Running on Empty

Running on Empty

Texas Observer editor Louis Dubose estimates that his property tax will decrease by $130 in the year 2000.


Austin, Texas

“You tell me what he’s done,” the vice president of the Waxaha chie branch of the NAACP said to me when Governor George W. Bush dropped in last month at a Capitol lawn luncheon organized by the Texas House Black Caucus. “What’s he done for black folks and what’s he doing here?”

“Nothing” and “running for President” were the simplest answers to Victor Burnett’s rhetorical questions–unless you take into account Bush’s support for vouchers, which are also supported by a small minority of African-Americans in Texas. Burnett, a former city councilman from a small town south of Dallas, left his table to walk over to where I was standing and make the case against Bush. The handful of Bush supporters I talked to at the luncheon could name no single policy that served the interest of the black community–or any community. “I like his stand on education,” a bank officer from Dallas told me, although I had to remind her of the specific education policy (“You mean vouchers?”) she supported. But she could not recall a single economic-development policy, nor a political appointment, that might make a difference to an African-American woman living in one of the most racially divided cities in the nation.

The president of the San Antonio chapter of the NAACP was even less specific. “My support for Governor Bush goes back to before he got into politics,” Thomas Rockeymoore said. “It goes back to his father; I’m retired military.” But what specific policy? What appointment? Rockeymoore was in Austin for a day of lobbying for the NAACP, yet he couldn’t name a single policy issue on which the support of the governor and the interest of the black community coincided.

To be fair, it was a tough question. George W. won’t wear you out with policy particulars. (“I want to see prosperity spread its wings all across America,” comes to mind. On Kosovo he told a press conference: “My question is, ‘Is it good for America?’ And that’ll be the question I’ll ask should I end up being the President.”) And a capital press corps that is so friendly to the governor that some reporters regularly violate the state’s archaic sodomy statute, which Bush supports, hasn’t exactly undertaken a critical examination of his record. (Bush has thus far put off the national media with responses like, “I’ll be glad to answer all those questions once I get out in the course of the campaign.”) So it’s no surprise that even people who support him don’t exactly know why.

Bush defeated popular, one-term incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 by matching her dollar for dollar and running a smart campaign that focused on violent crime and education. He’s good on TV, great in a crowd and upon election began to build personal relationships with Democrats in the Statehouse–something Richards never did. Then Bush delivered on his “tough love” promise of boot camps for young lawbreakers, and he set out to end “social promotion” in public schools and begin a voucher program for private schools. So it could be that a country-club Republican who has learned the language of the Christian right is a better fit for a conservative state (fiftieth in per capita spending on government programs and fifth in the percentage of people living in poverty) than a progressive Democrat like Richards. “Texas is not a rich state,” Molly Ivins has said. “It’s Mississippi with good roads.”

But although Bush may be a good fit for Texas, is he a good fit for the nation? Consider, for a start, his legislative record. As guests of the Black Caucus settled in for lunch, the House was at work on the first piece of his 1999 agenda. “There’s a lot of people hurting,” the governor had said this past January when he requested that the Senate waive its procedural rules and immediately bring to the floor a $45 million tax break for the oil-and-gas industry. The decline in oil-and-gas prices, Bush argued, erodes the earnings of thousands of “stripper well” owners (most unaccustomed to seeing their annual individual income fall below $100,000). And it threatens the flow of tax revenue the wells provide to a number of Texas school districts.

The relief bill for owners of these marginally productive wells was not going to be stopped in the House, the last redoubt of the Texas Democratic Party after Bush’s defeat of hopelessly underfunded Land Commissioner Garry Mauro carried Republicans into all twenty-seven statewide elected offices, from attorney general to land commissioner. In fact, House Democrats couldn’t even hold their six-seat majority together to limit oil-and-gas tax relief to $200,000 per individual. But a veteran black legislator from Houston did use the debate to direct legislators’ attention to another bill, which the governor and his staff were opposing. The oil-and-gas bill is about relief, “about helping people out,” Sylvester Turner said, praising perhaps too effusively the tax bill and its Republican sponsors. So he was going to vote for it. Then Turner challenged every representative who was going to cast a vote for the governor’s oil-industry bill to vote for adequate funding of the federal/state Children’s Health Insurance Program, which would be on the House floor within a few weeks.

While Bush and his staff were pushing the oil-and-gas tax bill through the legislature, they were also fighting to hold the line on health insurance for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance. There are 1.4 million children in Texas who have no health insurance. If eligibility were set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 500,000 of them would qualify to purchase low-cost insurance policies. Bush insisted, however, that the line be set at 150 percent, eliminating 200,000 children in a state second to California in the number of uninsured children and second to Arizona in the percentage of uninsured children. “It shouldn’t even be a fight,” said Austin Democratic Representative Glen Maxey, adding that Republican governors in Michigan, California, Florida and New Jersey all agreed to their states’ participation in the program. “Christine Whitman is even going to 300 percent,” he noted.

