The State of the Sacred Cows


There weren’t a whole lot of specific policy proposals in Gov. Rick Perry’s State of the State address on Tuesday, but there was one nugget to give aspiring college students hope. “It’s time for a bold, Texas-style solution to their challenges,” Perry said with all the gusto of a commercial voiceover. He proposed a four-year tuition freeze and then proposed the coup de grace: Universities should create degrees that only cost $10,000 including textbooks. That would undoubtedly be good news for students.

That is, until you do some digging. Perry wasn’t saying that universities should lower their tuition costs across the board. Instead, Perry wants schools to create a special type of degree, in addition to what they already offer.

Bargain rates, in other words, for what could easily become a bargain product. 

In a Feb. 4 letter to state university presidents that got little attention, Perry outlined his ideal $10,000 product. He asked that the program “be scalable, so at least 10 percent of the degrees you produce use this approach.” What would be “this approach?” In addition to accepting more Advanced Placement and dual credits, Perry asked that the new programs use “online and blended classes” and “no-frills campuses.” So while a degree might still say University of Texas, the actual product would differ from the degrees for more economically advantaged students.

Of course we don’t know what the final product would look like. But at first glance the proposal feels like offering a luxury vacation—where tourists stay at the Motel 6. And it was one of many proposals in the State of the State that looked better before the details emerged.

The governor spent much of his speech explaining just how prosperous Texas is. He argued against using the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion piggy bank the state has at its disposal. He criticized those “doomsayers” who warned of a “budget Armegeddon” and promised that Texas was and would remain an economic powerhouse. And he promised that in this budget there would be no “sacred cows.”

No sacred cows? That statement contrasted sharply with his proposed budget, which was also released Tuesday. The budget ran $1.4 billion above the state’s available funds—even the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative couldn’t find enough cuts to balance the budget—partly because he won’t cut border security more than minimally, or eliminate his roundly criticized Enterprise and Emerging Technology “slush funds.”

There was little in the governor’s proposed budget to comfort the hundreds of witnesses who have come to the Senate Finance Committee hearings over the last week or so, begging lawmakers not to cut vital programs in education and health and human services. In fact, the governor’s budget maintains many of the drastic cuts within the House and Senate draft budget—about a 24-percent cut to health and human services and around 11 percent in cuts to education. 

Even with the drastic cuts, however, the governor’s math doesn’t add up—$1.4 billion is a lot of money to spend when you don’t have it. Particularly when some of that money is allocated to programs like the governor’s Emerging Technology Fund and Enterprise Funds, both meant to incentivize businesses to move to Texas. The funds have been criticized as handout programs to the governor’s friends and financial backers. But negative press didn’t stop the governor from pushing for both funds to keep receiving state money, even as public schools and medical providers brace for traumatic cuts. 

“We’re not going to get points for our speeches or extra credit for our process,” Perry said at the beginning of his address. “We’re going to be judged on our results.” 

But as has often been the case, Perry’s speechmaking on Tuesday was far more convincing than the substance of his proposals.