July 19, 2009
My dad, Don Watson, taught me how to catch a football. He taught me to watch the ball all the way into my hands. If I dropped it, he’d always say, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Every single time.
I played strong safety on the high school football team. Our sophomore season, I constantly whined that I was never going to get an interception. Then, against the Azle Hornets, I was covering a guy who was obviously the quarterback’s target. I anticipated the throw, ran in front of the receiver, looked down the open field all the way to the end zone, and visualized how great I was going to look scoring a touchdown.
Of course, I wasn’t keeping my eye on the football; it slipped through my hands and hit the turf.
As proof that hard lessons sometimes must be repeated, I was on business in Chicago last Thursday and went for what was supposed to be a great run. From my hotel, I ran to a pedestrian underpass that opens to a beautiful hike-and-bike trail along Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
I ran north a few miles, turned to run back and, while listening to really killer ’70s music, went right past the entrance to that same underpass that would have led me back to the hotel.
Let’s just say that, due to my lack of focus, I got to see far more of Lake Michigan than I wanted. The only damage was to my ego (just like when I was a sophomore, I felt like an idiot) and to my legs, which weren’t ready for the extra mileage (I went a ridiculously long way before realizing I was an idiot).
Taking my eye off the ball in high school didn’t preclude any opportunity for me. I’m told I probably wasn’t going to play college ball or go to the NFL anyway, although I think that’s a little hurtful. And last week’s momentary lapse only resulted in me getting extra exercise, which I arguably could use.
The real moral to this story, of course, is that when you take your eye off the ball – when you stop focusing on what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re doing it – truly bad things can and do happen.
For the billion-dollar version of this story, look no further than the Texas Workforce Commission.
The commission’s mission, among other things, is to administer the state’s aid to Texans who lose jobs through no fault of their own.
As was noted during this past legislative session by Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken (who was appointed by the Governor and once led the Texas Republican Party), unemployment assistance is not a welfare program. It exists to provide temporary help to Texans in tough, sometimes tragic, situations so they can find work without losing their homes, cars, or electricity. And it protects the economy as much as the people who need it.
The commission’s job is to figure out how much money the state needs for unemployment benefits, what to charge businesses that support the program, and how to prepare for things like economic recessions that send the state’s unemployment rate skyrocketing.
And as you may have noticed over the last few days, the commission isn’t doing any of those things very well.
The program known as unemployment insurance has been so politicized by the Governor that it’s easy to forget how much it matters to struggling, everyday Texans. This was the area in which Governor Perry arbitrarily decided not to accept more than a half-billion in federal stimulus money, despite a bipartisan chorus urging him not to take such a rash, destructive action. He had his eye on politics, not on the important goal of making sure the system worked.
But to understand how badly this political football was dropped, some history is in order.
Get that? An agency chairwoman was concerned about an action, rattled off four substantive policy reasons not to do it, and then voted to do it anyway because “the governor supports this.” At least the politicizing is transparent.
In the meantime, Texas’ unemployment rate continues to rise – it’s now at 7.5 percent, the highest it’s been since the end of the oil bust. The state lost more than 40,000 jobs in June, putting the total losses at more than 270,000 this year. More and more people are seeking help. And the only place for them to turn is an agency that’s been degraded and hamstrung by politics.
The state, and the Governor, should stop looking for people to blame. Just fix the problems, serve Texans, and quit thinking about elections.
Let’s keep our eye on the ball. Every single time.