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Analysis: Texas has more than one problem with government rats

The infestation of Norwegian rats in a state building where health regulators work is not only a big, embarrassing mess — it's a metaphor for a persistent problem in Texas government.

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The Brown-Heatly State Office Building in Austin is home to the state’s Health and Human Services Commission.

It’s infested by rats.

And it’s a metaphor — but maybe not in the obvious way — for your state government.

Sure, it’s entirely possible that state government is full of rats; your view on that will probably vary with your political temperament.

But the rat problem at Brown-Heatly is really evidence of something else that’s pervasive in state government and in particular, in the work of the Texas Legislature that writes the state budget every two years: Texas doesn’t take care of its stuff — whether it’s buildings and infrastructure or programs and services.

Take the Texas Department of Transportation, which has a lovely little measure called “The Cost of Maintaining the Current Level of Congestion.” That’s the price of keeping the state’s roads no more or less jammed than they are today — about $5 billion per year, according to state officials. You’d need more than that to improve the average Texan’s experience on the state’s roads.


The state’s mental hospitals are dumps, to put it politely. Many of the buildings are uninhabitable; bringing everything up to an acceptable level of repair would cost — depending on your estimator and their version of “acceptable level” — somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion.


It’s not like this stuff is hard to do; building owners, whether they’re governments or private investors, either take care of their property or they don’t. Texas is full of buildings older than Brown-Heatly that are in much better condition. Somebody took care of them. (The state hospitals are a special case: According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, some of those buildings date to 1857 — before the Civil War.)

But it’s easy to put off, between this or that budget crisis, or this or that legislative pet project.

Many of the oddities of the various buildings where health commission (HHSC) employees work are documented on a shared corner of the Internet, in the form of an invite-only Facebook group called "Curiosities of Brown-Heatly." Here’s the description — the part of the site that the general public can see: “This group is for people who work or used to work in Brown-Heatly, Winters or Braker, to share stories and photos of the weird involving the physical spaces of HHSC. Those at Broadmoor or other facilities can chime in too (bedbugs anyone?)”

The postings include everything from Edgar Walter’s Wednesday rat story in The Texas Tribune to pictures of weird things in parking garages, and even a mouse — apparently acquired in an HHSC garage — crawling out from under the hood of someone’s car while they were driving down Austin’s Lamar Boulevard in afternoon rush-hour traffic.

There are anecdotes about widespread mold in the building — another persistent problem the state will have to address at some point. These things pile up, and they’re not new. Almost three years ago, the Austin American-Statesman reported on a backlog of maintenance projects causing problems in state office buildings. 

It happens in programs, too. State lawmakers still haven’t caught up with cuts they made to public education in 2011 — neither putting up the same money per student they were putting up before those cuts nor restoring the money that would have gone to public schools had the cuts not been made.

You know about that one, in a backwards way, if you have watched the steady and sickening rise in local property taxes in Texas —  now the state with the sixth-highest rate in America. In 2008, the state was paying 45 percent of the cost of public education, the federal government was paying 10 percent and local taxpayers were paying 45 percent. The feds are still paying their dime into the system. But according to the Legislative Budget Board, the agency that does the math for the state budget, the state’s share has fallen to 38 percent and the local share is now 52 percent.


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