The Next 60: Agenda for a New Texas

“I have never heard of or seen in my 80 years watching Texas a more empathy-dead, society-wide INJUSTICE than the refusal of...tens of billions in Medicaid money.”

Editor’s note: This essay is part of our 60th anniversary issue, which can be viewed in full here.

An Indian once complained to Gandhi that their side kept losing. When were they going to win? Gandhi replied that the point was not to win, but to fight.

Yes, but what for? If, as many predict, the rapid demographic advance of Latinos in Texas leads to statewide election victories for progressives in 4 or 10 years or so, what will the new Texas leaders stand for and try to achieve? What will and, more to the point, what should the next Texas be like?

The political and economic philosophy prevailing in Texas is aggressively anti-democratic. First, it is anti-government, braced and structured against adequate taxation that would enable us to do, through our government, what we can’t do as individuals that might be best for all of us. Second, Texas is biased against a state income tax based on the ability to pay. The state is instead based on stingy government and sales taxes that take proportionally the most money from the least able to pay and the least money from the richest of us. Third, Texas has no limits on donations to political campaigns. As gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ money-raising mailings said, her operation “does not have any campaign limits.”

Consequently, for the past two decades the pattern among progressives in Texas has been that we lose all statewide elections, and what we’re fighting for is uncertain. We seem now, in Texas and the rest of the country, to be letting our politicians take their instructions from billionaire oligarchs and huge corporations, not from us. In this 60th anniversary issue of the Observer I suggest we restart our thinking and discussion of what, in the years and decades ahead, we want ethically, politically and economically for our state and our country. Along with Fred Lewis’ essay on this subject, I will pass along some suggestions. The Observer invites you to respond as you wish, to disagree, agree, add, alter, omit, reorder. In a quest for a new Texas agenda, let’s think together for the present and for the future, a future when the people take back our state and when our children inherit it.

The Future

The Future

The first purpose of government is to facilitate and enable the self-realization of persons, and the first aim of a good society is for each person to have a fair chance to realize his or her best purposes and possibilities. To myself, I call this precept “personism.” Both liberal and vocational education is where it starts.

In the past 42 years, the state of Texas has lost six consecutive lawsuits brought by school districts contending that the Legislature, by underfunding the public schools, is failing its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education. In that context, the next governor and lieutenant governor seem likely to increase public funding of private schools at the expense of the public system. Texas is now wide open to showdowns in the well-organized nationwide campaign against public schools.

In 2011 the Texas Legislature cut money for the state’s public schools by more than $5 billion. The budget was in deficit, and the Legislature chose to address the problem with drastic cuts, part of its unofficial main job to hold in place the Texas pattern of the beggarly taxation of the rich. As a result, 11,000 public school teachers lost their jobs, and the Texas Education Agency granted about one-third of the elementary schools in the state waivers of the legal limit of 22 pupils per class. Allowing for inflation, Texas schools were calculated to be receiving in 2012 only three-fourths of the money they got in 2002. A pending court ruling now upholds again the outcry by lawsuit of more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that the state’s leaders and Legislature are failing to appropriate enough money to educate our students well enough, a proposition that is supported by the Texas Association of Business. A spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, whose members are paid $7,000 less a year than the national average, says, “Instead of trying to enrich private school operators with tax dollars, the Legislature should expand public educational opportunities for all Texas children.”

In the recent election, Democrat Davis proposed more school funding and full-day preschool education, which is now half a day. Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, running for lieutenant governor, proposed that the state pay tuition and fees for students attending public community colleges.

A graduated income tax could enable the just repeal of the state’s more than 8 percent sales tax on the poor and the middle class, while leaving it on rich people by maintaining taxes on luxury goods. The penny-pinching government that the prevailing philosophy idealizes drives localities to raise property taxes on all homeowners and thus indirectly on renters, increasing housing costs for everyone. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, the new commander of the Texas Senate, will seek now to command it to raise the regressive sales tax to 9 percent or 10 percent. He alleges that would be connected to decreasing property taxes (not with a tax, but in “a swap,” he says). If that argument holds, so would one that a graduated state income tax would likewise reduce the state’s reliance on rising local property taxes.

