Running on Empty
Higher education hasn't fared any better. "Not a word about higher education," Texas House Higher Education chairwoman Irma Rangel said to me at the end of Bush's January State of the State address. For Texas universities and community colleges, the governor proposed only a $387.6 million increase, or 4.7 percent, for a system that continues to grow.
Bush's vetoes and appointments also say a great deal about what sort of governor he is, and, should he win the Republican nomination next year, they should revitalize those in organized labor who worked to defeat Bob Dole in 1996. "We approach every session knowing that whatever we get passed will stand a good chance of being vetoed by the governor," said AFL-CIO legal director Rick Levy. "I can't think of a single issue of substance where he has been on our side." The Texas Workers Compensation system has been largely dismantled, the days when labor would attempt a big push for something like a farmworkers' minimum wage are past and labor conventions where delegates talked of repealing the state's right-to-work law are so remote that they are almost folkloric. Organized labor--like environmentalists, defenders of affirmative action and the state's diminished cadre of civil liberties advocates--advances its agenda in very small increments.
The governor, however, pays careful attention. He vetoed, then beat on the House floor, a measure that would have granted some state employees minimum rights. "It was a little bill that gave Texas Alcohol Control Board agents the right to be told why they are being fired, to be confronted by their accusers," Houston Representative Ken Yarbrough said of a measure Bush vetoed in 1995. "The bill would grant [employees] a due process property interest in their employment positions," Bush wrote when he vetoed Yarbrough's bill. When the bill was introduced in the '97 session, he urged House Republicans to stop it on the floor.
Bush's appointments tell a similar story. To be fair, they're not all bad: His appointed education commissioner seems inclined to stand up to the religious right, which has seized control of the elected State Board of Education. And his Public Utilities Commission is more evenhanded and competent than any that Ann Richards or her Democratic predecessors put in place. But where appointments really matter, the interests that underwrite Republican elections always get their paybacks.
Most notable is the man who would likely replace Carol Browner at the Environmental Protection Agency if Bush wins the presidency next year. While Richards drew from career civil servants and local elected officials to fill the three positions at the state's Natural Resources Conservation Commission, Bush went to industry, to the Farm Bureau and, for the commission chair, to a lawyer best known for dismantling a Texas Agriculture Department program designed to keep farmworkers out of fields that are still "hot" after pesticide application. A fundamentalist Christian who has been known to fall to his knees and invoke divine guidance before casting a vote, Barry McBee turned an already weak commission into a captive of private business that routinely overturns decisions of a technical staff that still believes part of its responsibility is to protect the environment.
For industry, the stakes are enormous. Texas is the largest polluter in the nation, and while Bush has been in office it bottomed out at forty-ninth in spending on the environment. Under McBee the Conservation Commission refused to do an inventory of the state's grandfathered plants, opting instead to allow polluters to use crude emission-control systems put in place before the 1971 Clean Air Act. The savings to an industry not required to retrofit obsolete plants are as large as the public health consequences. And industry has responded. Among the Bush donors who gave more than $75,000 to his 1998 campaign fund, for example, are four refinery and energy CEOs who contributed a total of $325,000. Not surprisingly, Bush continues to defend a voluntary modernization program.
To a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court, Bush appointed a defense lawyer from Houston who has written what many believe to be the most radical antilabor decision handed down by one of the most conservative courts in the nation. Texas-Mexican Railroad v. Bouchet eliminated all job protections for workers who take employment-related complaints to attorneys. The result has been the abandonment of countless causes of action, as plaintiffs' attorneys feel compelled to warn potential plaintiffs that if they file suit against their employers their action will very likely cost them their jobs. And to a newly formed Workforce Commission that combines the functions of the state employment commission with new workfare initiatives, Bush appointed a disgraced former UAW official who had reassuringly stated in a letter of application that "my goal for the past twenty-one years of working as a union official has not been for the proliferation of organized labor."