Connecticut conservatives are looking to the west and sighing. Texas has a budget surplus. Texas has a booming economy. Why, they wonder while shaking their heads at the mess in Hartford, can’t Connecticut be more like Texas?
It’s tempting. The amount of debt per capita is half that of Connecticut’s, after all, and there is no income tax. Businesses move to Texas, unemployment is low at a cool 6.1 percent, and the population is young and growing. In fact, conservatives are pointing to Texas as a shining example of austerity politics that actually work: Texas’s legislature slashed education and social services to cover a massive budget gap in 2011, and have entered 2013 with a budget surplus. They didn’t even have to raise taxes to do it. From the troubled financial waters of Hartford, that looks pretty good.
And yet, there are plenty of reasons why the Texas model won’t work in Connecticut. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made for why it doesn’t work in Texas, either. First, the surplus Texas is enjoying comes in large part from the energy boom: rising energy prices and more drills and rigs are helping fuel fantastic growth. This is the sort of asset that resource-poor Connecticut won’t ever be able to exploit. Second, Texas did a few things that would be far more difficult to manage, here, including a masterful gimmick that delayed payment of over $2 billion to schools until the next budget cycle.
But the Texas model really doesn’t work because it is devastating for the people who actually live there. In order to balance the budget in 2011, the legislature gutted Medicare spending, shut four community colleges, and laid off 9,400 state employees for a start. The already-stressed public schools, which suffered a $4 billion cut, were especially hard hit. Class sizes increased, teacher aides and paraprofessionals vanished, classrooms were cleaned only every other day, and students were forced to walk up to two miles each way to school as bus service dried up. Not even the notoriously bulging prison system was spared; in some prisons they actually stopped serving lunch on weekends to save money.
This came in a state that already has an abysmal record when it comes to schools, poverty and health care. Texas is at or near the bottom of most 50-state rankings when it comes to public education and health care. In short, Texas has a rapidly growing population, but that population is largely poor, under-schooled, and under-insured. This is especially true of the state’s fast-growing Hispanic community.
And, while Texas has created an astonishing number of new jobs, they may not be great jobs to have. Wage-earners in Texas have long lagged the rest of the country, despite the state’s strong economy. Over the past few years, the number of Texans making at or below the minimum wage increased sharply. Texas ranks 45th in percentage of workers who have health insurance through their jobs. Connecticut, on the other hand, ranks second only to New Hampshire. The Texas legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who was briefly a 2012 presidential candidate, did a lot of chest thumping over the fact that their budget gap was closed without tax hikes, but they did no favors for the quality of life of many Texans.
This is not the model we want to follow. Our state already has a wide income and education gap between cities and suburbs, and cuts like this would make it difficult to ever bridge. Struggling cities and towns would find it nearly impossible to survive without either massive cuts or tax hikes. State employee layoffs would cause unemployment to skyrocket and the economy would get worse. Here’s the thing about austerity: in economies that are growing rapidly it can cause some survivable pain, but in fragile economies like Connecticut’s it can force the economy back into recession. The United Kingdom, an old industrial economy with many similarities to the northeastern states, found this out. Austerity measures are intended to help a government survive tough patches, but they backfire when all they do is make the tough patch longer and longer.
Spending discipline is to be admired, but not when it comes at the expense of public welfare. For all its faults, the balanced approach to the budget that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democrats took in 2011 was the right course for Connecticut.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.