Special to the Star-Telegram
Will Rogers suggested that we be thankful for not getting all the government we pay for. As we enter the final days of this campaign season, Texans should hope that we get something better than what statewide politicians have been babbling about.
Although the political pablum promoted by so many candidates might be pollster-approved, it is uninspiring public policy. This election year, like so many others, has given Texans a paltry preview of the challenges that we face, and even fewer workable solutions.
The biggest issues that we face have been ignored, trivialized or addressed incorrectly. These issues are not sexy, nor are the solutions simple, but each affects every Texan in profoundly personal ways. These include the exploding homeowners insurance crisis, rising problems in health care, lawsuit abuse, traffic congestion, school property taxes, mediocre schools and reining in state spending.
The candidates for statewide office would have us believe that the solution to the insurance crisis is greater regulation. Although acting like a legislative Dirty Harry might enhance a candidate’s machismo, increasing Texas’ already heavy regulatory environment is akin to trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Texas has the highest homeowners premiums in the country and is the most heavily regulated marketplace. Even though the Texas Department of Insurance does not regulate the price of most homeowners policies, it heavily regulates the risks that each policy must cover.
Consumers end up paying for more coverage than they may want or need. These mandates drive consumers and insurers out of the market because neither can afford the demands of the regulators.
We should fundamentally reform Texas’ insurance system along the lines of Illinois, which has low regulation and very low prices for insurance.
The basic problem is repeated in health insurance; Texas leads the nation in uninsured population. But when one considers that a third of those Texans could afford insurance, the question must be asked why they obviously perceive health insurance to be a waste of money.
Perhaps it is because Texas outpaces the nation in mandates on health coverage. Although demanding that all health insurers provide specific services is politically appealing, the simple fact remains that every mandate adds a cost to the consumer.
Just fixing the regulatory environment will help, but costs will drop more when Texas seriously addresses lawsuit abuse. Much ado is made about medical malpractice, for good reason, but the issue is much broader.
For instance, 70 percent of all homeowner mold claims nationwide in 2001 were filed in Texas. The link between mold and illness isn’t scientifically apparent, but its link to cash for Texas’ personal injury trial lawyers is readily apparent.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently rated Texas’ liability system as one of the five worst in the nation. Class-action lawsuits are a dime a dozen here, and that must be fixed.
Additionally, common-sense measures — such as ensuring that people are held liable only in proportion to their responsibility — are needed to make Texas an economically safe place to work.
Even getting to work is a challenge. Few issues more directly affect every Texan on a daily basis than traffic congestion. Yet policies guiding transportation are relegated to political nonexistence after candidates promise to fill proverbial potholes. Gov. Rick Perry should be praised for presenting a serious, comprehensive proposal.
If Texas grows during the next two decades as it has in the last two, our approach to transportation policy must radically change. Private investors financing toll projects constitute our best hope for alleviating congestion, and such projects come at little expense to taxpayers.
Our tax dollars should fund only solutions that reduce the time that people spend commuting, for the least amount of money. The comparison of cost-to-benefit is a part of everyone’s personal economics, as it should be in transportation financing.
Politician after politician is promising to “do something” about school finances. What? When? If the campaign is an indicator, don’t expect much.
Any “fix” to school financing will create perceived winners and losers; politicians hate that. The issue is too complex for 30-second TV ads and even most newspaper accounts. That does not excuse candidates from providing detailed plans for re-working a hideous system.
As with transportation, we must fund only education policies that work. Texas has no established measure for determining which public school programs succeed in educating children. Until we have such a measure, school finance will continue to be an expensive joke.
Politicians endlessly demagogue about the need for parental involvement in education; yet they demur at the mention of school choice, despite evidence of effectiveness. Too many legislators tremble before a vocal, anti-choice coalition of teacher unions locking low-income, minority children in unsafe, urban schools that fail to educate them.
The clearest voice for school choice is Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston. It’s too bad that members of his own party won’t listen to him. Poll after poll of urban residents, minority voters and low-income parents say they want school choice for their kids. But teacher unions have cash, thereby trumping the kids.
For the last year, candidates have mumbled about “scrubbing the budget” to deal with projected cash-flow problems without offering real solutions. Texas families have scrubbed their budgets and found ways to cut spending and reduce expenditures.
Similarly, we must strengthen the spending limitations in the Texas Constitution, as advocated by representatives like Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, the Legislature’s only CPA. Colorado’s state spending is tied to population growth and inflation, a lead we could follow.
We should shamelessly copy what works in other states. Innovative fixes to public problems abound; implementing an income-based sliding scale for Medicaid co-payments could save billions of dollars.
Although many legislators from both parties are ready to offer intelligent solutions to the complex problems of the day, Texans wouldn’t know it from the tone of this campaign season. Blame the media; blame the candidates; blame ourselves.
In a little more than 10 days, the intellectually vacuous campaign of ’02 will be mercifully behind us, but the challenges loom ahead. Texans will rise to the occasion, even if our politicians are stuck in the mud.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is director of media and government relations in Austin for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.