In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the 1980s, when competing black Democrats, some who couldn’t stand one another, got in elbowing matches to stand closest to black presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

Now U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has signed an anti-tax pledge at the state level. She says she signed a similar pledge at the federal level long ago. The new pledge came just after her fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Perry, whose job Hutchison wants, said Grover Norquist was coming to Texas to campaign with him.

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kay-bailey-hutchisonNorquist is president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform. He once said “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Hundreds of lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have taken Norquist’s pledge to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

So goes the gloves-off competition between Hutchison, the senior U.S. senator from Texas, and Perry, the longest-tenured governor in Texas history at almost nine years and aiming for 14.

Critics say this scrambling to kiss Norquist’s anti-tax ring might be funny if it weren’t so serious, as Perry tries to out-conservative Hutchison to win the blessing of the GOP’s right wing.

Perry’s cozying up to Norquist drew criticism from State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, the El Paso Democrat who represents one of the state’s poorest districts.

Shapleigh recently wrote a book called “Getting Out of Grover’s Tub,” blasting Norquist’s anti-government philosophy and its impact on legislatures and Congress – and Perry. It details the mess Shapleigh says Norquist’s anti-tax influence has created in Texas and what to do about it.

In a recent column, Shapleigh laid much of the blame for Texas’ problems on Perry channeling Norquist and how that is playing out in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

“When the extreme wing of the Republican Party values tax cuts for the wealthy over good schools for our children, Texas loses,” Shapleigh wrote. “Good government is of, by, and for people – and those irresponsible few who seek to starve government are really starving us.”

Texas, Shapleigh said, ranks 46th in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and dead last in the percentage of the population 25 and older with a high school diploma. Only 64 percent of ninth-graders graduate from high school within four years, and only 35 percent enter college,
Shapleigh said.

Even the Governor’s Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness, appointed by Perry, said Texas is badly lagging in developing an educated workforce, the senator noted.

“Texas is not globally competitive,” the commission flatly declared in a January report. “The state faces a downward spiral in both quality of life and economic competitiveness if it fails to educate more of its growing population (both young and adults) to higher levels of attainment, knowledge, and skills. The rate at which educational capital is currently being developed is woefully inadequate.”

Shapleigh added that after five legislative sessions with Perry as governor, Texas has the highest per capita rate of people without health insurance of any state. And college tuition has gone up 73 percent since deregulation in 2003.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer called Perry’s anti-tax pledge “the same political shell game that Rick Perry has been playing for eight years: You pledge not to raise people’s taxes, but you do things that will cause the price of government services to go up.

“Whether it is public education, healthcare services, college tuition, transportation, or business taxes, Texans are paying more for government services than they were eight years ago,” Schieffer, a former ambassador to Australia and Japan, said in a statement.

“Unfunded mandates, mismanaged healthcare policies, deregulated tuition, toll roads, business taxes, and the refusal of Gov. Perry to take federal dollars have all conspired to take more out of Texans’ pockets while he pledges not to raise taxes,” he charged.  “It is a cynical manipulation of the political process to blame increased government costs on somebody else, when you were the one who caused the price of the service to go up.”

Dave McNeely is a veteran Texas political reporter. He can be reached at