July 26, 2007
I know we’ve only survived to the mid-point of summer. There’s lots of time left before school starts, before fall officially arrives or before football season replaces some of the filler on SportsCenter. But I’m going ahead and declaring this the weirdest summer I can remember. It’s just too strange. Not because Liz and I are already obsessing over the fact that we have a kid who’ll be “leaving home” in just a year, although we don’t feel nearly prepared for that. It’s also not because the sports world is all out of whack with a great man about to lose a great record to Barry Bonds, a quarterback who allegedly spends his free time helping dogs kill each other, and a basketball ref who fouled out because he may have been fixing games he’d bet on. No, it’s because, with all this rain, Austin feels like Seattle-plus-20 degrees. I can take the Hike and Bike Trail being flooded in parts. I can sort of endure the steam room that’s moved in where the fresh air is supposed to be. And I can probably withstand getting wet going from place to place. (Of course, I never have an umbrella. I fully appreciate the functionality of the apparatus when moisture is actually falling on me. But I feel kinda like a sissy carrying one when I’m only “worried” about the possibility of rain.) It’s the mosquitoes I can’t take. My favorite spot on earth is in our front yard. I love to sit out there and relax, read, catch up on work, talk on the phone . . . you name it. It’s just a place with good karma, good chi, or good whatever-you-call-it. This year, it’s also got lots of vicious little blood-sucking bugs. There’ve always been some out there, but now it’s a surge. I’m doing everything I can to fight them. The table next to my chair is covered with so many types of bug juices that it looks like a collection center for hazardous chemicals. And they only help slightly. Plus, these arrogant little dudes have more than enough persistence to find spots that didn’t get soaked with poison. I can see them bunched together in a cloud, just beyond the spray’s power, looking for an opening, taunting me, distracting me, calling my name. Plus, I smell like bug spray. All the time.
The good part of the summer – for me, if not those who smell the bug spray – has been getting to spend time working on things important to the district. My favorite part is getting out and meeting with people. In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten together with mayors and other folks in Pflugerville, Jonestown, Bee Cave, Lakeway, Manor, and Austin. I’ve also been in touch with school district representatives, people with the LCRA, and some who deal with our Emergency Service Districts. And I’ve spent time with folks from the Travis County Health Care District. My goal is to make sure there’s easy and open communication between all of these people and my office and me. I also want to know what’s on their minds and help them however I can.
And, of course, I’m spending time on transportation issues. Last week, the Department of Transportation called a big hoo-haw at the Hilton here in Austin for legislators, policy makers, and pretty much anyone who cares about mobility in Texas. I was privileged to welcome the attendees at the opening reception. The whole event reminded me that transportation – fixing roads, building rail lines, and creating an efficient, effective, truly comprehensive transportation system – is a job we all share. And that gives us a great responsibility in this state. With the exception of providing a good education, I can’t think of an area where government has so much power to improve a region’s quality of life – or worsen it. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t really been living up to its responsibilities in the last few years. This past legislative session was a particularly painful example. You all know the Legislature dodged its best chance to raise transportation money by refusing to raise the gas tax. But even worse, the state budget diverted even more of the gas tax money we do have – about 15 percent more – away from transportation. Instead, the state will spend nearly $1.6 billion that should be going to transportation on everything from the Department of Public Safety to Medicaid to some mineral rights litigation in the Attorney General’s office to the Lufkin Tourist Information Center. (By the way, you should pity the poor Lufkin Tourist Information Center, which I’m sure doesn’t deserve the grief it’s going to catch from everyone who thinks we need more money for transportation.)
This raises a big question that has to do with a lot more than transportation. The question is . . . why? Why do we need to spend money we need for transportation on things that aren’t transportation? It’s even more puzzling when you consider that the Legislature put aside $2.4 billion – that’s right, $2.4 billion – in a fund that just sits in the bank and earns interest. The leadership stashed away this money for fear that its 2006 tax shifting plan won’t do what they promised – provide enough state money to take the place of local taxes that Texas uses to provide a constitutionally mandated state service. This $2.4 billion pot of money doesn’t fund a single service we need right now, including transportation. Remember, $1.6 billion of what most folks think is transportation money was siphoned off in the current budget. That shouldn’t be necessary when the mattress is holding $2.4 billion. So here’s some real truth in taxation: Texas is starving itself, starving itself in ways that will weaken the state significantly now and even more in the future. Texas is doing it because its leaders know they’ve made promises that they may not be able to keep.Most of us just have to sit in traffic and wait while the state’s leadership figures out which bills to save for down the road and which ones to skip on now. I know I’m spending a lot of time right now trying to figure out how to make the budget a little more . . . transparent . . . in the next session. In the meantime, try to remember during your next bout of road rage that you’re not really mad about the traffic – you’re mad about the budget.
We posted a link on the web site to help all of you sign up for the big fundraiser in Zilker Park on Sept. 13. You can find it here. I’ll send out a special announcement – quite proudly, I expect – when we know who’s playing. Have a great, cool, bug-free weekend. I promise, autumn’s right around the corner.