By R.G. Ratcliffe and Peggy Fikac- Houston Chronicle
Web Posted: 10/27/2010 5:00 PM CDT
Editor's note: This story originally appeared Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010, exclusively in the print edition of the San Antonio Express-News.
AUSTIN — The statistics tell the tale of Rick Perry's decade as governor.
Perry has kept state spending and taxation in check. The economy has grown, and Texans are getting better-paying jobs.
But the poor have suffered. And Texas education has not fared as well as other states', endangering the state's ability to produce a competitive work force in the future.
Perry boasts the state's economy and job-creation environment are the healthiest in the nation. The Republican incumbent says it is because he has led the state in keeping spending, regulation and taxes low and predictable; reined in personal injury lawsuits; and funded accountable public schools.
"You betcha, Texans are better off," Perry said. "I don't think there's anything more important that a governor does than create the environment so people can have good jobs."
Business news organizations have praised Texas as the best place in the nation to do business. When CNBC offered similar plaudits, however, it warned that Texas ranks 30th in the nation in educating its work force, a possible sign of future trouble.
There also is a question of just how much state policy has affected the Texas economy. Former Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, was blamed in 1986 when the Texas economy failed as oil prices collapsed. Perry, he said, is the beneficiary of high oil prices.
"When you've got $70 oil, that has little to do with what the governor of Texas thinks," White said.
But Perry likes to talk about how people are "voting with their feet" by moving to Texas, and the U.S. Census Bureau says the state gained almost 480,000 people between 2008 and 2009. The state has been growing steadily since 1990.
The highest rate of growth — 4 percent — occurred in 2000, the year he replaced George W. Bush as governor.
Democratic challenger Bill White, no relation to Mark White, scoffed at the notion of Perry taking credit for the state's economy.
"He bears no responsibility for the fact that the southwestern part of the United States of America is doing better than other parts of the country," Bill White said. "He is like a rooster taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning."
He is willing, however, to blame Perry for Texas' shortcomings.
"Leadership is about building a public awareness of the direction in which the state should be heading, and making clear the alternatives," he said. "I believe that Texas has no leadership."
Some of the key areas where Perry's Texas can be measured are: the state budget, education, tort reform and social welfare services for the poor.
During Perry's tenure, the state's biennial budget has grown from $101.7 billion to $182.2 billion, including federal funds. Adjusted for inflation and population, the state budget has grown more than $12 billion.
Meanwhile, state debt, fueled by voter-approved bonds for highways, has grown from $5.7 billion in 2003 to $12.4 billion last year.
Perry said the issue is not whether the budget has grown but whether the money is spent responsibly.
He refuses to accept estimates that Texas is facing a budget shortfall of as much as $21 billion for the next two years. And he says his experience in guiding the state through a $10 billion shortfall in 2003 shows it can be done without tax increases.
That 2003 budget-balancing act included reductions that knocked about 220,000 children out of the Children's Health Insurance Program; deregulation of university tuition rates, which meant a big jump in college costs; and an estimated $2.7 billion in fee increases and reduced benefits for state employees.
A 2006 public school funding revamp helped pave the way for the state's current shortfall. At Perry's urging, lawmakers cut local school property tax rates to meet a court order to change the school finance system. That gave the state responsibility for a bigger share of public education funding, but lawmakers did not raise state taxes enough to cover the cost, creating a hole the state must fill each budget cycle.
At the same time, a growing number of school districts have said they're strapped for cash under the new system.
Schools are seeing an influx of poor and disadvantaged students, who are more likely to struggle academically and cost more to educate.
Steve Murdock, a Rice University sociology professor and former state demographer, has warned that without a remedy, Texas will face a bleak future that includes a drop of $6,500 in average household income by 2040.
"Unless the challenges are addressed, we're looking at a Texas that will be poorer and less competitive in the future than it is today," he said.
Texas has seen an uptick in its college graduation rate, but its national ranking has slipped. Only about 30 percent of students who entered community and technical colleges in fall 2003 got an associate's degree or higher in six years.
The six-year graduation rate for students who entered four-year institutions that fall was about 56 percent.
The Texas Grants financial aid program, which already falls far short of covering all eligible students, could be cut in the face of the budget shortfall — a prospect Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes termed "catastrophic."
Perry cited progress in increasing college enrollment, but Texas has fallen short of its Hispanic enrollment goals.
He also said the state is making progress with public schools and has made "substantial investments," citing an increase in average Texas expenditures per student.
Perry led the fight to limit lawsuits in the 2003 legislative session, and statistics show that effort accomplished its goal. The number of new personal injury lawsuits dropped from 32,094 in 2001 to fewer than 25,000 last year.
The Texas Medical Association reports that liability premiums for doctors have been cut an average of 27 percent since the 2003 limits. As a result, it says, 18,252 new physicians have been licensed.
"There is not an objective person who would look at that single issue and not say Texans are better off today than they were in 2001," Perry said.
George "Tex" Quesada, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said Texans should look at who has benefited from the "so-called" reforms.
"The list should begin with BP; insurance companies who thrive by denying and delaying claims; the drug companies whose products cause death and injury; nursing homes responsible for abuse and neglect of their residents; families devastated by medical malpractice; and shady businesses that commit fraud by the nickel," Quesada said.
When it comes to the state's poorest residents and addressing social ills, Texas is no better off than when Perry took office, and in some areas has grown worse.
One in five Texans lacked health insurance when Perry took office; one in four does now. Texas ranks dead last in the percentage of its residents covered by health insurance.
The percentage of low-birth-weight babies, an indicator of proper prenatal care, has grown during Perry's tenure. The birthrate to teenage mothers is almost unchanged. The percentage of Texans living in poverty has grown, as has the percentage getting nutrition assistance.
Perry said he improved health care in Texas by making more physicians available through tort reform and by promoting programs to give small employers incentives to provide health care to workers. Perry also noted he led the charge on creating a new cancer research fund.
Texas never has been a leader in paying for government services, some noted.
"Texas has for years — going back to when I was in the Legislature from '91 to 2001, and I'm sure before that — been at the bottom for most of the indicators regarding spending on health and human services, education," said former Democratic lawmaker Sherri Greenberg, interim director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "They're not better. They're not worse. ... To quote the Talking Heads, same as it ever was."