The Cost of Doing Nothing


There were no bills attacking cheerleaders this time, and lawmakers didn’t throw any more poor kids off government assistance. Otherwise, there was little to recommend the 80th regular session of the Texas Legislature. This was a session in which campaign posturing consistently trumped sound policy. Lawmakers spent most of their time and energy on political squabbling, plotting, and speechifying. They barely roused themselves to fulfill their one constitutional obligation: passing a state budget for the next two years. Mostly, the past five months of legislating produced bupkis for Texans.

Inaction at the Capitol isn’t always bad. An ample body of evidence shows that when the Legislature decides to act, more often than not it makes the situation worse. But in this case, failure to act constitutes a setback.

When the Legislature convened in January, we compiled a sampling of the biggest problems facing Texas [see “Low Hanging Fruit,” January 26, 2007]. It wasn’t pretty. One in four Texans lacked health insurance, by far the highest rate in the nation. Texas public schools needed an estimated $10 billion to repair crumbling buildings. We spewed more greenhouse gases into the air than any other state. Our prisons were at maximum capacity, yet we were short thousands of prison guards. Texans were paying some of the highest electricity and college tuition rates around.

The solutions to most of these problems are straightforward enough-public investment. For instance, 60 percent of Texas’ 1.4 million uninsured children are eligible for either the Children’s Health Insurance Program or children’s Medicaid if the state would simply spend what we should on those programs.

Yet lawmakers did little to address these desperate needs. Schools got nothing. Democrats snuck a teacher pay raise into an early version of the budget; it was later stripped out. The Lege didn’t touch soaring tuition rates. A bill that would have given consumers a modest break on electric bills died on the session’s last day. Lawmakers did pass a so-called toll road moratorium, though it’s so riddled with exemptions as to be practically meaningless.

On a few issues, the Legislature moved forward by inches, spawning much self-congratulatory yapping: Lawmakers passed a bill that should add at least 100,000 uninsured kids to the CHIP rolls, and the budget expands funding for the beleaguered mental health system by $82 million. They also reluctantly raised anemic rates for Medicaid providers, which came about, as most decent public policy does in Texas, through the threat of a court order from a federal judge.

These policies-while much needed and certainly better than nothing-aren’t really progress. The reforms only begin to undo the deep budget cuts of 2003. As Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, rightly points out, if you’re in a 20-foot hole and you climb up 10 feet, you’re still in a pretty big hole. So it is in Texas.

Even if 100,000 more kids sign up for CHIP, the program’s enrollment still will be at least 100,000 children below its early 2003 levels. Mental health and Medicaid funding still haven’t recovered. Meanwhile, the population of Texas continues to grow. The hole gets deeper all the time.

Anyone who’s looked at demographic trends in Texas knows we’re headed down a ruinous path. Our population is increasingly poor, minority, and urban-the very people who suffer most from the Lege’s miserly ways. Unless we invest more in education and health care for these fast-growing communities, Texas’ economic future will be bleak-for everybody. That is the true cost of doing nothing.