Goodbye, Government

Rick Perry couldn’t wait to hightail it out of Texas, practically as soon as the ballots were counted and the victory speech given on Nov. 2. Dispatching his third Democratic challenger had barely caused the governor to break a sweat. He looked tanned and rested, fresh as a daisy. Now the real work of the fall would begin: touting his new anti-Washington book, Fed Up!, and along the way, touting himself as plausible presidential material. A few days after leading the Texas Republicans to an historic level of power, Perry was rocking a flaming pink tie and introducing his platform on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “When you look at Social Security, it’s broke,” Perry said. “My kids, 27 and 24, they know this is a Ponzi scheme.” One answer, Perry said, is to give up on a federal program to protect the elderly and just “let the states do it.”

Oh, excellent. Let states run Social Security. States like Texas, for instance—where there will be no social safety net whatsoever after the next Legislature gets done slicing another $25 billion off the brittle bones of our budget. (Rest easy, old folks: We’ll take care of you!)

But hey, it’s a democracy. And Texas voters said at least one thing loud and clear on Nov. 2: If it’s a question of paying to have a functioning government or not, they’d really rather not. “If anything starts with a ‘T’ for tax or ‘F’ for fee, forget it,” said Republican consultant Bill Miller as his party celebrated its fourth straight statewide sweep and dramatic seizure of the state House, where they’ll have at least a 99-51 edge in January. “They’re struck from the legislative alphabet.”

This was not exactly the ideal time for Texas to go all Grover Norquist. Even before the election, Texans were plunging down a rapids with a budget shortfall estimated at up to $25 billion for the next biennium. Now we’re neck-deep in the swirl without a paddle. When Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville said in October that the Legislature is likely to take a “meat-cleaver” approach to the state budget, it wasn’t the most tasteful turn of phrase. But it was grimly accurate. 

Take one awful example: Services for as many as 30,000 mentally ill Texans are likely to be eliminated. These huge cuts will come to a system that is already anemic at best: While the national average for mental health care spending is $103 per capita, in Texas, it is $34. Texas is already 49th in spending for mental health and substance abuse. But those are just statistics. What will happen to people? Among other things, more will land in jail. Already, the Harris County Jail is the largest mental health ward in the state, treating some 2,500 inmates for mental health conditions. It’s more expensive to do it this way. And less effective. Perfect!

But voters in 2010 were in no mood to think about what government should do—only to obsess over what it shouldn’t do. And on the Democratic side, nobody made a very convincing case for government doing things.

For most of 2010, Texas Democrats swore they had figured out how to break the Republicans’ 16-year spell over the voters. They hadn’t. Bill White fell beneath Barack Obama’s Texas vote in 2008, which wasn’t easy to do. Even conservative Democrats who’d successfully stuck to the old rules for years, bringing home the bacon and voting with the Republicans on enough big issues to ward off the dreaded liberal label—Congressman Chet Edwards of Waco, state House members Jim McReynolds in East Texas and Joe Heflin in West Texas—got creamed. By anti-government Republicans. In districts where people badly need government money. (It’s not enough to vote against your personal economic interests anymore, apparently; it’s now de rigeur to vote against the economic interests of your own district.)

Texans who voted this fall didn’t want to create; they wanted to destroy. And with a mandate like that, the governor and the new Republican Legislature will happily start wielding their cleavers, and damn the consequences.

While Perry tours the country glorifying Texas as a Shangri-La of unregulated, unfettered capitalism, the state will be turning into a colder, meaner place. As Perry peddles his “Morning in Texas” message, the bitter consequences of his anti-government politics will be coming home to roost. No wonder he’s eager to fly the coop.

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Published at 5:46 pm CST