One method to further reduce the property tax burden on the middle class is to have major commercial companies pay a fairer share of such taxes. The Austin City Council has become one center of a movement to reappraise the value of commercial properties, which are alleged by one study to be appraised on average at only 60 percent of the appraised levels of homes in Texas. To enable or facilitate such commercial reappraisals, though, the one-party-dominated Legislature would have to repeal its law that property appraisers may not consider the actual retail sales prices of commercial properties in appraisals of their market value.

The reason public education—the schools, teachers’ pay, resources—is so unequal for schools in poor neighborhoods and rich ones is obvious. For all our children, this basal societal wrong can be corrected by a Legislature if we elect one that will conscientiously equalize public-school funding in Texas per student, refusing to base it on the wealth or poverty of the school district a student happens to find herself or himself in.

Permit me here this personal statement: I have never heard of or seen in my 80 years watching Texas a more empathy-dead, society-wide injustice than the refusal of the politicians and legislators now holding office in Texas to permit the acceptance of our state’s tens of billions in federal Medicaid money. Texans have already paid the cost of the Texas share in their federal taxes, yet have been refused the right to receive medical care for the approximately 1 million poverty-qualified Texans for whom Congress has appropriated the money by law. This one deed is the lowest and most disgraceful point in the devolution of Texas during the past half-century back down into a one-party boss state. An outrage to both common sense and to compassion, it amounts to an ethical secession of extreme right-wingers from the United States.

A scrupulously scientific study over a five-year period by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found a 6 percent drop in deaths in three states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, about 28,840 fewer deaths per year for every 500,000 persons covered, with the declines in mortality greatest among people in poorer counties. Other studies indicate that, in the states refusing Medicaid expansion, there will be, in consequence, between 5,000 and 17,000 more preventable deaths each year.

The appeal of Medicaid expansion is obvious on the facts. Congress pays 100 percent of the cost of the added Medicaid coverage for three years and thereafter 90 percent of it. For expanding Medicaid Texas would have received $24 billion in the first four years. Under the Perry-GOP rejection of the money, if continued, Texas will send back to Washington, and thus to people in other states, an estimated $45 billion of our own money in the next 10 years.

About 8 million people signed up for Obamacare; studies say the national uninsured rate of adults under 65 fell from 16.4 percent to 11.3 percent. In the states that expanded Medicaid, the uninsured rate fell to 9.2 percent, compared to 13.8 percent in the states that did not expand it. In Texas the reported rate of the uninsured continues to be the highest in the United States.

Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, suggests we drop some state contracts with the for-profit prison companies. Though Texas now has thousands of prison bunks unoccupied, we pay more than $100 million a year to these companies whose profit motive is aligned with keeping prisoners locked up as long and cheaply as possible. On Nov. 4, California voters approved mass incarceration reforms that Texas should copy.

What about our moral responsibilities for the conditions in our prisons? Sadly, lock ’em up and forget ’em is what our human nature mostly does; we lock up our empathetic imaginations with them. We provide no air conditioning in most Texas prisons. Temperatures in prison cells in Texas can reach up to 115, even 130 degrees, and excessive heat has killed 14 prisoners since 2007, according to a report from the University of Texas Law School. Our 250 or so death row inmates get out of their cells about one hour out of each day’s 24, the kind of extreme isolation, especially solitary confinement, that many psychologists now consider inhumane.

And what about the drones and battlefield military hardware police departments have been accepting from the Pentagon? Texas, which leads the nation in killing convicted murderers, last year also led the nation in the number of people falsely convicted of crimes but officially exonerated: 13. The tip, one must guess, of an iceberg. At 152, New York leads a new national registry of known exonerations since 1989, then comes California with 136, then Texas with 133.

