last week.

But those are rare exceptions. Most capital reporters have a better chance of landing an interview with Thomas Pynchon than sitting down with this state’s highest public servant.

This approach may be good politics—if Perry’s lone goal is another term as Texas governor. But there are two potential problems with Perry walling himself off from public debate and questioning.

No. 1, it does the public a disservice. Voters, of course, deserve to hear from their elected officials about important issues facing the state—through televised debates, news conferences, and meetings with reporters and opinion makers.

The second problem is political. If Perry has ambitions for higher office, then this avoidance of the press is also doing him a disservice. If Perry campaigns for national office, he won’t likely get away with continually sidestepping reporters. The national media doesn’t react well to that.

Moreover, the candidates in the GOP presidential primary will likely face off in numerous debates, and Perry would be wise to practice his debating skills on a small stage by taking on Bill White. Responding to tough questions and hostile opponents under the hot lights isn’t easy. And if Perry lets those skills atrophy, he’s likely to be embarrassed in a future presidential debate.

No one can force Perry to debate White or make himself more available to the press. But constantly shielding himself from public scrutiny not only robs voters of unfiltered access to their governor, but also harms Perry’s prospects for national office.

He was an alcoholic who fought often with his wife. He wasn’t always the best father, but when his house caught fire, he tried desperately to save his children still trapped inside. He would later be charged—wrongly, it seems—with murdering his kids, by setting fire to his own house, and sent to death row.

And experts would later say that the fire was in fact accidental and that he had been wrongly convicted by flawed arson evidence.

His name is Daniel Dougherty, and he’s currently sitting on death row in Pennsylvania. His lawyers are trying to overturn the conviction before Pennsylvania executes a potentially innocent man.

If Dougherty’s case sounds familiar, it should. It bears quite the similarity to the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham. (Willingham, of course, is the North Texas man executed in 2004 for starting the fire that killed this three kids. Background here.)

CNN is the latest news outlet to examine the Dougherty case and compare it to Willingham. (Hat tip to Steve Hall on this.) From yesterday’s CNN story:

“Like Willingham, Dougherty has maintained his innocence from the start. He is trying to prove he isn’t responsible for the flames that engulfed his house and that he is also the victim of flawed arson science.”

Some of the best known fire scientists in the country—including John Lentini and Gerald Hurst, who both studied the Willingham case—have examined the Dougherty fire and concluded that the evidence of arson is simply junk science.

The fire occurred in 1985, six years before Willingham’s house burned, and back when fire investigation was still in the dark ages. Investigators claimed they found three points of origin (which would point toward an intentionally set fire). But, like Willingham’s case, the Dougherty fire went to flashover stage—in which a whole room or house bursts into flames. After flashover, it’s nearly impossible to determine the cause of a fire (you certainly couldn’t pick out three points of origin). Flashover can also make an accidental fire look very much like arson.

Prosecutors in Philadelphia insist that Dougherty is guilty (ah, my hometown does me proud).

Dougherty’s case has some interesting differences from Willingham’s. Though investigators thought the blaze was arson, they didn’t charge Dougherty in 1985. He wasn’t arrested until 1999, after his ex-wife claimed that Dougherty had confessed to her that he started the fire with gasoline. That seems unlikely. No traces of gasoline were found at the scene. (It’s worth noting that Dougherty and his ex-wife were involved in a child-custody battle at the time of her accusation.)

The only other testimony against Dougherty came from—and you knew this was coming—jailhouse informants who claimed that Dougherty confessed to them. (Willingham supposedly confessed to an jailhouse informant too, a claim that later fell apart.)

Of course, the other major difference is timing. Experts have challenged the seemingly flawed evidence in Dougherty’s case well before his execution (he doesn’t have a date yet). Willingham wasn’t so lucky.

Meanwhile, the Texas Forensic Science Commission will release its final report on Willingham’s case next month. I’ll be very interested to see that document.

It could bring new attention to the cases of many other Texans wrongly convicted of arson, a topic I’ve written a lot about in the past year.

But this isn’t just a Texas problem. As Dougherty’s case shows, it can happen anywhere.

Let’s start with an assertion on which everyone can agree: Cameron Todd Willingham is deceased.

The time to help him passed six years ago, when Willingham was led into the death chamber in Huntsville and executed. There’s also little disputing that the arson evidence that sent him there was flawed and has since been disproved. But arguing endlessly about his guilt or innocence serves little practical purpose.

What we need to focus on is the discredited evidence that led to his conviction.

