Railing against federal dollars for political fun and profit

Kate Alexander of the Austin-American Statesman put together a very good story on the politics of spending federal dollars. Currently, we have Democrats controlling federal dollars and Republicans complaining after federal intrusion into state politics. However, the story makes clear that both sides have played this game and that in the 1980s it was Democrats complaining about the strings attached to federal transportation dollars by Ronald Reagan. At the time Texas Senator Chet Edwards railed against federal dollars manipulated by the hands of Republican administration. Now that Democrats are holding the federal dollars, Edwards is complaining much less.

Both parties look hypocritical because they complain about these policies and then turn around and use federal dollars to advance their own agendas. However, it’s not that simple. Consider the dilemma of a conservative Republican freshly elected to Congress in the 1990s. You certainly could always vote in favor of “states rights” and remove any strings from federal dollars. However, what if some of those federal dollars would be spent on abortions? Which is more important to you: protecting the autonomy of state policy or the life of unborn children? What would the voters who elected you favor?

Federal dollars are a constant in state politics. As the story illustrates, federal funds as a share of the Texas budget have been pretty steady over the last decade. Rick Perry is acting as if the role of the federal government has changed dramatically since Obama’s inauguration. However,  the changes are relatively small and reflect a trend found in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The practice of complaining about federal power until federal power is in your own hands goes back to Thomas Jefferson.

We generally label the current status of relation between the federal and state governments as “cooperative federalism.” However, you can certainly make the case that the relationship is much more coercive than cooperative. The folly of the Democrats is denying the pressure the federal dollars put on states to comply. The folly of the Republicans is acting that this is new.

Student don’t relish getting to the section of the course on federalism. However, the sharing of power between federal and state government is (once again) turning into a hot issue in the campaign. As usual, much of the heat disguises reality and lead us away from a productive discussion. As Alexander story make clear, the mixing of federal dollars is important beyond the drama of the current campaign season. Regardless of who is in Washington, we’re going to see federal dollars going into state accounts and voters deserve an intelligent discussion of the tradeoffs.


Failing a pop quiz

Like many Texans, Farouk Shami can not name Texas’ comptroller or attorney general. Admittedly, I’m terrible with names. However, Shami should have been embarrassed when he up blank on the names of both Comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott during a meeting with the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman. According to the Austin-American Statesman, Shami’s campaign pointed out that most Texans can’t name this officials (probably true) and that the meeting with the editorial board was like a police interrogation (probably true–but get used to it). However, most Texans aren’t on the ballot for governor and are not asking to lead the state.

Knowing names is not always the most important thing about politics. However, if you haven’t spent enough time digging through the state’s finances to see Susan Combs’ name or and over again, you’re not doing your homework. Knowing the name is a symptom of a bigger problem. If you haven’t watched the government closely enough to know all the key players–maybe you’re not ready to head the government.

Shami has revealed a weakness. However, Texans have occasionally shown a fondness for political newcomers.

To his credit, Shami isn’t dodging editorial board meetings like Perry.

Accidentally banned

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?

Not the book with "very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system."

The Dallas Morning News has reported that the State Board of Education has (apparently) accidentally removed the wrong book. Apparently, a SBOE member confused Bill Martin Jr. (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (and several other bear-themed books) with Bill Martin (author of Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation). I understand that it’s hard to research every book you want to ban. However, it’s relatively easy to spot the differences between the two and I’m not sure why anyone would think they came from the same author.  Brown Bear weighs in at 32 pages and is richly illustrated by Eric Carle. Ethical Marxism runs 480 pages and doesn’t seem to have any pictures of animals. It took me less than a minute to sort this out.

I have sympathy for the authors in this situation (Bill Martin Jr. passed away a few years ago). There are several Kenneth Colliers and one writes about politics and has a distinctly conspiratorial view of American politics. That’s not me. I occasionally get fan mail for the other Kenneth and now I’m wondering if I’ll end up on someone’s banned list because of his views.

