Radical right imposes austerity on Texas

AUSTIN, Texas – After three years in power, the Bush administration’s vision is coming more sharply into focus. Its foreign policy goal is to use military force to expand its domination of foreign markets; its domestic goal is to build a dictatorship of business so that corporations don’t just dominate government, they monopolize it. Both goals are poison for working people.

In Texas, the Bush domestic policy has advanced a little further than it has nationally. Corporate special interests, working through radical right-wing political candidates, have seized control of state government. Texas has always been a “business-friendly” (read anti-labor, anti-consumer) state, but today, state government serves big business exclusively.

The takeover was clinched last November when Republicans, using what some believe were illegal campaign contributions, wrested control of the only state institution not yet under its thumb – the state House of Representatives.

The next step for Republicans is to use their base in Texas to expand and consolidate their control of the federal government.





Austerity means cutbacks for workers

The right-wing takeover has been a disaster for working people in the state, especially those from minority communities. The recently concluded regular session of the Texas Legislature enacted a budget that imposes an austerity program on working families similar to the ones imposed on people in developing countries by the International Monetary Fund.

The Texas austerity budget hits African American and Latino families the hardest.

African Americans and Latinos make up about 78 percent of Medicaid enrollment and 61 percent of enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health care coverage for children of families who can’t afford health insurance premiums.

These programs suffered huge cutbacks.

The state budget cuts social services and health care for working people, makes it more difficult for working families to send their children to college, and sets up their public schools for failure. Related legislation eliminates thousands of state employee jobs by consolidating and privatizing health and human services.

Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine), speaking at the National Council of La Raza conference in Austin earlier this month, said the cuts in the state’s health and human services were especially damaging to Latinos. Gallego told the Austin American Statesman, that “75 percent of our budget is either health and human services or education, so if you’re looking for cuts, where do you go? And who’s impacted by the cuts? We are.”





Health care under the knife

Working families’ health care suffered some of the most severe cuts. Twenty-three percent of Texans do not have access to health insurance. This number will grow over the next two years. Enrollment in CHIP will decline 169,000 as a result of more stringent eligibility rules. Medicaid enrollment will drop by 332,000.

The counties with large minority populations will be most affected. Harris County (Houston), which has the state’s largest African American population, will lose over $353 million in combined Medicaid and CHIP money. Dallas County will be the next biggest loser.

The third biggest loser is Hidalgo County on the Mexican border. Its population is predominantly Latino, many first- or second-generation immigrants.

In addition, more than 18,000 elderly and chronically ill children and adults will no longer qualify for Medicaid and about 8,300 fewer women will receive pre-natal care each month through Medicaid.

Many working families will see their health care benefits sharply reduced. The Los Angeles Times tells the story of such a family, the Kolodziejczyks of Victoria in south Texas. Billy Kolodiejczyk, who works as a mechanic for an annual salary of $23,400, and Sharon, who works temporary jobs at $8 an hour, have two teenage sons with Type 1 diabetes. They require daily insulin injections and special equipment to keep their blood sugar levels in check.

Currently, the Kolodziejczyks qualify for CHIP. Most of their $800 monthly medical bills, including medical equipment for each son, are covered by CHIP. When the CHIP eligibility rules required by the new budget go into effect in September, Sharon will have to quit temping in order for her sons to stay on CHIP. Even if they remain on CHIP, the Kolodziejczyks’ out-of-pocket medical expenses will increase substantially. CHIP will no longer cover the boys’ medical equipment.





Education to suffer, too

The Texas budget cuts will also make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the Kolodziejczyks and other working families to send their children to college.

Presently, Texas offers some of the lowest tuition in the nation at its public universities, but the cuts will soon end all that. To allow universities to make up some of their fund cuts, the legislature deregulated tuition and allowed each university system in the state to set its own tuition. Rates could rise by as much as 23 percent by January 2004. In a state where 30 percent of the households earn $25,000 a year or less, this kind of increase could keep many qualified students out of college.

Public education took a big hit from the state budget. Teachers will have to pay a bigger share of their health care and retirement costs, in effect reducing their take-home pay. This pay cut will cause many experienced teachers to quit and worsen the shortage of qualified teachers in the state.

Once again, minorities will bear the brunt of the damage. African Americans and Latinos make up 56 percent of the state’s public school students.