That’s because there are many wrongly convicted people serving time in Texas prison on bogus arson convictions. How many? We don’t know exactly, because hardly anyone has looked into it. But there are quite likely several hundred of them. Yes, hundreds.

I’ve done quite a bit of reporting on arson convictions—as part of an investigative series last year—and I’m convinced there are hundreds of innocent people who have been convicted of arson in Texas alone. (For more details, read this overview story.)

All of which brings me to Friday’s meeting of the Forensic Science Commission in Houston.

There was plenty of news and drama packed into that tiny meeting room at the Doubletree near Bush Intercontinental Airport. (I wasn’t at the meeting, but followed it via the video feed on the Innocence Project’s Web site.) 

As you may know, there were two major developments at the meeting. First, the commissioners turned back an apparent attempt by Chair John Bradley to limit the types of forensic cases the commission could look at.

I’ll spare you the bureaucratic details, but essentially Bradley—who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry last year in a highly controversial move—had circulated a memo that, if enacted, would have restricted the commission’s work to post-2003 cases. (The Houston Chronicle’s Rick Casey wrote an excellent column on this issue.)

The second development was the commission finally concluded that the arson evidence used against Willingham was “flawed.” The commission also concluded that the investigators in the case weren’t professionally negligent, because they were simply following accepted practices at the time. Commissioners made clear they didn’t think that in 1991, when Willingham’s case was investigated, the new and more scientific understanding of fire was widely known.

The meeting also included two very entertaining shouting matches between Bradley and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project—with Bradley accusing Scheck of playing to the cameras, and Scheck responding that Bradley wasn’t seeking the truth. (You can read details from the Statesman and Grits. Kuff has coverage too.)

As Grits points out, I’m not sure anyone really cares whether the investigators’ obviously flawed work 20 years ago meets the technical definition of “negligence.” One of the men who worked on the case is dead, after all. (It’s also a bit of a cop out—as Scheck noted at the meeting—because the Innocence Project had originally asked the commission to look at not whether the investigators committed negligence at the time, but whether the state Fire Marshal’s office committed negligence by not correcting the record in Willingham’s case, when they knew (or should have known) that a man was sitting on death row due to flawed evidence.)

What’s most important here is that “flawed” evidence. The commission voted to elicit feedback from fire scientists about its conclusions and then produce a final report by their next meeting on Sept. 17th.

That report could be a very important document. How far will the commissioners go in their analysis of what they’ve already concluded is “flawed” evidence? Will they play it conservative—admit the evidence was flawed, but not go into detail—absolve the investigators and call it a day?

Or will they go point-by-point and detail the problems with each claim against Willingham? From crazed glass to melted bedsprings to burn patterns in post-flashover fires.

If so, then the report could be a landmark document: An official primer from a Texas agency on exactly which kinds of arson evidence is flawed.

Arson convictions in this state need to be examined—by the Attorney General, DPS, someone. To date, no one has looked at these cases in depth (besides the Innocence Project of Texas and myself).

The Forensic Science Commission report—if it details the exact kinds of flawed arson evidence that was used in the Willingham case—can provide the basis for a larger official investigation. And perhaps help people like Curtis Severns. And Ed Graf. And Alfredo Guardiola.

It’s too late for Willingham. But it’s not too late to help many others.  

Texas’ Underfunded Mental Health System About to Get Worse

More People May Suffer the Fate of Otty Sanchez

In January, I wrote a feature story about Otty Sanchez—the 33-year-old San Antonio woman who murdered her three-week-old son and then consumed parts of his body in the early morning hours of July 26, 2009.

The story opened this way:

“The first police officers at the crime scene were so shocked they could barely speak. When they arrived at the white-paneled house on San Antonio’s north side at 5 a.m. on July 26, officers found a bedroom doused in blood, the decapitated and mutilated body of a baby not even a month old, and his mother, 33-year-old Otty Sanchez, screaming that the devil made her do it.

Sanchez had left the baby’s father after a fight and was staying with her mother and cousins. Around 4:30 a.m., while the rest of the family slept, she’d attacked her infant son with a large kitchen knife. Police officers would describe the crime as one of the most gruesome they had ever seen. Some of them later needed counseling.”

Sanchez is a paranoid schizophrenic who was suffering from postpartum psychosis, a severe form of postpartum depression that often prods new mothers to violence (think Andrea Yates) She had been enduring a mental-health crisis for at least a week before the killing. But when she reached out for help—like so many Texans with severe mental illness—she was left to fend for herself.