Cover of Ethical Marxism

Not a rhyming book about bears, frogs, and other animals.

I’ll leave others to wrangle over the battle between the left and right’s view of political correctness. The broader issue is in government is how our government functions and what the liabilities and advantages of such boards.

Part-time boards like the SBOE are going to make mistakes like this. “Citizen” government means part-time, amateur government. While some voters seem to relish criticizing “experts,” you have to admit that experts wouldn’t confuse these two books.

We’ve also seen conflict of interest and partisanship run wild in the SBOE. This is the dynamic you get when people run under party labels, take campaign funds from special interests, and seek the office to become the political watchdogs for their ideology. By now we’ve learned that the problems can come from members of both parties. When the selection process a partisan battle you’re going to produce a partisan governing process. Does that really benefit anyone?

Should we stop electing the State Board of Education?  One possibility is letting the governor appoint the board. Texans have resisted giving more power to the governor. However, that might be a better option than leaving the choice to an inattentive public in a partisan election.

Expanding the Governor’s Mansion

While Texans are getting ready to watch a debate that may decide who live in the Governor’s Mansion, there’s also a debate on how big the mansion should be.  In an op-ed piece in the Austin American Statesman, Lawerence Oaks and T.R. Fehrenbach (respectively, former executive director and chairman of the THC) rejected the need for an addition:

“We believe the proposed addition not only interrupts the continuum of history that is every Texan’s birthright but is unnecessary to achieve its hazy objective. It should be an honor to be chosen to live in such a grand and historic building that, while it might have some shortcomings, has accommodated every governor of Texas without a monumental change of this scale since its construction in 1856.”

The Texas Governor's Mansion

This isn’t the first time an addition to the governor’s mansion has generated controversy. Even before the mansion was completed neighbors complained that the outhouse across from the front gate should be moved to a less visible location. A story in the Austin American Statesman lays out today’s plan and the process behind it.

While the cost of the expansion is small compared to other government spending, the symbolic nature of the Governor’s mansion is much larger. A governor housed in a large mansion doesn’t compliment the idea of small government. It’s hard to call for state agencies to cut their budget by 5% while justifying a 33% increase in space for the Governor.

The process behind the expansion of one of the state’s most visible building is somewhat mysterious. Apparently, the State Preservation Board routinely “approves” projects after they are finished–and they consider this normal because Texas seems to have created a dilemma. The State Preservation Board was created in 1983 to preserve and maintain the Capitol and its grounds. Later, they were given responsibility for the Governor’s Mansion and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Currently, the Board is composed of Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, state Sen. Tommy Williams, State Rep. Charlie Geren, and public member Charlotte Foster of Houston. Ironically, the board has so many important members that scheduling meetings is very difficult. This is creates an almost philosophical paradox: What is the power of a board that is too important to meet?

Governor Perry (the Chair of the Preservation Board), seems anxious to distance himself from the project and has told reporters that he would leave it to the Texas Historical Commission (THC)  to make the right decision. However, the THC (17 members of the public appointed by the Governor) is responsible for approving plans based only on whether it is historically appropriate. Their role is historical preservation and is limited to approving or rejecting a plan submitted to them. That plan is coming from somewhere.

Before 1856, governors shunned the two-story dogtrot that served as Texas’ “President’s House.” Sam Houston refused to live there after the house began pulling apart after a couple of years due to the green wood used to build it and early governors took up lodging in local boarding houses. Since 1856 the mansion has housed governors from Elisha M. Pease to George W. Bush with few complaints.

The Texas Governor's Mansion

There may be ample justification for a two-story, 3,000 square foot expansion of the governor’s mansion beyond its current 9,000 square feet. However, the Governor has to take the lead in making the case. Such an expense would not go unnoticed in a state where legislators are paid $7,200 a year and at a time when many Texans are out of work and losing their homes to foreclosure. Bureaucratic inertia is not going to be enough.

