Bush's priorities? Look at Texas

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist, 7/25/2000

WASHINGTON -- No matter what you feel about what can be called ''the mess in Texas,'' the truth is that principle is more involved than accounting.

Most people are correct to pay no political heed to numbers indicating surplus, deficit, expenditures, and revenues. The real deal, the one that is capable to moving opinion and potentially votes, has to do with priorities.

After a couple of generations of the hoary maxim that the government's accounts (state and federal) are just like the family checkbook (they aren't), it's becoming more useful to think of government as the reflection of choices and consequences: You can do X, but that means you can't do Y.

In Texas, for example, you can use a third or more of the state's prosperity-driven budget surplus, currently in the vicinity of $1.5 billion for a two-year cycle, to cut property taxes in a way that benefits wealthy and corporate real estate owners the most, or you could finally give kids in Texas a statewide chance to go to kindergarten and make preschool similarly available to all who can't afford it (as in all normal people).

But you can't do both. And Bush has chosen.

Similarly, as the surplus decade begins (at least on paper), you can cut the top two income tax rates on the highest income-earners, or you can take Medicare all the way out of the federal budget swamp and use its current surpluses to help pay off the national debt as well as establish a universal prescription drug benefit within that system.

But you can't do both. And Bush has chosen.

That explains Texas more fully; it also explains the argument over the commitments worth making nationally over the next decade.

As an accounting argument, George W. Bush is justified in insisting that the state he has technically run for the last five years is in the black. And Al Gore is fudging words when he tries to use the likes of ''shortfall'' in his campaign rhetoric to imply otherwise. The fact is that the black ink overall from higher sales, energy severance, and other tax sources is likely to cover the operating deficits in the specific accounts of major state programs like health care and the sprawling prison system.

But Bush's debating victory on this point is Pyrrhic. For one thing, his much more successful fellow governors don't go around the country bragging about the fact that program deficits have already consumed at least 50 percent of the aniticipated surplus and that the rainy day fund is now down to a measly $250 million, enough to run the state for a day.

They especially don't brag that the program deficits just so happen to involve the public health and the public safety.

But the real issue is the Texas record, not the Texas budget, and here Bush takes his place as guardian of an especially miserable status quo.

Texas is not the Deep South. It is not a place with a tradition of exploitation by Yankee investors or a backward economy offering business operators a chance to get rich off cheap, nonunion workers.

Texas is different because Texas is wealthy. It is more than oil, natural gas, and real estate - the basis of a boom-and-bust life in the past; it is now fully modern, getting more so, and it is the country's principal suburb-dominated state next to New Jersey. And that makes its Deep South approach to social services for working families and the poor especially ugly.

It is a system that has worked this way - low taxes, no income taxes, and rock-bottom quality services - for decades. Bush is only the latest operator, and he has actually been less malevolent than many of his predecessors.

But the fact remains that because the choice has been low taxes and, in the Bush era's case, nearly $2 billion lower still, along with no modern regulation of either sprawl or industrial pollution, there have been consequences.

This is why Texas is more like Louisiana and Mississippi than Florida or Ohio. And this is why 10 percent of the uninsured kids in the entire country live there, why the squalid Colonias exist in south Texas, why Houston has the dirtiest air in the country, and why the state has the third highest death rate from asthma. It could do better, but it chooses not to.

This same philosophy looms on the nation's horizon, and again the question is less about budget surpluses than it is about priorities.

If you are in Bush's ideological shoes, you oppose investment in Medicare, expansion to cover drugs, universal preschool and health insurance for kids, not to mention financing retirement accounts as a supplement instead of a partial replacement for Social Security. You do that because after slashing the top income tax rates and abolishing the estate tax there's no money left to improve services.

Just like in Texas.

Thomas Oliphant is a Globe columnist.