The story went on to document at least three instances when Otty Sanchez came into contact with Texas’ mental health system, including a last attempt to get help just days before the killing. Each time she was either turned away or eventually dropped from services due to lack of resources. (Sanchez, who was working a string of low-paying jobs, couldn’t afford treatment herself.) So she went untreated.

That isn’t unusual. Texas has one of the most miserly public mental health systems in the country. Most years, the state ranks anywhere from 47th to 50th in per capita spending on mental health

Several hundred thousand severely mentally ill Texans go without treatment every year simply because the state has refused to provide the necessary resources.

And it’s about to get worse.

With Texas facing a projected $18 billion deficit, cuts to mental health services are inevitable. The Department of State Health Services has already proposed $134 million in cuts to mental health, denying care to 20,000 people. That’s likely just the beginning.

The looming cuts also threaten to wipe away the minor progress of recent sessions. The Legislature—having recognized the problems caused by a meager mental health system—actually raised funding for mental health in recent sessions, including an increase of more than $80 million for crisis services (though the system still let Sanchez fall through the cracks). Those modest gains likely won’t survive this budget cycle.

Meanwhile, Sanchez—who proved she could be a productive member of society when she was getting her medications and receiving outpatient counseling—instead was denied those services repeatedly and eventually committed an unimaginable act of violence.

Prosecutors in San Antonio had charged Sanchez with murder and announced they would seek the death penalty. But in late June, she was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. The charges against Sanchez were dropped, and she will remain in a maximum security mental health facility, although a judge will review her case every year, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

She will probably be institutionalized for a very long time.

Unfortunately, it took a horrifically violent act for Sanchez to receive care from the state of Texas. With budget cuts coming, more Texans may suffer her fate.

It’s come to this: The Texas budget outlook has become so bleak that we’re comparing rather favorably to the one state where balanced budgeting goes to die.

People, our budget deficit is now as bad as California’s.

Yes, the over-spending, over-regulated capital of hippiedom now has a state fiscal outlook on par with the Lone Star State.

That fact may not sit well with some people—especially in the governor’s office, which loves to bash California and never misses an opportunity to point out how Texas’ low-tax, business-friendly model has led to a more robust economy and sound state finances. When California faced a $60 billion deficit last year—a shortfall that was bigger than the entire budget of most states—you could almost hear the chortling from the Texas governor’s office. It seemed a handy example of what happens when you put big-spending liberals in charge.

It wasn’t that simple, though. The causes of California’s problems—and Texas’ lack thereof—were varied and complex. And now the states’ budget deficits are looking very similar.

Texas: $18 billion shortfall (estimated) or about 20 percent of state spending.

California: $19.1 billion shortfall (official estimate) or about 20 percent of state spending.

The numbers match up pretty neatly.

A couple of caveats: Texas—as you probably know—budgets in two-year cycles. If the budget gap does turn out to be $18 billion (and we won’t have an official number until early next year), that would represent about 20 percent of the $87 billion in state funds that Texas allocated for 2010-2011.

California budgets one year at time. But the state spends about double what Texas does. So a $19.1 billion budget gap represents about 20 percent of the roughly $83 billion California will spend this year from its general fund.

You can read a breakdown of California’s proposed budget for next year here.

(Another caveat: I found several different figures for California’s state spending (not counting federal funds). The governor’s office budget proposal seems to show $123 billion in state spending. But the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times both reported about $83 billion, so I’m going with that number.)

It’s also worth noting that even though Texas’ budget deficit is very similar to California’s, the Lone Star State is still in a better fiscal position. Texas has better credit ratings and nearly $9 billion banked in the Rainy Day Fund. We also haven’t yet sliced our budget by about a quarter, as California did last year. (And California is losing $52 million a day because state leaders missed their deadline to pass a budget and still can’t agree.)

But if our budget deficits persist, we could very well end up in the same position.

The days when Texas leaders could mock California—or at least its budget mess—appear to be over.

Have We Learned the Lessons from 2003 Budget Cuts?

Seven Years Later, Some Programs Still Haven't Recovered

This is my first post in quite a while. I’m happy to report that I spent last week lying on a beach. I hoped to return from vacation to find Texas’ fiscal problems magically solved. Crazy thinking, I know. But, hey, when you’re staring at the ocean and daydreaming, it’s easy to fantasize that the projected $18 billion budget deficit was maybe just an accounting error…perhaps someone put a decimal point in the wrong place or something.

