The cost of Gov. Perry’s doublespeak

June 17, 2010

Texas under Republican Gov. Rick Perry may simply be California running in slow motion. Or worse, says Snehal Shingavi: Greece.

GOV. RICK Perry just can't seem to make up his mind. When the cameras are rolling, he excitedly points to Texas as proof of the success of fiscal conservatism. Days later, he directs all state agencies to cut up to 15 percent of their budget, in an effort to shore up a projected $18 billion shortfall--all while the state is sitting on top of a $9 billion "rainy day fund."

The implication is clear: for the purposes of the election, the state of Texas is doing fine, and if it's not, then a little proactive "belt-tightening" will do the trick to get us back on track.

The only problem is that this isn't a Jenny Craig commercial--it's amputation above the knee. Once you cut, it doesn't grow back.

Consider what it will mean for Texans on food stamps. Already at record highs because of the economic recession, the number of people seeking food assistance is heading for a collision course with the cuts that have already been made to state agencies that provide food stamps.

Legal Aid lawyers in Texas already estimate that 3 million Texans are going without support because of chronic understaffing. That number may be on the high end of the estimate, but the picture it paints is bleak: another 10 percent cut in the budget will be catastrophic.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Ed Schipul)

This across-the-board-style budget hacking will be felt most acutely in public schools, where the new tax revenues were supposed to offset lost property tax income. To add insult to injury, this is happening in a state that already is leading the race to the bottom in spending on education.

Texas public schools are failing not because of the dedicated teachers that are always scapegoated, but because the state legislature has seen fit to tie every teacher's hands behind his or her back. This is the legacy of budget cuts in Texas: 46th in the nation in math scores, 49th in the nation in verbal scores, and a whopping 68 percent graduation rate.

The picture doesn't get better in college. Texas A&M, Texas Tech and the University of Texas are all being asked to cut their budgets a combined $600 million. For the 25th consecutive year, the University of Texas will raise tuition. It's only recently that this has been coupled with budget cuts: literally, students and parents are paying more for less.

Tuition is still relatively inexpensive, but will it really matter when Maria can't get the classes she needs to graduate? They've just canceled the Vietnamese language program and are shrinking French and Italian. Not that the Texas State Board of Education could find those countries on a map (another legacy of budget cuts, perhaps).

BUT THESE are not Rick Perry's concerns. (Incidentally, they don't seem to be terribly high on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White's list, either). It doesn't hurt, one imagines, when Perry lives in state-subsidized (dare we call it gubernatorial welfare) housing to the tune of $10,000 a month while the governor's mansion is undergoing cosmetic surgery.

It also doesn't seem to hurt that his challenger is running a tepid-at-best campaign, which is probably why Gov. Rick can be so blithely indifferent when he's not indulging in his personal reality TV show, where he shoots coyotes while jogging, spouts off quasi-secessionist sound bites or takes on the Environmental Protection Agency like Don Quixote.

This is a big change from last year when the economic pundits were pointing to Texas as the model state, outperforming the union's red-headed (or is it blue) stepchild, California, in almost every index. The secret to that success was supposed to be Texas' enviably low tax-rate and the cheapness of local labor. But secessionist fantasies aside, as goes the national economy so goes Texas.

In fact, those very low tax rates are now the source of the budgetary contractions--and the cheap labor is the first to get cut and can't be relied on for economic growth or boosts in consumer spending and sales taxes.

The primary reason that there is a budget deficit is not because the government overspends, but because the tax revenues are not coming in. Texas is after all the state that is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other (you'll notice they won't be asked to tighten their belts). Rick Perry's government has literally handed them a roadmap that shows them how to drive their profits out of the state, fat intact.

So it's time to face facts in Texas. We may, in fact, simply be California running in slow motion. Or worse, Greece.

And everywhere they try the same tired solutions: corporate profits are protected while ordinary people are asked to foot the bill by giving up their jobs, losing necessary services, bailing out the banks and government. You would think that this was because there were no other options, but the solutions are desperately simple and that's what makes the whole thing so maddening.

Let's tap the rainy day fund immediately. Let's generate revenues by asking the corporations who do business in Texas to tighten their belts for a change. Currently, most of the state's tax revenue comes through a highly regressive sales tax. There are no corporate taxes in Texas, just a franchise tax (one of the lowest in the country). Raising the franchise tax a pathetic 2 percent raises $9 billion. A graduated franchise tax without loopholes does even better.

After all, public education is a giant gift for Texas-based corporations. They get world-class students to work for them on the cheap. Perhaps it's time they realize that educated students are not a limitless resource. As tuition squeezes more people out of a quality education, they are going to have to look harder for quality employees.

Which is to say nothing about the effects it will have on Texas as a whole if quality education is outside of the reach of most Texans. Study after study has demonstrated that higher education generates positive economic results. Cutting the budgets of public universities only makes any sort of lasting recovery that much more improbable.

Continuing down the current road of budgetary conservatism spells disaster. The schools will be gutted, the parks run down, and the housing and health care services running on life support. Instead of Perry asking us to tighten our belts, it's high time we asked him to get his priorities straight.

First published at The Horn.

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