Shame and despair. Those are, finally, the best words I can conjure. I’ve been sitting at the keyboard for a couple of hours now, straining my brain for some clever and catchy way to express how it feels to be a Texan right now. But it’s hard to be clever about an unfolding human catastrophe that appears unstoppable—and that’s exactly what Texas’ budget crisis amounts to. Only big, broad, dire words can capture the emotions of any decent Texan as we lurch headlong into a future of decimated schools, shuttered nursing homes, untreated mental illnesses, dirtier air, and a continent-wide gap between the richest and the rest. The shame stems from that. The despair arises from the sense of inevitability.
On Sunday, the cruelest and most crippling budget in Texas history passed the state House. The proposed budget rips, tears and tweezes $23 billion from current spending—nearly one-fourth of the state’s already rock-bottom funding for schools, roads, prisons and social services. Now that the House has done the devil’s work, it will be left to the Senate to scrounge around for new revenue sources—without raising taxes, which is forbidden by Holy Writ—to try to prevent the very worst: hundreds of school closings, thousands of teacher firings, and upwards of 300,000 lost jobs in the public and private sectors.
Most of the attention on this unfolding disaster has been focused on the big, bad hit to public schools. They stand to lose perhaps $8 billion, nearly one-fifth of their already-anemic funding. The long-term consequences of millions more undereducated Texans are staggering to consider. But the more immediate, visceral horror comes from even deeper proposed cuts to health and human services. Simply put, this budget is going to kill people. Not metaphorically. Literally.
Yes, I know: This is just the kind of talk that inspires Gov. Perry to poke fun at the “doom-and-gloom crowd,” those whiny babies who refuse to acknowledge that Texas is a magical realm exempt from universal laws of cause-and-effect. For instance, if we cut $6 billion from Medicaid, as proposed, fact-based doomsters calculate that the state will end up paying about 30 percent less per patient to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and group homes for the disabled. Among other awful consequences, this could force one-half of the state’s nursing homes out of business.
What, exactly, does a sick old person on Medicaid do when her home closes—and when facilities that are still in business can’t afford to take Medicaid recipients anymore? If you ask our fine Christian governor, what seniors will do is thank the stars that they live in the kindest, gentlest place on Earth. “As Texans, we always take care of the least among our population—the frail, the young, the elderly. The people on fixed income. Those in situations of abuse and neglect,” the governor lied through his teeth at his latest inauguration. “They can count on the people of Texas to be there for them. We’re going to protect them, support them, empower them.”
Sure. With what? Here in the nation’s leading la-la land of anti-government ideology, any solution sweeping enough to close the budget gap—say, a state income tax—cannot even be seriously discussed. Many lawmakers are genuinely shaken by the nightmarish human impact of what they’re about to do. But the best they can do is suggest relatively small tweaks: systemic fixes that will save a little, cigarette taxes that will raise a little. Reps. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and John Frullo, R-Lubbock, have even proposed allowing the state’s imperiled parks department to find “official corporate partners”—in other words, as the Observer’s Forrest Wilder puts it, “Welcome to Exxon State Park, y’all.”
Maybe we should take that idea to its logical extreme. Parks are one thing; why not peddle the whole damn Great State to the highest-bidding “official sponsor”? A market-based solution! And consider the poetic justice, the fundamental honesty, of rechristening ourselves as BP Texas, or Wells-Fargo Texas, or Boone Pickens’ Texas.
But there’s really only one corporate moniker that would truly encapsulate our dominant culture and politics: Disney Texas. Think of the possibilities. We could set up state-line roadblocks and charge a steep admission fee to Americans and other foreigners eager to experience a hot, dusty, Technicolor fantasyland where bad things only happen to bad people, and Ayn Rand reigns as the Fairy Queen of Freedom. At least we’d be making the truth official: Human reality is unwelcome in these parts. And so is anyone who can’t pay the price of admission.