November 21, 2008
As a kid, my brother Kyle loved – I mean, seriously loved – professional wrestling. He watched it on TV all the time. He made my poor father take him to matches at the Will Rogers Coliseum in downtown Fort Worth.
The Iron Claw was legendary. Von Erich would squeeze a man’s head between his middle finger and thumb, right at the temples. Once a dude was in the Claw, it was pretty much all over. Many times, you’d want to avert you eyes because one of his victims was in so much pain. Supposedly, the Iron Claw had actually killed a man.
Kyle believed what he saw. He trusted it. You couldn’t convince him it wasn’t real. He’d argue with you about whether it was rigged.
When he finally stopped believing, it was a bigger let down than giving up on Santa Claus. (I think he still secretly has the picture of Von Erich that used to hang in his bedroom. Only Farrah Fawcett ever really held such a prominent place on his wall.)
Growing up, that was my most intense experience with the concept of “wrestling.” Now, it comes up a lot in connection with the Texas Legislature – “wrestling” with a tight budget, “wrestling” with the future of the state . . . It’s a popular cliché.
Personally, I hesitate to use it. For some folks (like, well, Kyle Watson) it could evoke silly soap-opera arguments, puffed-up blowhards bellowing into whatever camera happens to be around, and spectacular battles where, it so happens, the outcome is most likely fixed.
And in comparing the state’s legislative process with pro wrestling, the last thing I’d want to do is demean professional wrestling.
One of the big legislative wrestling matches coming up will be over health care for Texas children. It’s a debate over how well to fund a genuinely popular initiative – the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.
It’s an especially emotional issue for me. Effective, frequent, and affordable children’s health care has provided a life-support system for my oldest son, Preston, for 14 years.
Preston’s a Type I Diabetic, diagnosed at 5-years-old. There’s no cure for his illness, but reliable health care ensures he gets multiple doses of insulin each day. That insulin – that health care – keeps him alive.
But more than that, it allows him to be a relatively healthy, shockingly active kid who’s pledging a fraternity in his first year of college, has been an outstanding lacrosse player, and maintains a life that, unless you know the details, would appear perfectly normal.
I find it appalling that all children, who have no control over their parents’ circumstances, don’t have access to the sort of care that Preston has received. And I think that CHIP stands as one of the best examples in Texas of not just compassion, but basic, responsible governance.
But I don’t want to focus on children’s health insurance simply as a compassionate program. Instead, let’s look at it purely as an economic development tool.
For every $1 the state commits to CHIP, we get $2.60 back from the federal government. This is money we’ve already sent to Washington in taxes – it’s already ours. And if we want it, then off the top we’ll more than double our money.
But then, that combined $3.60 goes into businesses such as doctor’s offices, clinics, and pharmacies. It pays for the jobs of doctors and nurses. And once the money finishes spreading through the economy, its economic impact doubles.
So for every $1 we invest in the health of our children, there’s an economic impact of $7. Now, I used to be the chair of our Chamber of Commerce in Austin. I’ve fought hard for programs and projects that would bring investment and jobs to the state. But there’s no incentive program out there that’s as fulfilling – in any sense – as Children’s Health Insurance.
CHIP started out in 1997 and was an immediate success. By 2002, enrollment was up to more than a half a million kids. But budget cuts the next year knocked that total down by 40 percent, and it still hasn’t completely recovered.
This, to me, is unconscionable. It’s not just that this is a compassionate program to keep kids healthy. And it’s not just that this is a conservative program that ensures relatively small maladies are treated before they become big illnesses.
It’s that this is a huge economic development opportunity, and Texas legislative leaders and budget writers are letting it pass by.
So now’s the part of the Watson Wire where I talk about what I’m going to do. But I must admit, having dwelt so much on wrestling, I worry that any proposal will be read as an ultimatum that I’m screaming – shirtless and long-haired – while brandishing a large belt over my head.
Frankly, the fact that I feel so strongly about this doesn’t make it any easier. But sincerely, by any measure of foresight or common sense, it strikes me as a borderline negligent decision not to get as much as we can out of such a strong, beneficial program.
But the simple truth is that regardless of our immediate circumstances, it’s always the right time to do the right thing. Plus, it’s precisely because this may be a tough budget year that we should manage our money wisely, assuring a big bang for our buck and investing in programs that will help the state economy.
So I believe legislators should think long and hard before they support a budget that doesn’t fully support CHIP.
And if the Legislature won’t do it, then maybe voters deserve to have a say.