Forced at gunpoint this weekend to clean out a lot of old paper files in anticipation of some home improvements, I ran across some articles and obituaries I had saved following the death, a little more than five and a half years ago, of the late, great Ann Richards, former governor of Texas.
One of them related the story of how Governor Richards was approached by the ACLU, which was disturbed by the presence of a Christmas crèche on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. "You know," she replied, "that's probably as close as three wise men will ever get to the Texas Legislature, so why don't we just let them be."
Yet another late, great woman of Texas, journalist Molly Ivins once said of that same august body, "All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people. As long as you don't think about what that peculiar body should be doing and what it actually is doing to the quality of life in Texas, then it's all marvelous fun."
This comes to mind in the wake of this week's release of "Texas on the Brink," a pamphlet published annually by the Texas Legislative Study Group, a group of Democratic state lawmakers. According to their research, much of it corroborated by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Texas Legislative Budget Board, in 2011, "Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. Texas is dead last in the percentage of residents with their high school diploma and near last in SAT scores. Texas has America's dirtiest air... Those who value tax cuts over children and budget cuts over college have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed."
Over the years, such statistics and other damned shenanigans have led many to debate whether Texas is indeed the rightful landlord of the nation's worst statehouse. As someone with a mother's Lone Star blood flowing through his otherwise anemic northeastern veins, I write this with no small amount of perverse pride. But in the last couple of weeks a lot of other states have been giving Texans a run for their money.
Last week, the Utah Senate passed a bill that would make the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol the state's official firearm. Senate President Michael Waddoups read a letter from a seventh grader praising the bill because the M1911 is used to kill Nazi zombies in the videogame "Call of Duty: Black Ops." Waddoups said the kid is "doing some thinking." You betcha. The Associated Press reported, "The letter closes with the child acknowledging that guns can cause violence when used in a bad way, but guns also show other countries who is the boss." American exceptionalism at its finest.
In Missouri, State Senator Jane Cunningham has introduced a bill that would, in the words of progressive website ThinkProgress, "dramatically claw back" state child labor restrictions, including the prohibition on employment of children under the age of fourteen and regulations on the number of hours a child may work during the day. South Dakota was contemplating -- but just tabled, thank goodness -- a bill that critics feared would expand the definition of justifiable homicide to include the murder of doctors who provide abortions. Idaho's debating a bill to nullify Obama's health care reform and in Arizona legislators are sponsoring one that would allow the state to nullify any Federal law it doesn't particularly care for.
I would ask what's gotten into them but I think we all know. As noted by Tim Storey, senior fellow of the National Conference of State Legislatures, since the midterm elections, "There are now more Republican state legislators (3,941) than at any point since they held 4,001 seats after the 1928 election... Twenty-two state legislative chambers changed majority control in the 2010 election cycle -- all in the direction of the GOP." Many of the newly elected members were endorsed by Tea Party organizations or have rushed to embrace the Tea Party's inchoate, right wing agenda as a means to safeguard reelection.
In so doing they have opened a Pandora's box of legislative mayhem that not only plays to the social conservatism that would return us to the days of Cotton Mather and the ducking stool but which also uses the Tea Partiers' lust to slash spending as a dodge -- not to balance budgets and eliminate deficits, as they claim, but to further stifle government and other institutions dedicated to the common good.
This is supremely manifest in renewed efforts by governors and statehouses across the country to enact right-to-work laws and restrict wages and benefits for members of public service employee unions.
According to the AFL-CIO, legislators in at least 11 states, including Minnesota, Ohio, New Hampshire and Missouri are proposing anti-union laws that would cut pay and lower standards of living for workers. The labor organization claims, "Instead of creating jobs and solving the problems of middle-class working families, some state politicians are... saying 'Thank you' to the corporate CEOs who financed their 2010 election victories by pushing legislation to cut good jobs, lower wages, threaten job safety and weaken unions.' (Full disclosure: I am the president of a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, albeit a small one that neither endorses candidates nor has a political action committee.)
This push most dramatically has come to a head in Wisconsin where, in the name of austerity, newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker is attempting to stamp out public workers' collective bargaining rights. His attack on the unions -- including a threat to call out the National Guard -- has been met by outrage and a mass exodus of Democratic legislators out of the state, thus denying Republicans a quorum at the Wisconsin Senate in Madison. (You may recall that Democrats in Texas pulled a similar ploy in 1979 and 2003 by hiding or going on the lam to nearby states, including Oklahoma and New Mexico. This prompted New Mexico's then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, to announce: "I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy.")
Although Governor Walker claims Wisconsin is in desperate financial straits, the state had been coping better than most and, according to Madison's Capital Times newspaper "has managed so well, in fact, that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently released a memo detailing how the state will end the 2009-2011 budget biennium with a budget surplus."
The paper editorialized, "To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker's new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the 'crisis' would not exist... Unfortunately, Walker has a political agenda that relies on the fantasy that Wisconsin is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy."
It's all part of that notorious separate reality in which Republicans and the right have taken up seemingly permanent residence. Democrats can hope the other side has overreached. The party will fight to win back the many seats they've lost in the states. But then again, as another wise elder of Texas politics once said, if you took all the fools out of the legislature, it would no longer be a representative body.
Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.