Anti-Latino bias

The Latino community took heavy hits from other legislation that passed during the session, as well. Marcela Urrutia, a policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, told the American Statesman, “It was a very difficult session.” Urrutia noted that attempts to provide access to Medicaid for documented immigrants and legislation allowing immigrants to use their consular identification to obtain drivers’ licenses failed. Latino immigrants won one small victory, though: the attempt to stamp “non-citizen” on their drivers’ licenses was defeated.

State workers also come out on the short end of the austerity program. Legislation that consolidates health and human service agencies and privatizes jobs will hit state employees hard. The Texas State Employees Union estimates that job losses due to privatization of eligibility services alone could be as high as 10,000.





Big money behind the Right

The key to the Republican victories last November was large, last-minute contributions from businesses around the state.

The Texas Association of Business (TAB), the state’s largest business trade association, collected contributions and forwarded them to Texans for a Republican Majority, founded by U.S. House Speaker Tom DeLay. Texans for a Republican Majority used this money in an “attack ad” campaign and coordinated work with individual right-wing candidates.

This spring an Austin grand jury began investigating these contributions for possible violations of a state law prohibiting corporations from donating money to political candidates. Four officials from TAB were called to testify before the grand jury and were asked to name the businesses that made contributions. All four refused, and were found in contempt of court. They are awaiting a decision on their appeal. If they ever are forced to name contributors, those named will no doubt turn out to be those who profited most from this session of the legislature.





Texas: Part of a national game plan?

The 2002 elections didn’t just sweep radical right-wingers into power; they made possible the establishment of what amounts to a dictatorship of business in Texas. With right-wingers in control of judicial, executive, and legislative branches, business power, while always dominant in the state, is now unchecked.

The goal of the Bush administration and the Republican Party is to extend this dictatorship to Washington. To do this they will have to maintain the presidency in 2004, gain 60 Senate seats to create a filibuster-proof Senate, and increase the number of radical right-wingers in the House so that DeLay can consolidate his authoritarian rule.

That is why Gov. Rick Perry, after consulting with DeLay, pushed for a congressional redistricting plan in Texas that would guarantee that five to seven traditionally Democratic seats would be replaced by right-wing Republicans. The plan would redraw congressional district boundaries to dilute minority voting strength by shifting predominantly African American and Latino urban communities into congressional districts dominated by affluent, white, suburban voters. On the very face of it, such a move appears to violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and is likely to result in a lawsuit or calls for a Justice Departments investigation.

About 50 Texas House Democrats made headlines last May when they crossed over into Ardmore, Okla., to deny the House a quorum and to frustrate Republican plans to ram through the redistricting plan. Texas Republicans sought the assistance of Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security to track down, arrest, and drag the legislators back, all to no avail.

Since that time, Gov. Perry has called a special redistricting session of the legislature.

As expected, the House quickly passed the redistricting proposal, but major snags were encountered in the Senate when at least one Republican, Sen. Bill Ratliff, joined the Democrats in opposing it.





Prospects for a turnaround

There are signs of potential for building a progressive electoral movement that can defeat the right-wingers.

First, the redistricting plan has galvanized a fightback. In Brownsville, on the Mexican border, the GI Forum, a civil rights group of Latino military veterans, took over a redistricting hearing and exposed it as a sham. Thousands of people came to hearings in other cities to testify against redistricting and tens of thousands contacted their legislators to oppose it.

These actions have started to pay off. The biggest blow to redistricting came on July 14 when Sen. Ratliff said that he would vote against bringing a redistricting map before the Senate for a vote. Ratliff, who is concerned because his rural district would be included in a district dominated by affluent Dallas suburbs, has so far refused to support the plan.

His decision, combined with 10 Democratic senators who said that they would vote against bringing redistricting legislation before the Senate, has temporarily blocked the measure.

Looking ahead, one key to building a progressive electoral majority in Texas is to give working-class and minority voters a reason to vote. In the past, issues that have dominated state elections have been issues of concern to suburban voters – keeping taxes down, letting their school districts keep local revenue instead of sharing it with poorer urban districts, etc. Working-class and minority issues – an unfair judicial system that primarily victimizes young African American and Latino men, a lack of funding for urban school districts, lack of health care, social services, access to higher education, and opportunities to hold decent paying jobs – are rarely part of the discourse during elections.

Minorities will soon no longer be the minority in Texas. If workers and minorities have a reason to vote, and if larger numbers are registered and mobilized to vote for candidates who support their issues, it could mean the end to the right-wing’s grip on the Lone Star state.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org