Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tall, Plain Speaking Texans

One thing I like about Texas is plain speaking. Monday evening I went to hear a question and answer session with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. She fits that plain speaking mold. The 82nd Texas Legislature closed last month, and then, because they hadn’t accomplished the required budget during the regular session, they completed the additional special session a couple of weeks ago. So this was a good time to follow up on the good and bad that happened. (The meeting was at King Street Patriots; they broadcast live, and also allow you to view these meetings at a later date. It may take a couple of weeks before this is up, but you can find it at and then click on King Street Live. King Street, by the way, was the street the original patriots crossed to throw tea into the bay during the original Boston Tea Party.)

Susan Combs comes from a long history of Texas ranchers, since 1886. She says her daddy was very disappointed in her when she went over to the dark side and became a lawyer, but she has since repented. She is well over six feet tall, slender but imposing. Probably about my age (early 50s?). She laughed to point out that, among her husband and three sons, she is the short one of the family. I can relate to that (the three guys in this household are all giants, and I am indeed the shortest even as a tall woman). It’s so Texan. 

She sounds efficient and frank at all times, so even the hard things we had to talk about, we could clearly see where she was coming from. It was a difficult budget session in the legislature. People think Texas is doing great, but that is only by comparison to other states in more dire straits. While the US crept up to 9.2% unemployment, Texas hangs lower at 8%, which is about 4 percentage points higher than in the pre-2008 economy, which could have been considered full employment. So, higher unemployment, even when it’s better than the rest of the US, still means less revenue to the state, as well as more outgo for social services. With less revenue, it’s tough to fund services at the same level, let alone higher levels. 

Texas had a similar, more severe economic failure in the early to mid-1980s. People ended up walking away from their homes, unable to find work to pay for them, unable to sell because so many others were in the same boat. Since that time Texas did two important things: 1) diversified the economy, so a single segment (it was mainly oil back then) couldn’t cause devastation; and 2) built up a rainy day fund. 

Much of the discussion has come over the rainy day fund (officially called the Economic Stabilization Fund). Lately it hasn’t been replenished as in better times, so there’s that concern. But also, the question is whether this is an appropriate emergency for using the fund. It’s worth debating.  

Personally I prefer to save it for disasters. We have them here. Since moving here we’ve been through Hurricanes Katrina (influx of refugees from New Orleans), followed two weeks later by Hurricane Rita, both in 2005, and then Hurricane Ike in 2008. At our house we were without power for 8 days, and had to replace the roof and do some ceiling repair—our damage was minimal compared to most surrounding areas. The deductible was around $4500, so it’s not something we want to have happen again any time soon. This year the state is in a drought, like we haven’t had during the decade-plus that we have lived here. There have been wildfires, enough to be called a disaster. But Obama, because he doesn’t like us personally and resents our governor in particular, petulantly refused to declare it a national disaster. Can we just say, having Obama in the White House is a disaster for Texas. 

We’re also dealing with actual skirmishes on the border, which the media pretty much refuses to report. I know people who have been to the border, to help their friends physically protect their private property—a basic purpose of government that the federal government is failing to do.  

So, there are some serious budget issues, even in a relatively prosperous state. Ms. Combs says we have managed to cover the budget (Texas, as most states, requires a balanced budget), because of some revenue that came in beyond predictions, and because of the legislature consenting to use some of the rainy day fund. But she reminds us that this doesn’t solve any issues permanently; we can expect a serious and painful budget debate in 2013 for the next biennium. At least she has warned us. 

Much of the debate was about public education. There are 1000+ independent school districts in Texas. Some are better managed than others; some are located amid better revenue sources than others.  

The problem with the schools has been that, since some districts have pretty much nothing, and some have prudently built up their own reserve funds, should the prudent ones be given less state funding, since they can get by without it? (This was an issue in my local district; why, they said, should we have to use up our carefully built up rainy day fund if the state wasn’t willing to dip into theirs?) If a district that has been careful and efficient, holding the line with austerity for years, is punished while a profligate district gets more help, aren’t we subsidizing the profligate behavior? 

Of course, if you know my leanings, you know I would prefer completely dissolving the government monopoly on education, and let the free market plus philanthropy take over—and improve education the way communications have improved and innovated since phone company monopolies were dissolved. 

Susan Combs was asked about several other issues. One was a tax on I appreciated her candid answer. I’m against taxes wherever I can be. But the issue here wasn’t about suddenly deciding to tax online purchases for Amazon. It related to a 1963 law, dealing with catalog mail order companies mainly back then. If the company has property in the state, then it is required to collect sales tax on sales within the state. Amazon does indeed own distribution centers in Texas, so this is no different from what has been imposed on JC Penney, Sears, or any other company that does not just online sales but also has physical facilities here. I feel better with the explanation—but I hope there will continue to be online sales for which I do not have to pay sales tax. 

She talked with passion about abortion. A couple of good things came out of the legislative session. A sonogram bill passed. Women who go to get an abortion receive a sonogram—this is similar to the type of testing done before any other medical procedure. Now, as with other procedures, the doctor or technician must offer to show the results to the patient (allow but not force the woman to view the sonogram). This bill does nothing more than make abortion more like other procedures, but it is also known, by both sides, that when women see that their fetus is human baby shaped and has a heartbeat (visible from around 8 weeks gestation), they are more likely to reconsider having the abortion than when they do not see the evidences of human life. So, of course, pro-abortion forces are up in arms against this incremental change. 

The other one that passed was defunding of Planned Parenthood. Yay! If they changed their entire business model to cover only pregnancy testing and family planning services (to be simply a low-cost alternative to an OB-GYN visit), I would not be so adamant. But as long as they perform abortions—and that is indeed the money-making business they are in—I want to be certain that no tax money extorted from me goes to pay for that heinous crime.  

Susan Combs used to practice as a prosecutor of rape and incest of children; she never lost a jury trial saving a kid. So she has seen it all. But she is horrified by abortion, which she calls “the number 1 problem for humanity on the planet.” I’m with her on that. She recommended a book called Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl, on the subject. Read it at a time when you aren’t overwhelmed by other depressing issues. 

One more issue was the endangered species problem. The federal government, by listing species as endangered, has the power to essentially shut down major portions of the state to development or use by private owners. But, as she says, Texas likes to push back. The method of pushing has to be litigation for now, and the way to win a lawsuit is with data. So she urges property owners from around the state to report their loss of use of property to her office, so they will have the wealth of data to show the economic impact of the fed’s arbitrary takeovers. This doesn’t sound like an easy fight, but I’m glad she’s the one willing to take it on. 

I know this post has been mostly specific to Texas. But Texas is still what I have always seen as American. Much of America needs to take a look and be reminded. And stand tall, the way Texans—and Americans—must do if we want to live free.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, as usual. Just one minor thing.

    Pre-2008 employment levels were likely above full employment through the bubble overheating our economy, so don't expect employment to go back to that level after we have a real recovery (unless we also have another bubble). Of course, with current leadership it is unlikely that we will have a real recovery until it is clear that they are finished "stimulating the economy."