Saturday, June 6, 2009

Yee haw -- Texas is last, and dropping

Upon Senate passage of the state biennial budget, the well-attired David Dewhurst was busting his buttons.

The lieutenant governor praised a state budget "that meets the needs of our growing state."

State Sen. Elliott Shapleigh, D-El Paso, had a different take: With this budget, the gorgeous state of Texas once again is jostling for the crown in the Miss False Economy Pageant, likely again to spend less per capita on human services than any other state.

"What's the cost of being last?" Shapleigh asked.

What Shapleigh didn't point out was that wherever Texas ranks, it is certain to fall further in the biennium ahead because it has clothed itself in policies that have put tax cuts ahead of obligations like schools, highways and preventive health care.

Gov. Rick Perry, who looks good in any suit, hitched up his designer tie and bragged that Texas was alone among states in cutting taxes during a recession.

He spoke of a $172 million measure that increased the numbers of businesses exempt from the state business tax.

It's as if the state won't be needing that money down the road. But, of course, it will. Right now? Thanks to $12.1 billion in federal stimulus dollars, this budget holds the rate of spending increase to under 2 percent, below inflation and population growth.

Guilty pleasure: federal dollars

What will happen when those federal dollars go away is likely to make even the most hardhearted conservatives wince.

Remember, the state faced a $9 billion shortfall before Barack Obama rescued it.

Denouncing him all the way, our Republican leaders then set out to patch holes in the rotting life raft that we in Texas call state services.

Shades of 2003: That year Republicans, newly in control of the Legislature, went on a budget-cutting, privatization fest. But when it came down to certifying the budget as balanced, it was only a last-second infusion of $1.6 billion in federal aid that allowed lawmakers to say they had done their jobs under the law and balanced their budget.

Since then, our intrepid scofflaws have done much to make sure that Texas has a fiscal hole that one day will cave and collapse upon those who most rely on state services.

This was preordained with the bill that in 2005 misleadingly was framed as "school finance reform" but was really all about property tax cuts Texas couldn't justify.

Because lawmakers committed themselves to a one-third property-tax cut over four years, and because the business tax they created was not sufficient from the start to replace the lost revenue, they created a structural deficit that would have come into play this session if not for the big bucks from Washington.

Now watchdog groups from the left and right are projecting that in two years, Texas could face a shortfall of $13 billion to $15 billion and no escape hatch except to butcher state programs for the frail, infirm and mentally disabled.

Schools and highways? Maybe we can just do without. Can't private enterprise educate our children? Don't big-butted pickup trucks and off-road SUVs obviate the need for roads in the 21st century?

When those federal dollars go away, we will see what shreds are left of the fine threads our governor and lieutenant governor model today.

In the meantime, consider some brags.

Texas is last in the nation in per capita spending.

It has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. It is last in the percentage of residents with high school diplomas. It does, however, lead the nation in executions.

Perry and Dewhurst believe that cutting taxes that are already 49th lowest nationally per capita is how we address our needs.

Chides Shapleigh, "Those who value tax cuts over children . . . have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed."

That's what being last means. Last and dropping.

John Young appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

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