That is how the 76th Legislature began in Texas, with the governor flogging a tax break for oil-well owners while limiting a children’s health insurance program that brings the state a three-to-one match in federal funds. The two bills illustrate Bush’s dual welfare policies: expanding benefits for clients of the corporate welfare state while imposing harsh restrictions on people in need of help. They are also consistent with most of what Bush has set out to achieve since he was elected in 1994.

Asked about his accomplishments, Bush inevitably begins with, “Well, there’s tort reform…” Tort reform was roaring to a conclusion here when Bush took office in 1995. He immediately embraced the program as his own, designating as emergency legislation a package of bills that placed caps on actual and punitive damages for injured parties, raised standards of proof for plaintiffs and established a hometown advantage for defendants. In Texas, tort reform achieved two important objectives: Not only did it insulate the Republican Party’s corporate clients from the consequences of their behavior, it dried up the single most important source of Democrats’ funding in a state where plaintiffs’ lawyers were the last source of big money for Democrats–and where unlimited campaign contributions can mean half-million-dollar races in rural House districts.

By his second legislative session in 1997, Bush had developed his own agenda, and its centerpiece was clearly his first real use of the legislature as an extension of his presidential campaign. Bush seized on a $1 billion surplus in his initial proposal to help fund a $2.8 billion property-tax cut: Texas has no personal income tax and depends instead on a mix of sales taxes, corporate franchise taxes, severance taxes on minerals and property taxes. In that mix, the sales tax is the most regressive while the property tax, based on the assessed value of real estate, is the most progressive. To reduce the annual bill on a $60,000 home by $333, Bush proposed increasing one of the highest sales taxes in the nation–from 6.25 to 6.75 cents on the dollar. In cities such as Houston, where the local sales tax already pushed the level up to 8.25 cents, Bush’s proposal would have meant 8.75 cents of every dollar spent would be taken as sales tax. Meanwhile, the greater the value of your home–or vacation home or weekend ranch or refinery–the greater your property-tax relief. And the 40 percent of Texas residents who rent homes or apartments would have got nothing.

Republican legislators bolted in droves as their governor proposed raising one tax and capturing untaxed wealth by creating a new Texas business tax. In the end it was Democrats who passed Bush’s tax bill, which bore little resemblance to what he had originally proposed. It did return a more modest $1 billion to homeowners, who quickly saw their tax break disappear as school districts raised rates to make up for revenue lost in Bush’s property-tax reduction. Never mind that the very late interim committee that Bush sent out in search of a property-tax rebellion found none. He produced a bill anyway. And he managed to give away a budget surplus in a state that is forty-seventh in the delivery of social services and thirty-eighth in teacher salaries. “As long as he’s in office,” one Democratic legislator complained, “we’re going to have to tax people high enough to have a surplus while we fail to provide them with basic services.”

During the same session, Bush instructed his commissioner of Health and Human Services to move ahead with the privatization of the state’s $8 billion welfare system, offering a $3 billion, five-year contract to bidders such as Lockheed Martin, IBM and Electronic Data Systems to certify clients, deliver services and lower costs [see William D. Hartung and Jennifer Washburn, “Lockheed Martin: From Warfare to Welfare,” March 2, 1998]. It was obviously the second component of a campaign intended to attract voters to a presidential candidate who could say he returned money to taxpayers while privatizing his state’s welfare system. And Bill Clinton and Donna Shalala almost bought it. “The White House didn’t seem to understand the political implications,” said the legislator who led a small group of House Democrats who prevailed upon the Clinton Administration to deny a needed welfare waiver. (Bush even got tough with Secretary Shalala when she didn’t respond to his request for the waiver. “You promised an answer last Monday. In my state, we take people at their word,” he wrote in a two-paragraph letter.)

This session Bush has proposed adding $1 billion to the state’s public education budget, to which the Texas House Appropriations Committee has added an additional $2 billion. “We have $12 billion in needs and will have to be the wise Solomons that can divide that $3 billion among $12 billion in very legitimate needs,” the vice chair of the state’s House Public Education Committee said. There are other factors that erode even the $1 billion increase. The state’s peculiar fiscal process does not factor in growth and inflation, and the governor’s proposed $2 billiongiveback in property-tax relief increases state funding of schools while lowering local funding. “It’s a wash,” said a member of the appropriations committee. When you run the numbers on what the governor’s voucher program does to school funding at the local level, the wash becomes a loss.

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.”

Bush has been a relentless supporter of NAFTA. Even as the needle-trade industry all but disappeared in Texas, with a final wave of Levi’s plant closings in January and February marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the trade agreement, the governor had neither a program nor a word of consolation for displaced workers. “NAFTA is good for Texas and good for Mexico,” Bush said in his January State of the State speech.

