Low-Hanging Fruit

Texas faces obvious problems that the 80th Lege should fix. It probably won't.

On the frigid day in Texas that Rick Perry was sworn in for the term that will make him our longest-serving governor, one in five Texas children did not have health insurance. By the best estimate available, Texas public school districts needed nearly $10 billion to repair or replace decaying buildings. Texas power plants, factories, and cars continued to pump out more greenhouse gases than any other state, or most countries, for that matter.

David Dewhurst took his second oath as lieutenant governor, vowing to enact a death penalty for repeat sex offenders. At that moment, state prisons were already overflowing, including tens of thousands of mentally ill inmates who have received little in the way of treatment before or after landing in jail. In fact, the state of Texas is now trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that one of them—a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy costume—is just sane enough to be executed.

Tom Craddick won his third term as House speaker after fighting back an insurgent challenge to his leadership fueled in part by growing disgust over the undue influence of rich campaign contributors, whose largesse has been rewarded with limits on lawsuits and protections for homebuilders. The flow of money continues to course unchecked through Texas politics.

Tom Craddick

While the strong have fared well under the leadership of these three men—and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate—the weak have not. State highways are being handed over to multinational corporations to run as profit-making toll roads, but there is not enough money to patch schoolhouse roofs or help battered women hire lawyers when they need protective orders. Many poor Texans who qualify for food stamps and other aid funded by the federal government still don’t get help, because Texas can’t or won’t deliver the federal dollars.

There is, in short, no lack of obvious, substantive problems in Texas that could be fixed.

And for now there is little chance they will be.

The following examples are by no means exhaustive. They’d make good starting points if the state’s leadership is truly intent on accomplishing something worthwhile this legislative session. While Texas froze over, hell probably won’t.

Live and Let Die

The health-care model Texas has created is harsh, yet simple: If you have money, you can access some of the best medical treatment in the world. If you’re poor, well, good luck. It’s widely accepted that people with health insurance lead healthier lives. Yet one in four Texans has no health coverage—by far the highest rate in the nation (the national average is 16 percent). More than 1.4 million Texas children (20 percent) are uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, also worst in the nation.

Despite these dreadful numbers, Texas lawmakers have shrunk the state’s public-assistance programs in recent years. Nearly 80,000 of Texas’ poorest children have been kicked off Medicaid since 2003. Another 180,000 kids have lost coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program since September 2003. The drops in enrollment were due mostly to bureaucratic roadblocks cynically designed by the Legislature to winnow poor Texans off Medicaid and CHIP. For example, new rules forced families to re-enroll every six months instead of annually, imposed a 90-day waiting period before benefits kick in, and tightened eligibility requirements.

For those with mental illnesses—which can be just as debilitating as physical ones—the situation is no better. Families with money can find good mental-health treatment. Those who rely on the public system have trouble. Texas ranks 47th in per capita spending on mental health care. State officials estimate that public mental-health clinics treat only one-third of Texans with severe mental illness. That leaves hundreds of thousands to fend for themselves; many end up in prison, some even on death row.

(The U.S. Supreme Court has just agreed to hear an appeal from condemned inmate Scott Panetti, who believes the devil is trying to kill him and that evil forces poisoned his mother’s breast milk. Panetti was allowed to defend himself at trial, and the question now is whether a man who has been hospitalized 14 times during his life for schizophrenia and other mental problems is sane enough to understand why he is being executed.)

The state’s miserly approach to health-care spending may save money in the short term, but cost more in the long run. Children and adults without health insurance lead sickly lives and are less productive economically. When they get sick, they go to public emergency rooms—the single most expensive place to receive care. That goes on the public tab. The government also pays a higher bill to incarcerate the mentally ill for long periods.

The Legislature could mitigate some of these problems immediately. For instance, roughly 60 percent of Texas’ uninsured children (919,000) are eligible for some government assistance, and could be enrolled in either Medicaid or CHIP immediately, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank. To cover these kids, the Legislature would have to increase funding for both programs. Lawmakers also would have to undo the cuts from 2003—restore 12-month eligibility, for example—so more families could easily enroll and remain in the programs. It also wouldn’t hurt to expand Medicaid and CHIP coverage; many of Texas’ benefits—such as coverage for the elderly and disabled—satisfy only the bare minimums under federal law. Finally, lawmakers could end their obsession with privatizing the social safety net, particularly the ill-fated attempt to allow a private company—instead of state workers—to enroll applicants in social programs. In its problem-plagued pilot program, Accenture, the company awarded the contract, has made a mess of the process, including denying benefits to some eligible applicants. Democrats and some Republicans tried to pass many of these measures last session and surely will try again in 2007.