Corporate CEOs and shills and now Supreme Court justices keep telling us corporations are people. They aren’t, but the concept offers progressives an opening. Like any state, Texas creates corporations (“incorporates” them) for publicly defined and supposedly publicly controlled purposes. Texas should annul the charter of any Texas corporation that either egregiously and repeatedly violates state or national laws or dishonors or humiliates Texas or the United States by its conduct of business abroad. That would be a start back to fairness, would it not?

We could also demand, oh, in due time, a Texas Consumer Protection Agency modeled on the one Sen. Elizabeth Warren won in Washington, especially since Gov.-elect Greg Abbott as attorney general of Texas gutted many of the consumer-protecting traditions and services of that agency. Texas is the only state in the union without a mandatory workers’ compensation agency and program. Even after last Nov. 4, could we get a record vote in Austin on making compliance to worker safety mandatory? Plants that use and contain explosive chemicals should be stiffly regulated, as proved beyond refutation in West, Texas. Dare I also mention legalizing marijuana as in Colorado and Oregon? And same-sex marriage? Although these topics are not settled in Texas, it’s clear in which directions the arc of history is bending.

According to the secretary of state, Texas is home to more than 2,294 colonias, unincorporated villages of homes usually lacking public utilities on lots sold to poor people, mostly Hispanics. Usually the little houses are built by their occupants. These communities are concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley but also spotted around East and West Texas. Two decades ago the state helped provide the colonias in the Valley with water and wastewater disposal. Roughly half these people are citizens, roughly half are not; there are about 300,000 to 400,000 of them scattered outside cities through the Valley, according to Geoff Rips, former Observer editor and publisher. What they need most of all, Rips says, is for the Legislature to provide county governments in Texas adequate regulatory powers. Rips is now the development director for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which among other work seeks to protect colonia residents’ uncertain rights to their home lots.

“To secure the border” is one of the new governor’s major priorities, and the new lieutenant governor, further, wants to stop “the invasion” of, he says, these disease-infested and sometimes terrorist foreigners. We should be employing our adjacency with impoverished Mexico to conceive and propose adding a good-neighbor policy to U.S. foreign policy instead of devising demagogic excuses for an 18-foot-high American Wall against Mexicans and Central Americans. And now we have children crossing the river fleeing murderous gangs in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, perhaps also in Mexico. Should we not, as good people, be welcoming them with open arms, protecting them, helping them contact their families, helping them find homes.

To protect students and public education, I suggest sunset examinations or at least regular reviews for the for-profit colleges every three years. Pursuant to Perry’s enthusiasm for the states being laboratories for democracy, the Legislature should establish public funding for all state elections. Why not a carbon tax for Texas? Why doesn’t Texas defy the supposedly lock-step Federal Reserve’s no-percent interest rate? The Legislature could simply pass a law that state-chartered banks and credit unions can pay savings account holders, say, 5 percent or 10 percent a year. That would be a state’s right worth pioneering. How about Texas joining North Dakota (and perhaps soon Vermont) in establishing a state-owned bank to hold our state funds and to make low-interest loans to nonpolitical small-businesses and family farms and very low-interest college-student loans? Become the first state in the union (unless Washington does it) to provide free college tuition to every academically qualified student. The first to prohibit street-front “payday loans” with interest and fees of 300 percent or 500 percent a year. At Texas universities, why not have an entity focusing on research for cures to the illnesses that curse Third World people who are too poor to interest the commercial pharmaceutical firms?

Many of you have probably thought, “Hey, we can’t get that—these guys have the government!” Right. So I close with an idea about democracy in general. Let’s fight, in Gandhi’s spirit, for a law providing a broad democratic right of recall enabling the people to remove from office, by a vote of say 60 percent or more, members of the Legislature, Congress, or our city or county governments about whom we decide, after debate and discussion, there is good evidence that in citizens’ opinions justifies their recall.

An idea can change society, and being the people, we have lots of ideas. Let’s look, too, for more good, young new leaders and also some not so young.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

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