Touchy, Touchy

A persistent refrain at last month’s state Republican Convention was that the Gore campaign is giving Texas a bum rap. “If you listen to Mr. Gore,” Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry told G.O.P. delegates, “[Texas] is a hotbed of Third World conditions.” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison struck a similar note, complaining that “Washington Democrats” have been unfairly criticizing Texas public schools as well as the state’s air and water. “Pretty soon, they are going to start complaining about Blue Bell and bluebonnets,” Hutchison added. Perry charged that Bush opponents “want to make Texas look like a heinous place to live.” He added — without directly citing either ice cream or wildflowers — that he believes Texas is just great.

May God bless Doug Sahm and the Colorado, so it is — especially in the neighborhoods frequented by Perry and Hutchison. Yet it should be no news that less fortunate Texans aren’t doing so peachy. Lately the state’s editorial pages, as if surprised that in a presidential year outsiders might want to take a closer look at life under the Bush administration, have echoed the Republican charge of “unfairness.” Our favorite declaration in this vein was the defense of the state’s environmental and health standards offered in June by Gregory Curtis of Texas Monthly: “The quality of the air we breathe could be improved. But on balance I don’t think we’re doing that bad a job. When was the last time your drinking water made you sick?”

By that formidable standard, we suppose most Texans are getting by just fine — unless they live in poorer parts of the Valley or along the Border, or the heavily polluted communities east of Houston, or in officially invisible suburban colonias around major cities. We refer Mr. Curtis to the May 24 Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which reported that thirty-nine cases of shigellosis had been diagnosed recently in Bee County. (Usually associated with a fecally contaminated water supply, shigellosis is “common among travelers in developing countries and workers or people living on reservations, refugee camps, and institutions,” according to HealthCentral.com’s General Health Encyclopedia. )

Is it unfairly partisan to point out these shortcomings? Take a quick look at “Texas: Where We Stand,” a comparative report maintained by (Republican) Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and available via her website. Among the fifty states, Texas remains proudly No. 1 in cotton produced, and trade by truck to and from Mexico. But we are also a shameful No. 2 in incarceration rate (no doubt the reason we hear again the drumbeat for more prison construction). We are No. 2 in the harvesting of black-eyed peas — and at the same rank for births to mothers aged fifteen to seventeen. Our No. 4 ranking for growth in per capita personal income might provoke some crowing, but it is matched by the same ranking for energy consumption per person.

Much more troubling is a No. 5 ranking in the percentage of mothers receiving late or no prenatal care; a No. 9 ranking in the percentage of children living in poverty (23.6 percent); a No. 10 ranking in the percentage of the whole population living below the official poverty line (15.9 percent). (The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks Texas second in the number of people suffering from outright hunger.) This readily available information suggests that the Governor is not quite as web-friendly as he pretends to be, or he wouldn’t have declared, “You’d think the Governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas.” Indeed.

At the other end of Comptroller Rylander’s list one finds similar distinction: thirty-fourth in teacher salaries; forty-sixth in assistance to needy families; a blessed fiftieth in per-capita state government spending.

There are other statistics neglected by Ms. Rylander which might be useful news for Senator Hutchison: her beloved state is No. 1 in the emission of ozone-producing chemicals; No. 1 in toxic chemical releases into the air; No. 1 in toxic waste disposal by injection well; No. 1 in hazardous waste incinerators; No. 1 in environmental justice civil rights complaints; No. 1 in the production of carcinogenic benzene and vinyl chloride. None of these conditions are known to be healthful for bluebonnets, Brenham cows, or Texas citizens.

If the Republicans now proudly running the government of Texas want to stop hearing these lamentable statistics, we suggest they do something about them — besides closing their eyes and ears. — M.K.

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Published at 12:00 am CST