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Analysis: Holding Texas Lawmakers Accountable Isn’t So Simple

The state government has been stable for long enough that those in charge should get tagged with what that government is doing wrong.

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Instead of talking about the things that candidates want to do, maybe we should talk about the things they’re doing.

Texas voters put a bunch of new people in statewide office in 2014, but they were replacing a Republican government with a Republican government. Some of the faces were in new jobs, some people moved on and some people moved up.

But the state government has been stable for long enough that the people in charge deserve to get tagged with what that government is doing wrong.

Candidates (mainly those who are running behind) like to blame the news media when voters don’t connect the dots between their officeholders and the acts of the government. That ignores the source of the parade of horribles listed here: Those were stories unearthed by journalists.

To wit: “On any given day in the past six months, nearly a thousand of Texas' ‘highest-priority’ children — considered by the state to be at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse — were not checked on even once by Child Protective Services investigators. Another 1,800 of those kids were seen by investigators, but not within the required 24-hour window following an urgent report of possible abuse or mistreatment.”

That’s the top of a story by The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters. A few days earlier, Charles Smith, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said his agency needs another 1,300 employees and "a little north of $400 million" to solve that and similar problems. (Another Walters story highlighted hundreds of disabled kids whose therapies are threatened when underpaid providers pull out of state programs.) That’s on the Legislature’s tab — not Smith’s. His job is to do his best with what he’s got. If he’s got too little, that’s on them.

Here’s another big mess in state government that it doesn’t hurt officeholders to ignore: school finance. It’s big, boring, hard to explain and the source of a lot of taxpayer pain. But it doesn’t come up in election flyers; those are more likely to mention testing or class sizes, or who’s using what restroom.

Lawmakers have kept the complicated mechanism that pays for operating schools — sometimes fairly and sometimes not fairly — for decades. They have never really fixed it. Their lawyers have spent entire careers arguing about it in court. And the underlying problems with that machine feed your anger about property taxes and state spending even if you’re not aware of it.

If voters — on their own or at the behest of political challengers — aren’t connecting the actions of their officeholders to their unhappiness about this or that program in government, the incumbents will remain safe.

It’s curious that elected officials in Texas seldom have to answer to voters for state government’s flops. They make the policy and the law and set the budgets, then blame state employees when things don’t work out.

It’s not all bad news on the government front. Over here is Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court working to make sure indigent defendants can afford lawyers, and over there, a small gang of conservatives and liberals trying to make it harder to hold people in jail for long periods before the trials that will determine whether they’re innocent or guilty. Give them credit for trying.

Campaigns don’t think these kinds of government foul-ups move voters, and maybe they’re right. They’re tied to their polling and whatever they were planning when they jumped into their races almost a year ago, and they measure their success by wins and losses — not by how well the government runs.

Imagine how things might work if they did.

Challengers and the incumbents they hope to unseat all want to talk about the things they’ll do when the elections are over. None of them seem to be talking about the hard stuff. Cleaning up the state’s persistent messes doesn’t move the electorate like promises of marginally lower property taxes.

There’s no mechanism for you to do anything, of course. Texas voters can’t throw the bums out even if they want to. The officeholders have drawn themselves into safe political districts, where voters can’t hurt them — no matter how well or how poorly important programs are run.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Registering new people to vote is terrific, as far as it goes. But it doesn't mean more people are going to actually cast votes.
  • The end of one political race is often the beginning of the next one. As former Gov. Rick Perry learned, an "oops" moment in one contest can color voter opinion in the next one. That ought to worry U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. 
  • The Texas Legislature has become the court of last resort for companies and industries fighting local regulations in the state's cities and counties. And for those interests, Austin can be a very favorable venue for appeals.

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