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The Reckoning

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On Nov. 2, Texas voters gave conservatives unprecedented control of our state.

Republicans handily won every statewide race, giving Rick Perry, already the state’s longest-serving governor, another four years to hone the patronage system he’s built to reward friends and campaign contributors. Former Houston Mayor Bill White, heralded as the Democrats’ best gubernatorial candidate since Ann Richards, lost by 12 points. Three Democratic congressmen were swept out of office by Republicans. The three incumbents—Chet Edwards, Solomon Ortiz Sr. and Ciro Rodriguez—had served a combined 57 years in Congress. While none of them reminded anyone of Barbara Jordan, they did bring a lot of federal dollars home to Texas. The loss of seniority will hurt their districts and the state. 

But perhaps the Democrats’ most devastating defeats came in the Texas Legislature. The GOP gained 22 seats in the state House—an electoral sweep we would have considered unfathomable had we not just witnessed it. At press time, Republicans held 99 seats, with a recount looming in one Austin district. Most House rules can be suspended by a two-thirds vote, so 100 seats in the 150-member House would permit Republicans to legislate whatever they want.

That’s a scary prospect with the state facing an estimated budget shortfall of $18 billion to $25 billion. Many of the new GOP legislators are Tea Party activists, elected on a platform of balancing the budget with “no new taxes.” They will arrive in Austin intent on cutting bloated state spending. They’ll quickly run hard into the realization that the lawmakers who went before them have already cut state services to the bone. Texas spends less per resident than any state in the country.

The question is how far the far-right revolutionaries will go. Will they mellow as they govern? Or will they permanently hobble our state to honor Tea Party ideology, inflicting lasting harm on Texas’ poor, sick and elderly?

Texas Democrats often talk of the 2003 legislative session as their historic low point, when Republicans held 88 seats in the House and used a $10 billion shortfall to eviscerate state social programs. Well, the bad times are here again—only this time, it’s worse. The prospect of 99 (or 100) conservative House Republicans addressing a $25 billion shortfall by hacking away at the state budget is truly frightening.

There will be better days ahead for Texas Democrats. But for the vulnerable Texans who rely on state services, life is about to get worse.