A Weak Constitution
I love our state. I’ve canoed the Red River and skinny-dipped in the Pedernales. I’ve weathered dust storms, snowstorms, hurricanes, and nearly five decades of hotter-than-hell summers. I’ve hitchhiked and driven on the back roads and interstates of Texas, from the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast and eaten in more Dairy Queens than I’d like to admit. (Do I sound like a C&W song lyric yet?)
Heck, I’ve lived in almost every major and some not-so-major cities in Texas – Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Sherman, Victoria, and now beautiful Fort Worth. I’ve only lived outside of the state for any length of time on three occasions, in foreign climes from France to Mexico to Nebraska – which, to tell the truth, was the most alien of all. Once during Holy Week in Vera Cruz, Mexico, searching for a hotel room, I trudged through air so humid you could taste it. When I set my backpack down for a cold cerveza, the barkeep asked me where I was from. “De donde eres?” he asked, after I’d chugged a Modelo. “Soy tejano,” I said. No hesitation.
And so I am, but while I have an abiding love for the divergent ecosystems and personalities that fill our fair state, our state government is quite another thing entirely. I’ve lost count of how many times that bunch in Austin has tried and failed to reform our school finance system, but the truth is they don’t do a very good job on anything else either.
Listen to this list of categories where our state is in the top 10: teen birth rate, toxic and cancerous manufacturing emissions, clean water permit violations, numbers of executions, percentage of the population that goes hungry or is malnourished, and percentage of people without medical insurance.
Then consider the list of categories where we’re in the bottom 10: percentage of eligible voters who go to the polls, percentage of poor covered by Medicaid, state spending on child protection, average hourly wage, per capita spending on public health, SAT scores, and high school graduation rates.
Both lists make me mad as hell – and should make us all ashamed. The fact is that too many people suffer every day because of how poorly this state is run. It’s a damn disgrace.
Texas’ rep is that we’re rich, but it’s not true: We’re really a poor state with a lot of rich people running it for their benefit, and they don’t give a damn about anybody else and never have. We’re a low-tax, low-service state where the average person is as expendable as the fast-food trash you find along almost every major thoroughfare from Lampasas to La Marque.
But listening to our great leaders, you’d think nothing was more important than insuring that rich kids in Highland Park are guaranteed a much better than average education and keeping the pink menace – gays from evil San Francisco, parachuting in their spiffiest Metrosexual garb – from getting a foothold in our fair state.
As tempting as it would be for someone like me, who pitches from the left, to blame Perry and the other charter members of the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight for this state of affairs, that would be too easy. The problems of our state run much deeper than one party, even one in the midst of an ideological binge.
At its core, our problems can be traced to our 1876 post-reconstruction constitution, an unwieldy mess that’s been amended 431 times and stands as one of the longest state constitutions. (Our own Supreme Court has ruled that certain passages are too obscure to make heads or tails of.) And it hasn’t stopped growing yet. With its multiple checks and balances and weak central government, it’s a blueprint for how not to run a modern state. The document is living proof that the government that governs least doesn’t govern best, but hardly governs at all.
What we need is a 21st-century constitution for a 21st-century state. What we need are leaders who will not be deterred by past failures to change the constitution, most recently in 1974.
Of course, hoping for political visionaries might seem a pipe dream in a state where our local politicos are better known for their abject subservience to the bidness class than for any real leadership, but change is inevitable. I’m convinced that sooner rather than later we will replace – because we must – our anachronistic, ever-expanding constitution with a plan for a modern state government that will represent the will of all Texans, not just the well-heeled.
Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue is a part-time writer and full-time citizen. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.