Analysis: Texas is great — and ought to be better

The Texas Capitol. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 29, 2022

2022 is an election year, a chance for Texas voters to tell the people who represent them what the state needs and what it doesn’t need, to bear down on the biggest problems we face together and to ignore the distractions that keep us from that important work.

Texas has 5.5 million kids in public schools. They need the tools to continue the work, and the pandemic set them back. Teachers can tell you that, and parents, and so can the students themselves. It’s an urgent problem, and ought to be at the top of the list. The future is at stake.

For years, the state government has done too little to take care of Texans who need basic services or a safety net: foster children, those who need better health and mental care, rural residents who need hospitals and better infrastructure, people in blighted areas of cities and suburbs who need some of the same services, prisoners, adults who need training or help to get on their feet, and everyone left out of the game because of their race, their nationality, their religion, their gender, their ideology, their background or other differences that really shouldn’t matter when it comes to government and law.

The state’s border with Mexico needs hard work on coherent and humane policies for immigration, commerce, education and welfare instead of angry politicking that treats the thousands of people trying to reach the U.S. as a kind of state-run pest control issue that ruins local communities along the border, and the lives of immigrants in search of a better lives.

Law enforcement needs support: better training, a reconsideration of what police are asked to do, and whether that’s mainly enforcing the law or backstopping a social services network that’s underfunded and ineffective.

Taxpayers need attention, too. Property taxes in Texas are higher than in all but five other states, and continue to rise in spite of legislative efforts to tame them. The state has no income tax — and no evident appetite for one among the public or the politicians — and that makes the problem harder to solve. But underneath the need for better schools, policing and other services is a real issue with the price of government and where the government gets its money.

That’s an incomplete prompt for action. Make your own list, but make one, and do something with it. 2022 is an election year, and the people we send to Austin and Washington, to city hall, the county courthouse and the school board need support, and instruction.

Texas is a great state, but there’s a lot of work to do, and it starts with the public, and what Texans really want. The political class isn’t going to do this on its own.

A personal note: This is the last of the regular columns I’ve been writing since 2010, shortly after we started The Texas Tribune in 2009, and I want to thank you; Evan Smith, our indomitable leader; and the rest of my beloved Tribbies, past and present, for the opportunity to report and write about the country’s most interesting politics, government and people. It’s been a blessing, and I’m very grateful.

My biggest question when we started the Trib was whether Texans would be interested in the things we set out to reveal, explain and try to put into context. Civics and politics, honestly, were the classes I was most likely to ditch in high school and college; I found it was more interesting in real time, a noisy battle over ideas, life-and-death issues, silly and hilarious incidents, important events, some really boring meetings, and lots and lots of interesting people. Journalists get a backstage pass, a chance to see things not everyone gets to see, and all we have to do in return is tell the world what we’ve seen and to try to make some sense of it.

Readers make it fun to write columns, whether they are fans, crabs, experts, innocents or passersby, responding with everything from “Hey I want more of this,” to “What the hell were you thinking and when are you going to shut up?” And I want to nod to the biggest group of all — the quiet readers who don’t write back but have come along for the ride, hoping each column would give them some information, a laugh, a bit of insight or a chance to spit their morning coffee on the wall.

And my startup worries were quickly dispatched: Texans are interested in society and culture, in our communal efforts to understand and cope with it all, whether they’re actively involved or not. Thanks for that. We didn’t make this a success. You did.

I’m retiring with a full heart, excited and confident about the future of Texans, Texas and The Texas Tribune.

God bless you. It’s been a hoot.

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