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Issue XXIV: Does Rural Nostalgia inhibit Texas from addressing its Urban Needs?

21 Mar

“Edwards is just now climbing down out of the trees.  He’s way ahead of some of his people, but what he doesn’t know is that most of us came into town one Saturday a few years ago and stayed… We’re urban, by God.  All of a sudden the people in the metropolitan areas outnumber the rednecks… They come into town – they buy little houses and color television and Volkswagen cars.  Edwards is still pitching to the Church of Christers and the pickup truck crowd.” – Governor Fenstemaker in The Gay Place

Almost fifty years ago, Billy Lee Brammer opined that rural politicians in the Legislature were holding back the modernization of the state in his classic novel about Texas politics. Governor Arthur Fenstemaker (a thinly-disguised clone of Lyndon Baines Johnson) astutely plays both the liberals and the conservatives for the largely progressive goals of hospital construction and increasing school funding, mixing politics with passion and compromise with conviction. Brammer, a former Johnson aide, saw in his former boss an ability to extract large contributions and promises from the wealthy while doing what he wanted to do anyway to push Texas into the twentieth century. LBJ defeated a living legend, cowboy-governor Coke Stevenson, in the historic 1948 U.S. Senate race using modern media, targeting urban voters, and stealing votes. It was only logical that his alter-ego Governor Fenstemaker would proclaim the coming end of rural “reactionary” rule1.

But Brammer had it wrong; we still celebrate and cling to our rural heritage and mythology despite our Census numbers2. Texas has three of the largest cities in the United States and is one of the most urbanized states in the country. Houston is second to New York in corporate headquarters and has the biggest medical center in the world. We are one of the few majority-minority states. Yet we are most famous for Anglo cowboy folk culture and a recent president who proudly called Midland, Texas his hometown.

Our political culture, as far as I have observed in Austin, has not yet moved to embrace our urban reality of underfunded schools, mental health needs, pollution, drug abuse, crime, and our huge uninsured population. Thick Texas accents still dominate the speech of our part-time Legislature. But is accepting our urban nature and moving to a full-time, annual, proactive big-government Legislature really the solution?

In an address to a local chamber of commerce, Senator Hegar proudly stated that Texas is one of only four or five states that meets biennially. “Unlike New York and California, we have a part-time Legislature. And the point of the system is to prevent us from passing laws and expanding government,” he said. A trained lawyer who returned to farming because law did not interest him, he perhaps best represented this urban to rural mindset. Senator Hegar also pointed out that New York and California, the two states most similar to us in demographically, are in a budget crisis. Our limited government mentality made us one of only five states with a budget surplus (the others being the small, energy-rich states of Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska, and Montana). “I am glad I don’t have to deal with a $40 billion shortfall like California legislators did,” he reminded the audience.

Representative Zerwas pointed out to me that Texas is only growing so much faster than the nation as a whole because have been having so much job growth. A popular statistic bandied around Austin was that “70% of job growth” in the United States in recent years was in Texas. Might our “pro-business” and “limited government” regulatory environment be the key to this job growth?

But everyone knows the population explosion is in cities and almost everyone wants the state to regulate businesses like insurance fairly. A comical demonstration of a rural mentality outstaying the reality on the ground was Representative Bill Callegari’s complaint that Katy subdivision sprawl has been encroaching closer and closer towards his farm and “if it weren’t for the recession, they’d probably be across the street from my house.” He clearly represented an urban/suburban district but came from a generation almost farfetched from the daily life of his constituents.

I do not think that these country politicians are bad people or even bad representatives of their districts. And I do not think that a rural politician is incapable of understanding or moving forward on Texas’s real urban needs like mental health funding. But I do think a wide-open spaces cowboy mentality does honestly prevent us from moving forward if we pretend our state is something that is not, and perhaps never was. Should we limit our future to a mythic history conjured up by University of Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb over seventy years ago?

This may soon change: our state’s biggest political dramas involve the overthrow of a small town West Texas businessman as Speaker of the House and the pending gubernatorial primary between the urban Kay Bailey Hutchison and rancher Rick Perry. With the former conflict resolved in the favor of a San Antonio businessman, it may be that a mindset shift is pending in the new millennium. In the end, that change will have to come from the public at large and when they ratify that change at the ballot box.


