The myth of “Texas exceptionalism”

Gov. Greg Abbott this week released his “2020 Report to the People of Texas,” in which he boasts – as countless Texas politicians of both parties before him have boasted — about the myth of “Texas exceptionalism.”

Go ahead. Call me a heretic for debunking the idea that my native state is exceptional. Yes, it is a nice place to live, maybe even a great place to live — for many people. Texas offers a lot for which we can be grateful.

But no state that has five million residents without health insurance is exceptional. No state whose leaders refuse to expand Medicaid services that could provide health care for many of these individuals, including school children and their families, is exceptional. The leaders, though, are exceptionally short-sighted, and health care was mostly missing from the governor’s report.

No state whose leaders care more about “state sovereignty” and its budget than they do about the care and safety of thousands of foster children is exceptional. Texas spent years fighting a federal judge’s demands that conditions for these vulnerable children be improved, and it remains to be seen what the future holds for these kids.

No state that ranks 39th in per-pupil spending and 27th in average teacher pay, as Texas did during the 2018-19 school year, is exceptional. Those figures may improve slightly for the current school year because, yielding to pressure from educators and other advocates, the governor and the Legislature last year appropriated an additional $6.5 billion for public education, including teacher pay raises, during this two-year budget cycle.

Abbott proudly pointed out that extra funding in his report. But the additional state money amounts to only a down payment on the resources that will be necessary to meet the needs of a growing student population in the years to come, and so far we have heard no commitment from the governor and legislative leaders that education will be a top priority again when the Legislature meets next year.

As a trade-off for the increased education funding, Abbott and legislators put tight restrictions on the ability of school districts and other local governments to raise property tax revenue for important public services in the future, including additional school funding and things like fire and police protection.

Abbott recently provoked a dispute with the city of Austin, complaining publicly on Twitter about homeless people camping in public places and wandering city streets. It was easier for the governor to complain than provide the adequate mental health care that many of these people need. And the tight tax restraints that the governor and his legislative allies placed on local governments will make it even more difficult for Austin and other cities to deal with homelessness. There is nothing exceptional about Abbott’s tweets and the mostly absent role of state leaders in addressing this issue.

In his report, Abbott boasts a lot about Texas’ friendly business climate and strong economic development record. But if Texas doesn’t continue to improve its school finance system and significantly improve its support structure for Texans in need, future governors will have to find something else to brag about.

“Texas is more than just a place on a map,” the governor’s report states. “It is a state of boundless opportunity – where the compass points north, south, east, west and up.”

Up for some people, anyway.

—Clay Robison


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