But, alas, like waking from a pleasant dream, I returned to work this week to find the state’s finances still a mess.

The $18 billion shortfall would represent about 20 percent of all state spending. That’s a daunting problem.

The state’s Republican leaders would rather roll themselves down a hill of razorblades than raise taxes. But can we really rely on spending cuts and the Rainy Day fund to balance the budget?

Well, there’s fresh evidence this week that reducing state spending that much could be a disaster.

Cutting too deeply can have disastrous and long-lasting impact. Take the Texas food stamp program. Food stamps are administered by the states, but paid for and overseen by the federal government.

Texas’ program is a mess. It’s gotten so bad that the feds announced this week that they would fine Texas nearly $4 million for having high error rates. That means the state isn’t enrolling people correctly—Texans eligible for the program are being turned away and people who shouldn’t get the benefits are receiving them by mistake.

The shame of it is that Texas used to have a well-running food stamp program. So good, in fact, that it routinely won awards from the feds for having low error rates. But no more.

In 2003—as many will remember—Texas lawmakers passed an unprecedented effort to privatize the system that enrolls Texans in government programs—everything from Medicaid to food stamps. Thousands of state workers were laid off and their jobs were turned over to privately run call centers overseen by Accenture. The effort was supposed to save $600 million. Lawmakers were desperate to cut the budget in 2003 and those promised savings were too tempting to resist. It turned out to be fool’s gold, though. The call center plan quickly turned into a fiasco and the whole effort was scrapped.

The state’s eligibility system hasn’t been the same since and nowhere has the impact been more pronounced than in the high error rates now plaguing food stamps.

Corrie MacLaggan at the Statesman has done excellent reporting on Texas’ troubled food stamp program. You can read her story on the recent federal fine here.

State officials blame the problem partly on a rise in food stamp applications following Hurricane Ike in 2008, MacLaggan reports. And that surely had some impact. But the problems with food stamps can be traced directly back to the budget-cutting session of 2003. Seven years later, we’re still feeling the effects.

It’s a tale worth remembering as we once again head into a legislative session facing a huge budget shortfall. 

DNA Could Show If Claude Jones Was Wrongly Executed

Innocence Project, Observer Win Access to Key Evidence from 1989 Murder

A state judge has ordered East Texas prosecutors to hand over key evidence from a 1989 murder case to the Innocence Project and The Texas Observer for DNA testing—analysis that may prove for the first time that Texas executed an innocent man.

The Innocence Project and the Observer filed suit in 2007 to obtain a strand of hair from the scene of a homicide 21 years ago at a liquor store in San Jacinto County. The one-inch hair was key evidence that supposedly implicated Claude Howard Jones in the killing. Jones was put to death on Dec. 7, 2000—the final execution overseen by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

On June 11, Judge Paul Murphy issued a one-page order, granting the Innocence Project and Observer’s motion for summary judgment in the case and commanding the San Jacinto district attorney’s office to turn over the hair for DNA testing.

Prosecutors can appeal the decision. Officials in the Montgomery County Attorney’s office—which has been handling the case following the sudden death of San Jacinto County DA Bill Burnett from pancreatic cancer in early June—said Tuesday that no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal.

The Innocence Project and the Observer hope that DNA tests on the hair will confirm Jones’ guilt or prove he was innocent, as he always claimed. (For Background, read the Observer’s 2007 story about the Jones case here. Time magazine also recently profiled the case here. A timeline is here.)

If DNA evidence exonerates Jones, it would mark the first time an innocent person was executed for a crime that DNA tests would later prove they didn’t commit. DNA tests have freed nearly 20 death row inmates in the United States before they were executed. Innocence attorneys and reporters have also uncovered quite a few troubling cases in which states executed inmates who were likely innocent. That includes the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham—the North Texas man put to death for starting the fire that killed his three children and who forensic experts say was convicted on flawed evidence.

But there hasn’t yet been a case in which DNA evidence has proven without a doubt that an innocent person was executed.

Questions about Jones’ guilt have long lingered.

In fall 1989, Jones, who had recently been released on parole, was hanging out with two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan.

On Nov. 14, 1989, witnesses said that two men pulled into a liquor store in the small town of Point Blank in rural San Jacinto County, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. The description of the vehicle matched Dixon’s pickup truck. One man went inside and shot the owner, Allen Hilzendager, three times. Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t positively identify the killer.

Dixon and Jordan later said that Jones was the shooter. Both men were spared the death penalty for their testimony against Jones.

Jones claimed that he never entered the store.

