Owner's Box

Chapter 13: Duck Lessons

What can Texas learn from ducks? By that I mean Oregon Ducks, that strain of independent westerner whose university’s duck mascot comes often to entertain El Paso in the Sun Bowl. From our view here in God’s Country—in a state that is first in those without a high school diploma, last in insured, and about to face a $17 billion deficit in ten short months—we can all learn a lot from ducks.

Last month, Oregon voters went to the polls for a “tax vs. cuts” election—something that nearly all states will face in the coming months. Faced with historic budget deficits, Oregonians were given this simple choice: raise income taxes on upper-income households and corporations or face additional devastating cuts to vital statewide programs. Let’s make real clear the impact of those cuts: a increasing tuition nine percent, laying off teachers and shortening the school year, forcing the elderly into nursing homes, and leaving millions of dollars of federal matching funds on the table. Sound familiar?

Come January 2011, Texas lawmakers will face a budget shortfall that some of the best budget minds put as high as $17 billion. This historic deficit will force a conversation about what truly matters to Texans: cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), tuition grants, and teacher pay—or new resources to support critical, core programs that invest in people?

What lessons lie in Rick Perry’s Texas? Back in 2003, the state faced a $10 billion budget deficit. In order to balance the budget, Rick Perry spearheaded a scheme to deregulate college tuition and cut 300,000 kids from CHIP and 500,000 from Medicaid. He then took off to the Bahamas to brag to his pal Grover Norquist, the famous author of statement that his “goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Basically, the decision was tax cuts for the wealthy, tax shifts for the middle class, and budget cuts for everyone else. What’s remarkable is that the good heart of Texas was ready, willing, and able to raise taxes, especially on cigarettes, to avoid the drastic cuts. In a poll taken at the time, 73 percent of Texan Republican primary voters would have been willing to pay $1 more for cigarettes. This tax increase, which could have been used to keep kids in CHIP, was disregarded by Perry, who made sure that vote never happened. Texas families are still dealing with the effects of those drastic cuts. Universities have hiked their tuition 136 percent since 2003, pricing Texans out of a higher education. Plus, the CHIP enrollment figures just broke the 500,000 mark last month—the same level they were at prior to the to the 2003 cuts going into effect.

So with the power placed in people’s own hands, what did Oregonians do? Did they commit to an austerity so savage as to deny a generation a chance to succeed? Or did they respond to a budget crisis with a balanced, sensible approach as Americans have always done—conservative, but truly compassionate in deed and act?

Oregon chose the latter. On January 26, voters went to the polls and approved two ballot measures to raise income taxes on both households that make more than $250,000 and corporations in order to help close the state’s $727 million budget shortfall. Both measures passed with 54 percent of the statewide vote.

Oregon, much like Texas, has not historically supported high taxes, as their state and local taxes as a share of personal income ranked 44th in the nation in 2007. But when given a chance to do what’s right, Oregonians were willing to pay a little more to avoid harm to public schools, universities, nursing homes, and other vital state services.

Why is it then that Texans, through their elected officials, appear so opposed to even considering such a balanced approach? On February 17, Senator Steve Ogden, chair of the budget-writing Finance Committee, went to the Texas Hospital Association, a group that faces daunting cuts, and announced that the budget will be balanced and he would not raise taxes to do it. Why not let people have a chance to vote on what they believe is right for Texas? Why eliminate even the option of a more balanced approach 10 months before the Legislature meets?

Thomas Frank, the author of 2004’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, analyzed how Republicans took over a state that was a historical hotbed of sensible centrists. Frank hypothesized that a concerted effort to shift the political discourse from a debate about economics to one of social issues like abortion and gay marriage allowed people to rationalize voting against their own economic self-interest. For example, in recent days, Texans have to ask why Debra Medina, a nurse who made an illegal charge to her campaign to fund outfits to suit up for the Governor’s race, can rationally argue for shifting property taxes to sales taxes—what would amount to one of the biggest state tax increases on her own earnings in Texas tax history.

In Texas, Rick Perry’s plans simply shift taxes from the top 10 percent onto the bottom 90 percent. Today’s sole reliance on budget cuts as a means of resolving deficits has eliminated even the consideration of tax adjustments—even ones that will only impact the wealthiest Texans who can afford to pay more. This lack of investment in the state’s greatest resource—Texans—has and will continue to have a negative impact. Already statewide commissions made up of Republican appointees who see emerging world education trends have told Perry the ugly truth: “Texas is not globally competitive. The state faces a downward spiral both in quality of life and economic competitiveness if it fails to educate more of its growing population (both youth and adults) to higher levels of attainment, knowledge, and skills.” Meeting this educational need demands increased resources, especially in a state that spends less on each of its citizens than any other state in the nation.

So let Oregon’s recent vote serve as evidence that, when given the choice, citizens will choose a balanced approach to deficit reduction over the slash-and-burn budget reductions that appear on the horizon. After all, if Texans value a strong public education system, a well-prepared workforce, quality infrastructure and jobs with benefits, legislators must make the choice to invest in Texans. Otherwise, Texas will move further down the road to last.

When Texans get to hear the choices and vote, Texans make the right choice. What do you want—more tax cuts for the wealthy or better schools for kids? It’s that simple. It’s time Austin hears what you think.