Stubborn but adaptable, Texas faces many challenges

After spending the Republican National Convention in Texas, I can’t shake the feeling that the whole thing happened there.

That is, of course, ridiculous. The convention was in Cleveland, Ohio, not Cleveland, Texas.


David Crisp

But the convention’s most memorable moment was pure Texan: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pointedly declined to endorse Donald Trump, the party’s nominee. The next day, Cruz made it clear that he was still angry at the way Trump insulted his wife and father during the presidential campaign.

In the old days, a Texan whose family was picked on would not have debated whether to endorse the man who did the insulting. He would have debated whether to challenge the man to a duel or just punch him in the nose.

But Texas is a rapidly changing state these days. For decades it has been a conservative’s dream: low taxes, weak regulations and traditional values, accompanied by rapid job growth, rich natural resources and a booming population.

The year I was born in Texas, in 1950, the state had fewer than 8 million people. Now its population is estimated at 27 million. While Texas likes to envision itself as a land of cowboys and wildcatters, it has become a big urban state.

With all of that growth, Texas faces a growing array of challenges. Let’s start with the issue that concerns Trump the most: illegal immigration. About two-thirds of Texas’ population growth since 2000 has been Hispanic, and an estimated 1.8 million illegal immigrants live there.

With a population that Is now 38 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black, the day when minorities become the majority is at hand. For some Texans still proud of the Confederacy, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

If Trump walls off Mexico, the implications for Texas are enormous. Consider just one: Mexico has provided a cheap source of labor, legal and otherwise, for generations. The debate over what would happen if that supply were cut off is vigorous; you can find a study to reinforce whatever position you care to take.

A study this year by the Texas Public Policy Foundation was inconclusive, but it did find that the major cost associated with illegal immigrants was the cost of enforcing immigration laws. Trump would multiply that cost many times.

Texas’ tight-fisted fiscal policy also has had consequences.

In public schools, Texas spending per pupil fell 8.7 percent from 2008 to 2013, and Texans spend $2,400 per student less than the national annual average. High school graduation rates have soared, but critics say other measures of student achievement have not, which suggests that students getting high school diplomas haven’t necessarily learned much.

That’s exactly what a Texas judge found in 2014 when he ruled that the Texas school funding system was unconstitutional.

“An alarming percentage of Texas students graduate high school without the necessary knowledge and skills to perform well in college,” Judge John Dietz of Austin found.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the ruling this May, but the court urged legislators to make “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

Higher education is in no better shape. In 1970, the year when I might have been a freshman if I had had a higher draft number, tuition at public colleges and universities was $104 a year for 15 credit hours per semester. By 2002 it was $2,257, a rate of increase nearly twice the national average.

Texas higher education funding per full-time student fell 21 percent from 2001 to 2012. At the same time, financial aid also declined, resulting in much heavier debt for students. One study found that although the median household income in Texas is below the national average, tuition and fees at its flagship institutions are higher than for the nation as a whole.

Parks funding also has lagged behind other states. User fees in Texas state parks nearly doubled in the 1990s, when Texas was 49th in per capita spending on state parks. Much of the funding was restored in 2015, but Texas needed to spend an estimated $600 million just in deferred maintenance on its neglected parks. And many of the parks lie far from the rapidly growing urban areas—California has four times as much parkland per capita.

The long-frozen gasoline tax has chipped away at Texas’ longstanding pride in its road system. Funding has not kept up with demand, and Texas now has 25 toll roads, covering some 950 miles. Plaintiffs who filed a class-action suit alleging mismanagement and excessive fees in the toll road system fear that Texas is creating a two-tier transportation system to match its two-tier education system and two-tier economy: one for the wealthy, another for everybody else.

The great leveler is climate change. Because of its southern latitude and long, low-lying coastline—my hometown, 60 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, was just 97 feet above sea level—Texas is expected to get hit earlier and harder than most states.

To a Montanan, a January day two or three degrees warmer has a certain appeal. But in a state already sweltering in 100-degree heat, climate change could be catastrophic.

Can Texas hold its own? We saw some encouraging signs. When we lived in East Texas three decades ago, Tyler wasn’t just in the Bible belt; it wasn’t even just the buckle of the Bible belt. It was the prong on the buckle of the Bible belt—dry, rigid and repressed.

But on this visit, we ate excellent seafood in Tyler while drinking Texas-brewed beer and watching blacks and whites talking and dancing freely. If Tyler can get it, who can’t?

We saw taquerias and doughnut shops blanketing the state. We saw a shop devoted exclusively to the sale of hot sauce. The architectural wonder of Texas’ justly renowned old courthouses still reflects the notion that Texans may not want a lot of government, but they want the government they have done right.

And after reading that Texas generates twice as much wind power as any other, my wife and I counted hundreds of windmills in West Texas spinning in the ever-present breeze. Working oil wells? Just a smattering.

That’s the old Texas spirit—stubborn but adaptable, a state unwilling to give in, even to its own demons.

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