Ten years ago, when New York City, a jurisdiction that people all over the country are hard pressed to feel sympathy for, trembled at the edge of bankruptcy, Congress did -- grudgingly -- come to the rescue. Will the rest of the nation be called on this year to give special help to another jurisdiction that people feel is too big for its britches?
We mean Texas, of course. You might think so from the headlines that show oil prices plummeting toward $12 a barrel and Texas' state budget hemorrhaging a cool $1 billion or so as a result. Just as Americans generally got some satisfaction from watching know-it-all New York fumble with red ink, so Americans take a certain pleasure in seeing cocksure Texas take a fall. It wasn't so many years ago, after all, that a Texas bumper sticker read, "Step on the Gas and Freeze a Yankee."
But Texas is not going to call on the federal government for a bailout -- in so many words. New York was a high-service, high-tax state that couldn't afford its services and whose taxes were stunting the growth of the private sector. Texas is a low-tax, low-service state whose private sector depends very much on oil. Texans like to attribute their success to the untrammeled operation of the free market. Actually, the states owes more to the advantages conferred by government -- and by shrewd Texas politicians from Sam Rayburn to Jim Wright -- on producers of oil. Texas politicians seek no explicit bailout. But they are working to maintain and extend those advantages, in the tax bill and through an oil import fee. These actions can be defended on policy grounds. But they also amount to something uncomfortably close to a federal bailout.
What is ironic here is that Texas politicians back home in Austin have been working hard to build a strong economy without federal help. Gov. Mark White, for one, is aware that the state's future wealth depends not on pumping more oil from the ground, but on developing the skills and talents of its people. Gov. White and the legislature have been pumping money into education and have enacted reforms and stood by them when they have come under attack. The governor and the legislature insisted, despite attacks from the teachers' lobby, on giving the state's first competency test last month to 205,000 teachers and administrators.
It's interesting that in Texas -- as in other places, including New York over the past 10 years -- state and local politicians have undertaken and sponsored government action designed to build a strong economy for the future. The politicians they send to Washington concentrate, in contrast, on maintaining those subsidies, open or hidden, that have helped to build the economy of the past. So listen with some understanding, though not necessarily support, when Texans ask for what amounts to a federal bailout. Save your admiration and support for what Texans are doing for themselves back home.