Perry’s distance is odd–even given the nature of the mansion. No one should be more aware of the needs of the governor today and more concerned with the mansion’s future occupants. If Perry doesn’t care enough to speak up why should anyone believe it’s worth their money? It’s clear that Perry doesn’t want to be accused of building a palace as he campaigns for limited government. Still, it is going to be impossible to escape association with the project. Does he think he can blame Obama for this?


UPDATE:  Late in the day on January 15 John Sneed, Executive Director of the State Preservation Board, announced that the expansion plan had been withdrawn.

The health of democracy in Texas

The Texas Tribune continues to show signs of developing into a tremendously valuable resource on Texas politics. Their latest contribution is a data base of candidates of office and some analysis about how much political competition we have in Texas.

In their story Ross Ramsey and Dan Leyendecker report that 89 of the 150 members of the Texas House and 9 of the 16 Texas Senators on the ballot will have no major party competition in the 2010 election. I don’t like limiting a measure of competition to that between parties. I think that facing meaningful competition within party during the primary is another sign of a healthy democracy. There are plenty of places in Texas that are heavily conservative or liberal and a candidate from within the incumbent’s party represents a much more threat than one from another party. Affiliation with a “major” party candidates doesn’t keep you from being a minor candidate.

The cool thing about the Texas Tribune is that they give you the original data if you want to do your own analysis. I counted 47 members of the Texas House facing no competition from other candidates–primary or general election. You can debate over how significant minor party candidates are or how many of those primary election challengers are serious. However, it’s clear that no competitors means no competition and almost one out of three members of the Texas House are not competing.

Another 27 members face only a Libertarian party candidate in the general. While some of my Libertarian friends will not like the implications, but the Libertarian party is neither a major party or serious competition.

So, almost exactly half of the Texas House faces no or minor competition this election. This might make more sense if Texans were happy with their legislature. They’re not, but half of their legislators are waltzing back to Austin on a free pass.

Texans often talk about freedom and democracy. However, it looks like democracy is another case of Texans failing to practice what we preach. While the 2010 election is going to produce some very visible (and very nasty) competition for the governor’s mansion, many other incumbents are going to waltz back into office without competition.

It’s always tempting to blame the politicians and the parties for the lack of competition. However, the truth is that Texas voters are better at complaining about incumbents than supporting challengers.

Greetings from Dallas postcards

A few old postcards from my collection. Neither picture looks like anywhere I’ve ever been in Dallas.Greetings from Dallas

Greetings from Dallas

The continuing rural health care problem

Map of primary care physicians per county

The Texas Tribune's map of primary care physicians per county

There are many aspects to the challenges people face with health care. The shortage of health care in rural areas in Texas has been repeatedly discussed but the problem is far from being solved. Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune has done a multi-part series on the health care crisis in rural Texas.  In part 1 of story she points out that 63 Texas counties have no hospitals while 27 counties have no primary care physicians and 16 having only one. [Part 2 of the series looks at emergency care. Part 3 looks at the politics of the solution and part 4 looks at the recruitment of doctors.]

The math is simple. Many areas of the state are losing population while health care is becoming more specialized and expensive. There aren’t enough people in these sparsely populated areas to make a medical practice profitable and to pay for the increasingly expensive technology doctors rely on today. Today, medical care goes to where the people are and the town doctor isn’t going to show up at your front door with his little black bag.

The state has already created some programs to encourage doctors to set up their practices in under-served areas. Legislators from rural areas complain it’s harder to gain more support because  they’re increasingly outnumbered by representatives of urban and suburban areas. However, it would be difficult in any scenario to defend more subsidies for rural health care without running into complaints about socialized medicine.

The rural health care problem is another example of the clash between the traditions of Texas and the state’s future. As much as we relish our rural heritage and the image of the wide-open Texans plains, the wide open spaces of Texas may the worst place to get sick as frontier doctors disappear more quickly than the frontier.