As most states of the union, Texas will face a monumental challenge in dealing with its budget, or lack thereof. Depending on whom you believe Texas will face a deficit of between 14-28 billion dollars. According to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, everything is potentially on the chopping block. In addition to the budgetary issues, we will have issues related to law and order and immigration. Bills have already been filed ranging from abolishing the death penalty to authorizing a new crime for driving while drinking, whether you are intoxicated or not. Our governor has already made mention of the fact there is a real possibility of opting out of federally mandated or sponsored medical programs. He in fact mentioned Medicare.
There are some ways many of these same issues have been dealt with by other states which I would certainly hope Texas will not emulate. First of all, opting out of Medicare has been tried by the state of Arizona. If Governor Sara Palin fears real death panels, she needs to cast her eye on the Legislature and the Republican government of Arizona. There are people in Arizona actually at death’s door and will die because of Arizona’s policy of opting out of most of the federally funded medical programs. Specifically, people who need transplants have been informed they will no longer be able to obtain a transplant paid for by a government-sponsored medical program. If they want to continue to live, they will just have to figure out some way to pay the huge costs associated with medical organ transplants. This sounds like a real death panel to me. Texas already has a modified version in that private insurance companies can make the decision that they have spent enough on you no matter how long you have paid for your medical policy; and in effect condemn you to die, if you don’t happen to have lots of cash in the bank.
Immigration is another area where Arizona has taken the conservative lead, and, again, I hope Texas will not follow that lead. Several ultra-conservative members of the House have already introduced Arizona-type bills which would give police authority to simply stop you on the suspicion you are not a bonafide citizen of the United States. I seriously doubt they will be stopping blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who speak good English. This is not only a bad idea from the standpoint of abusing civil rights of real citizens, but it doesn’t make sense in a down economic year because it is costly to the economy of the state. Independent studies have already reflected that because of lost conventions and tourism in Arizona, millions have been lost directly attributable to the Arizona law to fight illegal immigrants.
The third area where Arizona and Texas seem to be on the same track is in the area of handling prisoners. In one sense Texas is slightly ahead because Texas incarcerates more of its citizens than most nations in the world. Arizona, proportionately, has a pretty good record of locking up people as a solution to solving crimes and other social problems. Unfortunately, Arizona has gone overboard in attempting to cut costs by employing privately run state jails. Based on my personal past experience in the Legislature, state jails seem to pop up more as a result of lobby efforts by the private prison lobby than based on real need or social efficiency in fighting crime. Texas already has a large number of private jails, and I will almost promise you that in the coming tight budget session there will be enormous pressure to relieve the state of the cost of building any more jails by simply turning it over to private enterprise. In the long run, such a strategy will cost the taxpayers of this state millions, if not billions.
Aside from the waste of money in yielding to big-time lobby interests, private prisons and increased jail facilities are a mistake. We pursue this out of two mis-begotten beliefs. One is the longer you sentence someone, the more likely it is that person will not commit another crime. The second is probation and parole is simply not punishment. The reason both of these arguments are flawed is that study after study demonstrates the likelihood of being apprehended and placed in the criminal system is a greater deterrent than the length of sentence. Most people studying criminal behavior and punishment agree 3-4 months behind bars is as effective as 3-4 years as a deterrent. If the person is going to be deterred from a life of crime, simply seeing the inside is generally as effective as a longer sentence. If 3-4 months won’t do it, probably 3-4 years will not do it either.
The second misdirected belief is that parole or probation is not punishment. Wrong! It is in fact punishment, and it is in many cases more effective than simple incarceration. We spend more money locking up young people for minor crimes than it would take to put them in a highly successful educational program in one of our colleges or universities. Most people end up being incarcerated because they do not know how to deal with society. They make poor choices which could be avoided were they assigned to a person to monitor their behavior and direct them on better paths to success. Parole and probation operate, if adequately staffed, more successfully as a deterrent most of the time than incarceration; and at a fraction of the cost. Texas’ problem is mainly that the Legislature generally will not deal with prevention, but only the consequences of bad acts and have never adequately funded probation departments or the parole officers of this state.
Another area where I believe Texas to be off on the wrong foot is the attack on our 200-year tradition of open and free beaches. We have had for as long as memory serves open beaches in this state where people cannot claim ownership. It is even embodied in our constitution. Unfortunately, our all-Republican Supreme Court has put private property concerns ahead of public concerns about our state’s beaches. In a recent decision our Supreme Court ruled that even if the mean high tide marker passes where a structure is built and the structure is right in the middle of the beach, it still is private property; and the state cannot force its owner to move it.
It seems to me the next logical step in this bad decision is that people may now claim, based on this Supreme Court ruling, that they have a right to fence off certain areas of the beaches. Florida and some other so called resort states are famous for allowing big, plush resorts and hotels to claim ownership of the prime beaches. Get ready because Texas appears to be headed in that direction under the influence of our free enterprise conservative judges.
The last bit of insanity which appears to be heading for popular acceptance in our coming crises year is the decision of our leaders not to use Texas’ rainy day fund.
Apparently over the past several years we have had enough money coming in from tax revenue to create a savings account. This being the case, we should have been paying less taxes instead of putting it in the bank. Nonetheless, if we have in fact created a savings account of Texas’ taxpayer money, I doubt there will be in the near future a year any worse for our financial status than the one coming up. It seems as silly to not dip into the state savings fund for absolute necessities as it would for a family to go hungry with a big CD in the bank.
Well, as I’ve often said, being right is too often the consolation prize in the world of politics.