The CHIPs Are Down

We’ll say this for the governor’s race: At least this time there is no lack of choices. Five candidates are running to become governor of Texas—a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, and two independents—enough to field a basketball team. Yet quantity, as the saying goes, doesn’t guarantee quality, and looking at the selection, it’s easy to feel uninspired. Each of the four major candidates seems like a walking caricature: Democrat Chris Bell, the earnest bore; independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the grating grandma; independent Kinky Friedman, the jester; and incumbent Republican Rick Perry, the blow-dried slickster. Each may be flawed, but after November 7, one will earn the right to govern the state for four years.

You may ask, as Kinky does, “How hard can it be?” It’s true that Texas’ governorship is weak. The winner will have to work with the Legislature to pass anything. And yes, Texas politics often borders on the farcical. But the winner of this election will help determine everything from the health of our children to the health of the Texas economy.

A quarter of Texans lack health insurance—by far the highest percentage in the nation. And it’s getting worse. Since September 2003, enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides government coverage for the kids of working families that can’t afford private plans, has declined 40 percent, from a high of 529,000 to 300,000. The decimation of CHIP was intentional. In 2003, Gov. Perry and the GOP legislative leadership, hewing to a hard-right ideology, enacted tough bureaucratic procedures designed to siphon kids from the program. (Another 75,000 kids lost Medicaid coverage due to stricter enrollment policies.) In fact, more kids were kicked off CHIP than state officials had anticipated. The result is an excess of $400 million the Legislature had budgeted for CHIP, but has gone unused because there aren’t enough kids in the program now to absorb the money. The uninsured kids haven’t gone away, of course; they’re just not eligible for the program anymore. They can’t get through the bureaucratic wall that Perry and GOP leaders erected. If those policies were removed, the $400 million surplus would be enough to restore all the CHIP cuts since 2003.

CHIP has belatedly become an issue in the governor’s race. Perry spokesman Robert Black recently told the Dallas Morning News “CHIP is fully funded. No child has ever been turned away. We don’t have a waiting list.” Technically that’s true. Every kid who qualifies for CHIP is covered. But as state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) has repeatedly pointed out, Perry helped make a whole lot of kids ineligible. The governor’s argument is analogous to an airline ripping out the empty seats on a plane and then claiming that the flight is full.

Kids without health insurance grow into unhealthy adults. Parents take them to a doctors less frequently; they are less likely to be immunized and vaccinated, or treated early for infections and illness. Our current policy could result in a quarter of Texas’ future work force growing into sickly adults. Demographic changes in Texas heighten the stakes. We are quickly becoming a majority Latino state. If we continue to deny our fastest-growing—and poorest—communities access to quality education and health care, Texas will be saddled with a Third World economy.

The results of this election will translate directly into the public policy decisions—on education, toll roads, stem cell research, taxes, and many more—that will affect not only all of us, but future generations as well. The incumbent has a clear record. If you want to change the direction of your state, this is your chance.

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Published at 12:00 am CST