13 September 2011

Paul Robbins : Rick Perry and the Fires of September

Austin skyline dwarfed by Bastrop wildfires. Photo by Deanna Roy / The Rag Blog.

Rick Perry and the fires of September
Hypocrite or leader in crisis?
By Paul Robbins / The Rag Blog / September 13, 2011

AUSTIN -- Many of you know that over the Labor Day weekend, wildfires swept several areas of Central Texas affected by the hottest summer in the state's recorded history. So far, the wildfires have destroyed over 1,600 homes, the majority of them in Bastrop County just east of Austin.

They have directly killed at least two people. Another person, a law enforcement official in Travis County, died after lung complications in a fire stricken area. As of late Sunday, September 11, another eight people were unaccounted for. The Bastrop fires, which have been burning for about a week now, have consumed more about 34,000 acres.

The casualties are only the ones estimated so far. In addition to more destroyed buildings that are not tallied yet, the unmeasured damage includes homes partially damaged, economic and emotional damage from fire displacement on a massive scale, and long-term illness from stress and fire exposure. This fire gives Republican front-runner Rick Perry a chance to show if he is the country’s greatest hypocrite, or to rise to the occasion and set an example for the nation based on self-reliance and independence.

Perry has a love-hate relationship with the federal government. Most of you are familiar with his screed Fed Up, where he has verbally skewered federal programs for their money-wasting ineffectiveness and assault on states' rights. Attacking “strings attached” funding has become part of his campaign script.

Yet he has no problem taking federal money when he wants or needs it. He balanced his own state’s budgets with hundreds of millions of federal contributions while lobbying for federal stimulus money. During his tenure as governor, Texas received at least 30% of its annual budget from Federal money. This swelled to 42% in 2010, when additional money was lobbied for and won as part of federal stimulus.

One particular sore point has been FEMA contributions to fighting wildfires that have ravaged some 3.6 million acres of Texas since January of this year. This does not include the September fires. Perry has criticized FEMA numerous times for delaying aid or not considering aid surrounding these fires.

Much has been and will continue to be made of the Governor’s ideological schizophrenia. But the man has the chance to show the country what he is made of. Instead of grousing about how the federal government that he detests should be giving his state more money, why not prove that Texas can take care of its own?

The Texas budget has a “Rainy Day Fund.” Established in 1988 and funded largely with a tax on oil and gas revenue, Perry has used it several times during his tenure. But he would not use it in the brutal cutbacks that took place for this year's Texas budget. The fund now has over $6 billion in it.

Texas is one of the only states in the U.S. without a personal income tax. The state, however, has sales taxes, a corporate tax, and numerous excise taxes and fees. And these could also be a source of revenue for the emergency.

By partially funding uninsured homes, insurance deductibles, and temporary lodging during reconstruction, Perry would be setting a new trend, while being true to his philosophy.

It would take a special session of the Texas Legislature to use the Fund or create a new tax for emergency relief. There would be some amount of lingering anger from earlier this year as people decry him as cynical.

In the 2011 Legislative Session, Perry approved school funding cuts, state employee layoffs, medical care reductions for the poor and elderly, and even rural volunteer fire department reductions. He resisted the desperate need for tapping the Rainy Day Fund or creating new taxes. So if he proposed to do something to help the fire victims, there will be people that arraign the special session as the height of cynicism.

On the other hand, there is a justification. It is an unexpected emergency.

Democrats reading this will wonder why I would recommend this strategy. If I don’t want to see Perry elected President, why suggest something that might help him?

I have two responses. First, emergencies are non-partisan. Even if Perry were to do this for the wrong reasons -- with the cynical motivation of proving himself on the national stage, it will help several thousand people who need it badly, and establish a precedent for the future. Second, if he does not take this course or something similar, it is even more of an indictment of the frailty of his small-government convictions.

Democrats should make this a public challenge.

[Paul Robbins is an environmental activist and consumer advocate based in Austin.]

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