The Bitter Fruit of Texas Austerity

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PHOTO BY 401(K) 2012

Austerity. The word smacks of Europe, not America, and certainly not Texas. It comes from the Latin austerus, meaning “dry, harsh, sour, tart.” The bitter fruit, conservatives lecture us, of too much government and too much spending. But austerity is no foreign import. It’s homegrown, and it’s now the guiding principle of Republican governance in Texas. Austerity, as the kids say, is a feature, not a bug. So get used to it. Many bystanders to the budget-cutting orgy of 2011 took comfort in two assumptions: 1. That politicians would pay the price at the polls for brutal reductions to education, and health and human services. 2. That the damage could be undone as soon as the economy improved. Both assumptions are flawed, if not already proved wrong.

The problem with No. 1 is GOP voters had their chance in the May primary to pick between moderates and tea party fanatics, and by and large went with the fanatics. The Democrats, meanwhile, are too moribund to shift the balance of power in November.

The problem with No. 2 is that state leaders have begun to show what they intend to do in the next legislative session, and it looks like more austerity. State tax revenues are going up, but in early June, the Big Three—House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry—directed state agencies to draft budgets for 2014-2015 that freeze spending or even cut another 10 percent.

That’s potentially 10 percent off the austere budget passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, the one Republicans “balanced” with a $4 billion cut to public schools, accounting gimmicks and deferring $3.9 billion in Medicaid IOUs that come due next spring.

Legislative leaders did exempt parts of the budget from austerity cuts, including core health programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid, the state’s contribution to pensions, and the Foundation School Program, which funds public schools. But Eva de Luna Castro of the Center on Public Policy Priorities told me that ambiguous language in the Big Three’s recent directive leaves much open to interpretation. She said that public school officials are already thinking that “maintain funding for the Foundation School Program” actually means that the $4 billion cut to public education won’t be restored next session.

Does it matter that state coffers are filling with tax revenue from an improving economy and the oil-and-gas boom? Maybe. The big question is whether legislators will be willing to use the Rainy Day Fund (present value: $6 billion, and growing) to cover the $3.9 billion Medicaid tab. If they are, then the state’s growing tax revenue could potentially go toward restoring some, if not all, of the austerity cuts from 2011.

The good news is that the possibility of restoring some of the cuts isn’t totally foreclosed. The bad news is that some legislators have gladly signed a suicide pact engineered by Gov. Perry and a cadre of anti-government extremists. Called the “Texas Budget Compact,” this remarkably small-minded pledge demands, among other austerity planks, a strict constitutional limit on spending tied to population growth and inflation, use of the Rainy Day Fund only for emergency measures (apparently a historic recession doesn’t qualify), and elimination of “wasteful programs and agencies.”

This is partly the usual Perry grandstanding. But it’s also an indication of how ossified—and cruel—austerity mania has become. At an April event in Houston, Perry explained, “Even if more money is being collected, we have to treat each dollar as respectfully and carefully as we can.”

That may sound benign, but the ethos behind it is disturbing: It’s not people who deserve respect and consideration when making a budget; it’s dollars.

In 2011, the Legislature very nearly passed a catastrophic budget, one that would have led to nursing home shut-downs, massive teacher layoffs and the closure of mental health facilities. Lawmakers narrowly avoided that through a dizzying combination of tricks, delays and a somewhat-less-tangible carving-up of Medicaid and public schools. Left unaddressed was a $5 billion-per-year structural deficit, the result of an ill-advised tax-swap scheme devised by Gov. Perry in 2006 and left in place for six years and counting.

The carcass of the state budget is just about picked clean, but the austerity vultures are still circling, ogling what’s left.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.