THE SINGLE MOST accurate image for Gov. George W. Bush's Texas would be a poor Hispanic woman waiting an hour at an unsheltered bus stop, infant in arms and toddler in tow, in Houston temperatures.
Forget "the environment" for the moment; polluted air at least has to be breathed by rich and poor alike. The worst form of pollution coming out of Texas right now is economic, and it may be exported to the rest of the country. Only a Mark Twain could do justice to the seamless viciousness of the regressive setup of Bush's Texas. Every burden is shouldered most by those who can bear it least. Every cost is paid most by those who have less. Every risk is borne most, to such an extent that the least mistake or ignorance can be life-threatening, by those who can scarcely afford any risk at all.
That woman waiting at the bus stop had better not have a pedestrian mishap, much less be hit by a car. In Houston courts, insurance companies no longer bother to settle even when their policyholders rear-end other drivers, because individuals cannot successfully sue insurance companies. This is called "tort reform." Redress in the courts is rapidly becoming a thing of the past around Harris County, which includes Houston and has not one judge who is a Democrat. Product liability? Consumer safety? You've got to be kidding.
Meanwhile, a climate of risk-free tenderness softly bathes those who could actually afford to take a little risk. Large companies shopping for tax benefits to locate around Houston make out like bandits. Even when the company can make more money in Houston than in any other city in the country, local governments -- city, county and state -- are still eager to do favors. Set-asides? Special "one-time" tax forgiveness? "Job-creation" tax credits? You name it, the companies get it. They've also got a "right-to-work" state.
This is not just Mr. Bush alone, it's Texas Republicans in general. These guys are not Connie Morella. They are Phil Gramm and the late John Tower, men who always supported corporate welfare, questioned the patriotism of those who did not and consciously reconstituted the Republican Party in Texas and throughout the South as the unofficial White People's Party whenever state Democratic parties showed the slightest signs of decency. Mr. Bush has always has fit right in -- different style, same policies.
For the past 50 years, literally every suggestion that might better everyday life even modestly, in Texas, has met with one or both of two arguments: "communism" and "higher taxes." Fluoride in the drinking water? Communistic. Free clinics for indigents? Higher taxes. Better bus service? Higher taxes and creeping socialism, since bus routes by nature, so to speak, have to be centrally organized.
Mass transit? Forget it. Granted, for reasons past praying for, Houston is not a good place to dig a subway; its ground level is a foot below the official water table. But buses could at least run more often, except that the public isn't willing to pay for them -- understandably, since the public has to pay for everything else -- not as the public, you understand, but individually.
Talk about pitting the middle class against the poor. Rent a car, pay an extra 10 percent. Drive onto the airport parking lot, pay "fees" to pay for the new baseball stadium; park, pay more; take a plane, pay "fees" half as much as the ticket price. With much hoopla, Houston advertised a three-day "back-to-school" sales tax amnesty in August to help department store sales on kids' clothes. The kicker was that this exemption from sales taxes did not include school supplies.
Virtually any ordinary transaction gets taxed: "user fees," sales taxes and so forth, all concealed contradictions of the false claim that taxes are being kept down. Taxes are not down in Texas; they're up, for everyone but corporations.
The Gulf Coast is not good for tunnels. But if you combine this gumbo with propaganda that says sitting trapped in traffic with half a million other people is rugged individualism, the going really gets rough. Put that in an atmosphere of aggressive deregulation, and it becomes, as they say, too sticky to plow.
Electric rates in Houston went up 12 percent Sept. 1. At that, the local utilities commission took a firm line -- in favor, because the newly deregulated company wanted 14 percent. Meanwhile, the oil companies' profits tripled this year, and there is, of course, no state income tax in Texas -- meaning no graduated tax even for unearned income, even for individuals of wealth.
State revenues are up, of course -- not from the $48 billion-plus in assets in Texas financial institutions, not from an equitable property tax that equalizes the school districts (get real) and not even mainly from the economy's having improved along with the rest of the nation -- but mostly from the lottery.
Margie Burns, who teaches English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is from Texas.