Beyond fuzzy eyewitness accounts, and the questionable testimony of Dixon and Jordan (who later recanted his testimony), the only reliable evidence that linked Jones to the murder was a strand of hair found on the liquor store counter.

At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones. But the technology didn’t exist at the time to determine if the hair matched Jones’ DNA.

Advanced DNA testing techniques could now show if the hair was Jones’—and confirm his guilt. Or it could match Dixon, proving that he was the gunman who entered the store. That would exonerate Jones. Or tests could reveal the hair came from a third person and leave Jones’ guilt unknown.

After Judge Murphy’s recent ruling, we’re one step closer to finding out.

Perry: We’re On a Crusade

You can always tell a politician’s desperate to win reelection when he or she describes an election as good vs. evil, us vs. them, the fight of our lifetime. Or, as Gov. Rick Perry put it last night, “a struggle for the heart and soul of our nation.”

Perry unleashed that beauty in a speech to the Texas Eagle Forum, as The Dallas Morning News reports.

It amazes me how candidates must over-hype elections these days to ensure their loyalists turn out. Sure, elections are important, but it’s a damn midterm, people. Let’s not go mistaking it for Antietam.

By my count, I’ve lived through the “most important election of all time” at least three times in this decade alone: the 2000 election was supposed to be the great struggle for the soul of America. So was 2006.Then, 2008 was billed as the most important election of our lifetime…or the next two years, whichever comes first, I guess.

Meanwhile, the governor was in rare form last night, casting this fall’s election in stark religious terms:

“We will raise our voices in defense of our values and in defiance of the hollow precepts and shameful self-interests that guide our opponents on the left….

“Who do you worship? Do you believe in the primacy of unrestrained federal government? Or do you worship the God of the universe, placing our trust in him?”

I’m hoping Perry was just over-doing it for a very friendly (and socially conservative) audience.

(Later in the evening, according to the Morning News, they gave a “Patriot” award to Don McLeroy, which says it all about the tenor of that crowd)

Because if the governor’s race is going to sound this divisive for the next five months, I don’t know if I can make it till November.

A Bill White Scandal?

The Bill White campaign today finally released the Democratic candidate’s tax returns dating back to 2004, after refusing to do so for the past three months.

The tax documents—from the years 2004-2008—reveal a business relationship that could cause political problems for the candidate. The documents show that White profited from investing in a company he personally enlisted to help with Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Rita. 

After the storm devastated Houston in 2005, White reached out to BTEC Turbines to help provide emergency power, White told the AP today.

White knew the company well. He had served on its board until 2004, and The Wedge Group—the holding company White headed before he became mayor—was a majority shareholder in BTEC. 

White reached out to BTEC to help avert a looming crisis. The storm had knocked out power to the Trinity River pumping station, which feeds the Lynchburg Reservoir. The reservoir had five days of water left. If power wasn’t restored quickly, 500,000 residents of Harris County would have lost water service and several large refineries would have shut down, endangering the nation’s refining capacity already reduced by Hurricane Katrina.

BTEC Turbines received an emergency contract from the local water utility and supplied urgently needed power to the pumping station, according to news accounts at the time. (Read a Houston Chronicle account of the incident here.) 

It’s not clear how much the company earned for this work. 

More than a year later, White earned more than $556,000 from his investments in BTEC Investments—the parent company of BTEC Turbines, according to his 2007 tax returns that were released today.

White has continued to earn money from BTEC, pocketing $163,000 in “passive” income in 2009, according to tax documents.

This would seem a looming scandal for White. The insinuation is clear enough: he personally profited from disaster recovery that he oversaw as mayor. 

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There are some important mitigating details:

1. White had no financial ties to BTEC Turbines at the time the company received its contract. Although he had served on the board previously, he wasn’t invested at the time.

2. White spokesperson Katy Bacon said White’s investment in BTEC came more than a year later and was unrelated to the company’s hurricane recovery work. She said investors who were looking to purchase BTEC called White in 2006 to ask his opinion on the company. The then-mayor said it was an excellent company—one he would personally invest in. In fact, the investment group later asked him to do just that.

3. And, finally, it seems unlikely that White’s $556,000 profit stemmed from BTEC”s work on Hurricane Rita. It’s doubtful a temporary emergency contract for mobile generators could have provided enough money to BTEC to enrich a single investor. (Again, it’s not clear how much money—if any—BTEC earned from the emergency contract. Calls to the company for comment weren’t returned this afternoon.)

