Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Governors

Outgoing Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson shares a few superficial traits with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Both are tall and thin. Parkinson’s sandy hair can’t compare, hirsute-wise, to the man dubbed Gov. Goodhair by the late Molly Ivins.

Both governors switched political parties after a number of years in elective office. Perry, then a two-term state representative, became a Republican in 1989 before taking on and defeating Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner the following year. Parkinson, seven years younger than the 60-year old Perry, served first in the Kansas House and then the state Senate starting in 1990. He switched to the Democratic Party when he became Gov. Kathryn Sebelius’s running mate in 2006, as she sought a second term. When Sebelius was appointed HEW secretary in 2009, Parkinson became governor.

That’s where the similarities end. I recently completed a five-month stint running a small daily newspaper in northeast Kansas. I was the paper’s sole editorial writer and had to quickly educate myself on state politics. The legislature was in the middle of an epic budget battle. The gap was smaller in scope, certainly, than the up-to-$20 billion shortfall Texas legislators will face in January. But the task of coming up with a balanced budget was formidable in a state whose legislature contains as generous sprinkling of right-wing nuts, no-new-tax, slash-and-burn politicians as one finds in Texas.

Parkinson, an attorney who owns a string of assisted-living facilities with his wife, Stacy, announced not long after being appointed governor that he would not seek election to a full term. In an interview just more than a month before the general election, in which right-wing Sen. Sam Brownback was widely expected to win, he told me that choosing not to run freed him to work with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to come up with a package of spending cuts. That budget also relied on a one-time federal extension of jobless benefits that nearly cratered after the session. He ended up lobbying hard in Washington for its passage and in Topeka for passage of a three-year, one-cent sales tax increase.

The result: Kansas passed a balanced budget that, as long as economic growth stays in the 3-percent range, can easily continue to educate its children and fund a new, ambitious 10-year transportation program. (Kansas was recently touted by Reader’s Digest as having the best highway system in the country. I can tell you that it has surpassed Texas. No longer does Molly’s joke about Texas being “Mississippi with good highways” hold true. We don’t even have that to brag about anymore.)

The budget passed largely because of Parkinson, who avoided ideology and worked hard at coming up with a package that didn’t gut education, kept the state’s infrastructure in reasonable shape, and laid a groundwork for future governors and state leaders to continue along that path.

Contrast that with what likely will occur in Austin starting in January. I have recently returned to Texas, where I’ve worked for newspapers for more than three decades. I’m glad to be back home. I have been writing editorials since 1982, including a few dozen opposing the election of Rick Perry to any higher office he sought, as well as regularly criticizing his performance as governor. I have talked to him in editorial board meetings a few times, and last year even introduced him at the Texas Daily Newspaper Association convention. I was outgoing president, and he was the keynote speaker. Talk about irony. The man may be the World’s Luckiest Hack Politician. He is, after all, probably about to be re-elected to govern the nation’s second-largest state, setting a record for longevity.

Perry has sagely adopted the Tea Party rhetoric and declared War on Washington. It will probably work in November, since voters are just pissed at the world. Why these same pissed-off voters would put back in office a professional politician who hasn’t held a real job in a quarter-century is beyond me, but there you go. The real ugliness begins in January. I read Paul Burka’s piece in Texas Monthly the other night, with his not-quite tongue in cheek proposal on how to close the budget deficit. Even after shuttering the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Department of Agriculture, the Public Utility of Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, even after that, plus some other draconian cuts, Burka was still forced to raise fees by 20 percent, legalize casino gambling and tap in to the state’s rainy-day fund for $4.5 billion.

None of this will happen, of course, though I don’t disagree that we could probably get by just fine without a toothless TCEQ (let the EPA run the state’s environmental program) and the hidebound RRC. But the chickens are coming home to roost in Texas come next session. Damn, it is going to get ugly. I’m glad I’ll be back here to watch, sort of like watching a car wreck.

I asked Parkinson if he regretted not running for a full term. In the two occasions we talked over five months (it’s a small state), he struck me as someone with no BS about him, who tried to figure out the best course of action and then took it. He paused for a moment before replying. The Democratic nominee is a nice guy, an obscure state senator with virtually no chance of beating Brownback. Kansas soon will have a governor who governs, well, like Rick Perry. Wing-nut ideology will matter more than actually trying to achieve meaningful results. Parkinson said he hoped things turned out OK, that the groundwork he had helped lay would hold. He was being, well, politic.

Parkinson said on the record that giving massive amounts of bucks to industries to persuade them to come to your state was almost always a waste of money. Best to spend that money shoring up the state’s educational system, highways, providing a safety net for the state’s poorest. And this man used to be a Republican! I can’t imagine Perry, who used the Texas Enterprise Fund like a piggy bank to benefit projects that also brought him political largesse, saying something so heretical.

Meanwhile, I’m back in Texas, where Gov. Goodhair will likely slip by former Mayor No-Hair in November. That’s depressing. The upside is that the next session is going to be so gruesome it’s likely voters will run the whole lot of them out in 2012.
Maybe there are some Mark Parkinson-types out there in Texas, just itching to run. Let’s hope.

1 comment:

  1. Early voting tomorrow night. Ready to get Gov. CrapPolicy out.