  1. Caro, Robert. Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Vintage 1991.

  2. Ennis, Michael. “No Hat, No Cattle.” Texas Monthly January 2005.


“North American Union”

3 Mar

Doctors, nurses, cotton farmers, rose gardners from Tyler, and anti-toll road campaigners run loose today in the Capitol, packing the House Gallery more than at any time I have ever seen.   The representative from San Antonio introduces the anti-Trans-Texas Corridor group TURF by saying that they are “grassroots… and seek to stop the creation of a North American Union.”  At that point, the TURFites cheered, and someone shouted, “Restore the Republic!”

The American Republic or the Texas Republic? I wasn’t sure.  I think it is a bit of a Ron Paul crowd, but their cause probably is justified.

On watching testimony for foster care

24 Feb

I thought of Ben Sargent’s cartoon from January 22, 2009.

Mr Bumble ran into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, “Mr Limbkins, I beg your pardon sir!  Oliver Twist has asked for more!”

There was a general start.  Horror was depicted on every countenance.  “For more?” said Mr Limbkins.

Does it exist?

24 Feb

If someone turns 100 and it isn’t announced on the House of Representatives floor, did it happen?

If it is Waco Day and no one celebrates it in the House, is it really?

If a soldier dies in Iraq and no gives the family a standing ovation in the Capitol, does it mean any less?

Shocking testimony on Mental Health

23 Feb

A teacher from Lamar High School in Houston testified about his son’s death from paranoid schizophrenia at age 31.  He started by saying that his son did well in school and made it to college on a full scholarship and was on the track team.  His son married and had two children; by 23, psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia.   He believed that the government and/or aliens were out to get him, and the voices in his head were so loud he could not sleep without sedation.  The following is my transcript from memory about the shocking state of Texas mental health (48th out of 50 in mental health funding):

“How was I to know that in Houston, the medical capital of the United States, there were only two psychiatric facilities that were barely making it? How was I to know that the the Harris County Jail treats more people than the entire state mental hospital system? How was I to know that there are no long term facilities for mental health?  How was I to know that insurance in Texas discriminates against mental health?  How was I to know that it would be impossible to put him in a state hospital?  And I had insurance and a good job.  If this were an elderly person with Alzheimer’s, we wouldn’t be letting them sleep under bridges and laugh and call the lazy.  This is immoral.

As the psychoses got worse, his son started to get into trouble with the law.  First, he broke down the door of his girlfriend’s apartment at 2AM to save her from aliens.  Then he jumped into someone’s car which was similar to his dad’s, accusing the owner of stealing his father’s car.  At this arrest, his father was asked to bail his son out.  After thinking and discussing it, he left his son in jail because he knew he could get better mental health treatment in jail since long-term (6-12 months) treatment was the only thing that would work on him.  And it was impossible to get it outside of jail.  “Imagine having to speak to your son between glass, through a phone, wearing an orange jumpsuit… I hope you never have to bury your son, and I think our curent system is cruel and immoral to the mentally ill.”

Mental Health in Lubbock

23 Feb

The Sheriff of Lubbock testified on behalf of mental health funding arguing that the lack of mental health treatment in the state leads to increasing crime.  The biggest psychiatric facility in the state is the Harris County jail (2,000 inmates are on medication).  There has been a 10 year relationship between between Lubbock law enforcement and the state mental health agency.  “Every officer is required to have a relationship with MHMR (Mental Health and Mental Retardation),” said the Sheriff.  “Even if this doesn’t save money this should be done because it is the right thing to do,” he said.

Interesting place for a progressive and proactive approach to mental health.  Way to go Lubbock!

Exchanges on Abstinence-Only Sex Education

23 Feb

In the House Appropriations Subcommittee, the Dept. of Health and Human Services testified about their budget needs.  At one point, the budget analyst projected a loss of federal funds because of the probable end of federal funding of abstinence-only sex ed.  An approximate transcription:

Q: So why is this funding ending?

A: We anticipate that the federal government will stop its $9.8 million funding this year for abstinence-only education.  We still have $1.8 million (don’t remember exact number) in state money for the program.

Then Ellen Cohen who represents the Texas Medical Center in Houston said, “If the federal government will stop funding it because it doesn’t work, why should we continue to fund it?”  A (I assume) Republican responded, “It doesn’t work? I have never heard that. ”  Then (upset at the budget analyst), “I think you should tell us if programs aren’t working so we can fund something else.”   Representative Isett (R-Lubbock) then scornfully said, “My understanding is that if you don’t have sex, you don’t get pregnant.  I don’t think there is any disputing that.”  Ellen Cohen responded (D-Houston), “Everything I have read about it shows me that these programs don’t work.”  It was then agreed that the subcommittee needed to study the issue further.

God save Texas.