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Alas, I was out of the state for the Texas gubernatorial debate on Friday evening, but having watched the replay, I can't say that I missed much. As debates go, I found it relatively low-wattage. Both candidates were articulate and reasonably polite to their opponents, though I thought Davis came across as very stiff--think for a moment how energetically Ann Richards might have talked about her filibuster or the cuts to education in 2011. Davis did appear to be more on the attack than Abbott, whom she criticized for his earlier remark that the Rio Grande Valley was like a third-world country. Abbott appeared to be happy to focus on Obama whenever possible.
In 2011, faced with a projected budget shortfall of about $27bn for the 2012-13 biennium, the Legislature passed a budget that amounted to about $5bn in cuts to public education--that is, $5bn less than the state would have appropriated, in theory, if not for the projected shortfall. Public schools are popular, more or less, and the political fallout would have been worse if not for the fact that the projected shortfall provided some cover. Education is Texas's single largest area of state spending. If you have to cut make serious cuts to the budget, there's almost no way for schools to escape unscathed, and that was the way most Republicans described the cuts at the time: tough, but necessary, and manageable.
Democrats, however, insisted that the cuts would be devastating, and that they weren't really necessary. On the latter point, Democrats were proven correct in 2013, when the comptroller reported an $8.8bn surplus for 2014-15. $8.8bn > $5bn; let's all hope that future generations of Texans are able to understand that piece of math as well as we are. And on August 28th, Judge Dietz's ruling on the school finance lawsuits gave them the upper hand on the first point. Republicans can argue about what the optimal level of school funding is, or might be, if greater efficiencies were realized, and attorney-general Greg Abbott has vowed to fight the ruling, but as it stands, the judge said that Texas's school funding is "inadequate", among other things.
In other words, the chickens may be coming home to roost on this, or at least the Democrats hope they are. Over the past few weeks Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and Mike Collier--the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and comptroller, respectively--have been hitting their Republican opponents for having supported the school cuts. Broadly speaking, all three are criticizing the 2011 cuts. But in my assessment, Davis's case is weak, Collier's is okaaaay, and Van de Putte's is good, but in a slightly poignant way. I'll explain why, after the jump.
Recent actions by state government have reinforced my belief that the state rarely does anything FOR the public; it only does things TO the public. The latest example is that Texas insurance commissioner Julia Rathgeber allowed the three largest home insurance companies to impose significant rate increases. Rathgeber could have challenged the companies' rates but chose not to do so. The state's insurance watchdog, the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, objected, but Rathgeber allowed the new rates to take effect anyway.
I was interested by Eric Bearse's piece in the Quorum Report yesterday concerning Wendy Davis and abortion. Bearse wrote, among other things:
I don't take issue with the fact that most Americans oppose late-term abortions. But that wasn't what the debate in the Senate wasn't about. It was about whether one woman could stand up to the Senate bullies.