Bacon pointed out that it was the water utility—not the city of Houston—that handed out the contract. White had no direct control over the utility. But, facing an emergency, he worked with power companies and the water utility to ensure that residents didn’t lose their water. He recommended BTEC because he knew it could respond quickly.

“When Bill’s dealing with an emergency, he picks up the phone and gets things done,” she said.

White was first asked to release his tax returns by the Houston Chronicle in March. He’d made his 2009 returns public, but hadn’t divulged returns from earlier years. Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign had been demanding White release the returns and reveal how he’s made his many millions — even refusing to debate until the former mayor did so. 

Later this week, the Observer will release a feature story detailing White’s business career.

It doesn’t appear that White acted unethically by investing in BTEC.

Still, it doesn’t look good. And the campaign will certainly have to spend time and energy answering questions about White’s relationship with BTEC Turbines. 

There’s no getting around it: Texas’ budget is a mess, and the worst is yet to come.

We’ve gotten a preview this week of just how painful the budget process will be next session. (This Fort Worth Star-Telegram story has details on the first round of cuts.) State leaders are once again saying they intend to rely mostly on spending cuts to make up a budget shortfall that may reach $18 billion. It’s already clear lawmakers will have a difficult time cleaving that much money from Texas’ miserly state budget.

Now is the time to talk about this—not next year—because the budget gap isn’t just a result of the bad economy, although that has played a part.

At least half the budget deficit can be directly attributed to Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other Republican leaders. The question is, will their handling of the budget become an election issue? (For more details on Perry’s budget dealings, I suggest you read this recent feature by my colleague Melissa del Bosque.)

To understand how Perry and other state leaders intentionally created a large chunk of the budget shortfall, we must retrace some history from 2006. That was the year the Legislature, under court order, passed a school finance reform plan. The framework of the plan was largely devised by Perry in conjunction with former comptroller John Sharp.

The idea was to cut property taxes and replace the lost revenue with a new business tax. It was pitched as a tax swap that wouldn’t cost the state any money. Problem is, it wasn’t a swap at all. The business tax doesn’t bring in nearly enough money to cover the loss in property tax revenue.

This means Texas budget is guaranteed to have a shortfall of several billion dollars every year.

And here’s the key point—one often missed in the reporting on what’s known as Texas’ structural deficit—Perry and the Legislature knew full well the plan didn’t balance when they passed it.

In the 2006 session, the state’s own budget analysts at the Legislative Budget Board told lawmakers the plan would create a $5 billion shortfall every year (that’s $10 billion per biennium—or more than half next session’s estimated $18 billion gap.)

In 2006, everyone knew the plan didn’t balance. And it wasn’t supposed to.

Here’s what the Observer wrote back in 2006, the week after the Perry-Sharp plan was approved:

“The number-crunchers at the Legislative Budget Board project that the proposal will burn a $5 billion hole in the state budget every year. The estimated five-year deficit is $25 billion….At a celebratory day-after-session news conference on May 16, Perry responded to such concerns with a supply-side argument. He contended that the Legislative Budget Board’s numbers are off because they don’t take into account “dynamic modeling” and other measures of future economic growth that will balance the state’s books. Curious about how much dynamism the governor expects, we asked Perry’s press office for revenue numbers that the governor thinks are more accurate. They didn’t have any.

“The dirty secret of this plan, which everyone at the Capitol knows, is that the $5 billion annual deficit will box future legislatures—starting in 2007—into deep budget cuts or a sales tax hike or a combination of both. That will hurt poor and vulnerable Texans. Some right-wing lawmakers are not only aware of the built-in deficit, they don’t mind it. After all, some on the right adore shrinking government and expanding consumption taxes.

“But for anyone of a different ideological bent, this plan looks irresponsible.”

For the past two sessions, we’ve papered over the deficit—first because of the booming economy and then with the aid of federal stimulus money. But now our reckoning may be upon us.

I fear what the next budget—with its yawning $18 billion hole—will do to this state. Services for the poor will certainly be reduced. Cities and municipalities will likely suffer. So far Perry, Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus have refused to cut already underfunded and understaffed areas like prisons and state hospitals for the mentally ill. But that may not last.

We have to remember that Perry and other Republican leaders purposely structured the budget this way. They wanted to hold down state spending. That’s a perfectly legit policy decision, but now we’re seeing the consequences.

To my mind, the budget mess is the most important issue in Texas politics right now.

But the question remains: Will Perry (and others) intentional shorting of the budget ever become an election issue? It certainly should be.

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