On the mental-health side, the legislative solution is rather straightforward: more money. A substantial increase in funding for mental health care isn’t just the humane thing to do, it makes economic sense. Those who receive treatment for mental illness might well stay out of prison and become productive workers in steady jobs. The Lege also could provide more support for jail diversion programs, which send nonviolent offenders with mental illness to treatment programs instead of the state pen.

Expanding the welfare state apparently doesn’t jibe with the current ruling ideology in Texas, even though saving money—if not lives—would seem compatible with a conservative agenda.

Schoolhouse Crock

State District Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s system of financing public schools unconstitutional in 2004, triggering two years of posturing and mudfights as lawmakers tried to figure out how to simultaneously lower property taxes and properly fund education.

The remedy lawmakers finally adopted during a 2006 special session did little to directly address one of the problems Dietz found: Schools across Texas, especially in poorer districts, are literally falling down.

Precise numbers are hard to come by because, as Dietz noted, the state doesn’t do a very good job of tracking how much money school districts need to fix up their facilities. In 1996, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that about one-quarter of Texas schools had inadequate heating, ventilation, or air conditioning.

A 1998 state Comptroller’s report, based on a survey of 614 districts, pegged the cost of repairing Texas schools at about $9.1 billion. In 2000, the National Education Association estimated the figure at more like $9.5 billion.

Districts with the least property tax revenue faced the worst problems. In El Paso’s Ysleta district, for instance, 58 percent of the school facilities were “markedly unsatisfactory,” Dietz’s ruling noted. Problems included major structural flaws, pest and rodent infestations, leaky roofs, and problematic wiring. Since it will require money to remedy these problems, don’t count on the Texas Legislature to do much this session.

Coal Hard Facts

Never have the dire consequences of global warming been as widely grasped as they are today. Much of Europe is moving to control carbon emissions. Even Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the fray. Drought, heat waves, rising seas, and monster hurricanes are but a few of the weather abnormalities that torment the planet and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, here in Texas we are poised to license 18 new coal-fired power plants that promise to pump out greenhouse gasses for decades to come.

Call it the beauty of a free market. When the Legislature deregulated the electricity industry in the 1990s, lawmakers of both parties ballyhooed the notion of letting the market, rather than government, decide what type of power plants should be built to feed the state’s insatiable appetite for energy.

So electric companies now want to build plants that use the cheapest fuel and generate the highest profits. Wind, solar, and natural gas didn’t make the cut. Coal won. Plans are on track to build 18 more coal-fired plants as quickly as possible, and they won’t even have the latest antipollution technology. The plants are expected to spew more than 78 million tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 14 million new cars worth of pollution, according to Environmental Defense, a public interest group. Frighteningly enough, Texas already leads the nation in greenhouse emissions.

Meanwhile, state government’s role has been reduced to approving or denying air and water permits through the industry-friendly Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Critics contend that TCEQ has failed to study or consider the cumulative impacts of the coal plants, or require power generators to use the best available pollution-control technology.

Momentum is growing in the Legislature for a resolution calling on the TCEQ to institute a moratorium on building seven of the proposed coal plants. A “Clean Air Caucus” is springing to life, comprised mostly of urban and suburban lawmakers representing areas such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, which are under federal pressure to clean the air, and cities like Austin or Waco, which are flirting with becoming federal “non-attainment” areas.

What influence these opponents of the plants will have with state leaders remains to be seen. They might have some luck in the relatively nonthreatening area of energy efficiency. Calls for some form of re-regulation of electricity will perhaps fare less well. In the end, this battle will more than likely be decided in the courts instead of the Lege.

Streets of Gold

Since 2001, a clique of powerful Texas officials and their friends in the business community have been laying the legal and legislative groundwork to build a network of superhighways and toll roads. One of the most ambitious road-building plans in the world, the for-pay highways will suck up thousands of acres of farmland, induce development, and do little to reduce congestion along the state’s most glutted highways, most notably Interstate 35.

In the process, thousands of miles of state roads that have already been paid for by motorists through gasoline taxes will be turned over to multinational firms that will collect tolls for the next 50 years or so. The deals have drawn plenty of criticism, but with the help of state legislators and a fleet of Madison Avenue-styled public relations firms, highway officials so far have succeeded in steamrolling the opposition. The current leadership authored the plan and has shown little willingness to back away.