All in all, the combination of Bush’s public policy agenda and his family name have made him the most successful fundraiser in the history of a state where no limits are imposed on political contributions or expenditures. In the office of the Texas Ethics Commission, Bush’s contributions and expenditures filings for the last election fill fourteen file boxes, and his contributions are close to $18 million (his Democratic opponent’s filings, at $3 million, fill less than one box). Those boxes include pages and pages of listings of small donors generated by direct mail sent out by Karl Rove + Associates, punctuated by an occasional page or two of $5,000-$25,000 listings from fundraisers in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Rove, an Austin political consultant who has worked for Texas Senator Phil Gramm and President George Bush, is considered to be a brilliant pragmatist with an aversion to the GOP’s Christian right. In March, Rove sold his agency to devote all his time to Bush, who has already raised more than $6 million for his presidential campaign. “Soft-money coffers of the Republican Party are going to explode,” said Andrew Wheat of Texans For Public Justice, “and a Bush victory might require bunkbeds in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Rove is perhaps one reason Bush has been talking to former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, who has expressed interest in working on Bush’s presidential campaign. With Rove focused on the party’s economic conservatives and Reed speaking to the Christian right, Bush could continue to walk the same line he has had to follow since fundamentalist Christians seized control of the state party machinery at the 1994 convention. (When you hear a guy with an Andover, Harvard and Yale c.v. out on the hustings selling phonics–the Christian right’s panacea for all that ails education–understand that he’s speaking in tongues intended to be understood by the Christian right.)

Catering to the Christian right has shaped much of Bush’s policy. James Leininger, a San Antonio multimillionaire and antichoice absolutist, provided $65,000 to Bush’s most recent election campaign. Bush’s abortion politics don’t completely satisfy Leininger, but the governor does oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the life of the mother, and he recently told the Associated Press that he would support a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. Leininger’s public policy think tank promotes a Christian version of the “compassionate conservatism” that Bush has embraced: the use of Christian theology to dismantle what is left of government services to the poor. “There is not much compassionate conservatism in the full-family sanctions the Governor’s staff is forcing on us,” said a member of the Democratic House leadership team speaking off the record. Full-family sanctions would remove from public assistance the children of anyone found in any violation of any public assistance regulation. Meanwhile, in his State of the State speech, Bush described Tillie Burgin–who hands out baloney sandwiches and old clothes to those left behind by the state’s booming economy–as “one drill sergeant in the army of compassion” and “the Mother Teresa of Arlington, Texas.”

One other aspect of Bush’s record in Texas that is likely to come in for careful scrutiny in a presidential campaign is his past business dealings–which appear to have benefited from his family connections. In 1986 he rolled his small, unsuccessful west Texas oil company stock into Harken Energy, a small company with no international experience, which four years later landed a drilling contract with the island emirate of Bahrain. “This is an incredible deal, unbelievable for a small company,” a Houston-based energy analyst told Forbes when Harken negotiated exclusive transportation, exploration, development, production, transportation and marketing rights to most of Bahrain’s offshore oil-and-gas reserves. Not only did Bush buy into Harken while his father was Vice President but by the time big George was sworn in as President, George W. was a board member and on retainer at $50,000 a year as a Harken consultant. When George W. cashed in 66 percent of his Harken holdings, shortly before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait sent Harken’s stock price plummeting, he failed for eight months to declare to the Securities and Exchange Commission his insider sale, as required by law. That sale, as the Wall Street Journal later reported, earned him $848,560.

In 1998 Bush hit a grand slam, selling his 1.8 percent interest in the Texas Rangers for $15 million, a fair return on $600,000 invested ten years earlier. With no baseball experience, Bush was brought on as a managing partner while the Rangers were expanding. It didn’t hurt to have the President’s son on deck while the legislature was voting in 1991 on a quasi-governmental sports authority that could condemn private land for a stadium and pay for it by increasing the local sales tax.

The official campaign hasn’t begun, but Bush is working a room in the Four Seasons in downtown Austin. Table to table, handshake to handshake, he seems determined to greet everyone at the 7:30 legislative prayer breakfast. He steps to the mike and is relaxed and gracious in telling the keynote speaker why he will have to speak first. He tells the obligatory joke, this time about Jesse Ventura, and eases into a speech that includes a brief account of his recent trip to Israel. He’s off script, but he doesn’t say anything dopey, as he often does when he doesn’t have a prepared text. The speech ends with an account of his flight over Jerusalem and a story about a gentile and a Jew getting on their knees and placing their hands into the shallow water of the Sea of Galilee. Then he slowly recites an ecumenical hymn the gentile offered up as a parting toast. The audience loves him and he loves the audience. Then he’s gone, all hand-and-eye contact on the way to the door. And you think that if you could only forget the policies, the appointments and the vetoes, you could really love this guy. He’s that good.

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