Gov. Perry with the thumbs up

New highway proposals are on the drawing board, and portions of State Highway 130, which will likely be the first leg of what’s called the Trans-Texas Corridor 35, are already open. Perry, Round Rock’s Republican state Rep. Mike Krusee, and Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, are the three officials primarily responsible for pushing this new world order.

In the coming weeks, the Texas Department of Transportation—an agency with annual revenues greater than the entire income of some states—will be back at the Legislature trying to widen its powers. It will also be asking for millions to fund a new entity called the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, which basically will help two of the largest rail carriers in Texas—Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp.—upgrade their rail lines and cash in on the staggering growth in freight transportation projected for the next 10 years or so.

TXDOT wants to lift the cap on the 50- to 70-year contracts so it can negotiate more contracts lasting for as long as 100 years with multinationals from Spain, Australia, and Sweden. TXDOT also wants to amend state laws so it can perform its own environmental reviews and approvals. It might seem like an obvious conflict of interest for a department whose main function is to bulldoze and pave, but TXDOT says it could use the latitude to build projects faster, thereby reducing congestion, improving air quality, and enhancing safety.

Though deals are being drawn up, contracts signed, and concrete poured, there’s still time to rethink the toll roads if legislators decide to enact a moratorium and demand an open and honest debate with the public about how to address transportation gridlock. Then voters could be allowed to decide by what road they prefer to travel. That, as the poet says, may make all the difference.

The Best Leadership Money Can Buy

A good argument can be made that Texas’ inability to deal with its pressing problems stems from the ironclad grip a few contributors and lobbyists hold over the state’s policy agenda. The influence of their money drives the privatization debate and is felt in most every policy area, from education to transportation and electricity to social services. In one small example, most Texans, including most legislators, are opposed to school vouchers. The fear is that they will take money away from already underfunded public schools. Yet in 2005, Speaker Craddick scheduled a vote on a voucher bill. Might this have had something to do with the fact that the state’s biggest voucher proponent, hospital-bed magnate James Leininger, is also one of the GOP’s biggest political donors? Most recently, in the 2005-2006 election cycle, Leininger gave more than $5 million to Texas candidates. He’s not the only one. Republican home builder Bob Perry—the biggest political donor in the state and nation—gave $6.7 million to Texas candidates and political action committees, according to campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice.

A number of simple steps could instantly diminish the power of money over sound public policy in Texas. The first would be an aggregate limit on individual contributions. Texas is one of the few states that have no limits on the size of campaign contributions, allowing mega-donors like Perry and Leininger to swamp an election with an endless flow of cash. During the 2004 election cycle, 87 individuals or couples donated more than $100,000 each to state candidates and committees. This accounted for 10 percent of all political donations. TPJ is part of a campaign-reform coalition that has suggested a modest contribution cap of $100,000 per election cycle. While legislation has been filed along these lines, with the current leadership it’s not likely to prosper.

In June 2006, state District Judge Mike Lynch tossed out a felony indictment against the Texas Association
f Business. Lynch ruled that TAB had
ot expressly advocated the election or defeat of candidates when it spent $1.9 million in secret corporate money on “issue” ads in the 2002 election cycle. Lynch wrote in his order that most “non-technical, common-sense people” would see the ads as clearly violating the law, but that “these statutes and this indictment aren’t equipped to do the job [of keeping corporate money out of elections].” Unless the law is strengthened to strictly prohibit the use of corporate money for electioneering, business interests like TAB will once again use undisclosed corporate money to smear candidates with whom they disagree.

Finally, more legislation would probably not be necessary if Texas had a functioning Ethics Commission. Unfortunately, to call the current commission dysfunctional and ineffectual is charitable. It is a paper tiger, underfunded and, worse, loathe to enforce the law or improve upon it through its rule-making authority. At a minimum, legislators should create a separate law-enforcement division for the commission. They should also provide for a budget based on a funding formula that is independent of the Legislature. Finally, the eight-member commission should be abolished and replaced with one accountable executive director. As with most of what Texas desperately needs fixed, the state’s leaders won’t likely give the keys to the henhouse back to the public this session without a fight.

Additional writing and reporting by Dave Mann, Eileen Welsome, Forrest Wilder, and Jake Bernstein.

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Published at 12:00 am CST