Senior journos: Why oh why can’t Perry be heroic and raise taxes?

Earlier this month, R.G. Ratcliffe reflected almost wistfully on Gov. Bill Clements, and how he broke with principles and campaign promises to raise taxes by $5.7 billion:

I can’t help but recall the political flip of former governor Bill Clements, who won his 1986 election on a no-new-taxes pledge. During the 1987 Legislature, Clements went on a fifteen-city tour to oppose proposed tax increases to cover budget shortfalls caused by the collapse of oil prices and the savings and loan industry. It took Dallas businessmen Peter O’Donnell and Ross Perot to convince him that major budget cuts would harm the state’s future. A $5.7 billion tax increase was a bitter pill, but Clements swallowed it. “”Everybody had to do what was right, eventually,” Clements said at the time. “I think they have.”

The state is still waiting to find out what is right in 2011 (R.G. Ratcliffe, Businesses want the state spending, but how do they want to pay for it?, BurkaBlog).

Apparently, Wayne Slater took up the same theme in the Dallas Morning News this weekend. Because of the newspaper’s new paywall subscription model (which isn’t a great value proposition outside North Texas), the column isn’t freely available. But Slater offered nonsubscribers a condensed version on the Trail Blazers Blog:

Now, leading the cuts-at-all-cost approach to writing a state budget, Perry’s parted company with Bill Clements. Clements was the state’s first Republican governor in a century when he was elected in 1978. As we wrote in a weekend column , Clements was the beginning of the modern Republican Party that Perry – and the tea party – now call home. Said the state’s longest-serving Republican in the House, Tom Craddick : ” I love Bill Clements. I think he did a great job and really furthered the Republican Party of Texas. Without him taking the risk he did to run for governor and use his own dollars, we’d still be way back in a maze.”

Clements was a staunch fiscal conservative and championed lower taxes and more efficient government. In battling a huge budget shortfall 1987, Clements initially opposed new taxes but eventually compromised and signed a $5.7 billion bill to avoid damaging the state’s future. So would Clements, the father of Texas Republican conservatism, be welcome in today’s tea party. Probably not. — not in the tea party that Perry serves these days.

What is it with these senior political journos in Texas and their fascination with a former governor who broke with his principles and his campaign promises to raise taxes?

Yeah, yeah, we got it — it was “to avoid damaging the state’s future” — a variant of The Sky is Falling.

At least Slater got one part right: A pol who ran as a fiscal conservative in Texas and promised not to raise taxes — then decided to raise taxes by billions of dollars — almost certainly would not “be welcome in today’s tea party.” As much as this seems to confound Slater, we are equally confounded as to why senior political journos think abandoning principles and promises to citizens to raise taxes is somehow heroic?

The (Texas higher ed) empire strikes back; O’Donnell out

As noted in today’s Daily Reading, the Texas higher education establishment finally managed to claim a scalp.

Here is advisor Rick O’Donnell’s parting letter (well worth a read).

As a consultant without much real power (the Austin American Statesman‘s overblown and silly “shadow chancellor” rhetoric notwithstanding), O’Donnell was always going to be in a tenuous position once administrators perceived him as raising questions about two sacred cows in the higher education establishment: Research and Academic Governance.

The higher education establishment was quick to frame O’Donnell’s questions about the value of research vis-à-vis other priorities as merely an attack on research — and those charges stuck for whatever reason (more on this below). The charges themselves are easy enough to explain. It’s hardly surprising that the higher education establishment really wanted to deflect scrutiny from its research practices, about which the general (taxpaying and tuition-paying) public knows very little. As someone who put in the time to get a Ph.D. from a research university and who maintains some interest in academia (while working in private industry), I can certainly understand that many university administrators at major research universities would prefer that the taxpaying and tuition-paying public not come to understand that undergrads at those institutions aren’t, in most cases, being taught by highly celebrated research professors, but instead (at the lower levels) by graduate students not much older than the undergrads themselves, sometimes in cavernous lecture halls.

As someone who might question whether the higher-education research-first status quo serves undergraduates, their parents (who have seen tuition bills skyrocket; academia and government are about the only two institutions that don’t respond to economic downturns), or taxpayers all that well, O’Donnell was going to be on shaky ground from the start. The fact that O’Donnell DID seem inclined to question that status quo — and that the mere governor of the state thought the questions worthy of consideration — also had to rankle the higher education establishment, which is not accustomed to scrutiny from public officials, or taxpayers, or even tuition-paying parents for the most part. Said administrators always cling to the notion of Academic Governance, which they present as necessary to preserve academic freedom so that institutions of higher learning can do their jobs (and which really is code for, “you elected officials and parents and taxpayers can just butt out, because we have Ph.Ds and know best how to spend your money and educate your children”).

The remaining question for me is why the state’s political media carried so much water for the higher education establishment, with so much one-sided reporting on the matter. So many stories were consistently framed poorly (Perry higher ed appointee hates research! Perry higher ed apppointee is shadow chancellor! Perry higher ed consultant screwed up a footnote once!) and without much balance (Are research and undergrad education in good balance? Is there too much emphasis on research for too little payoff? Who is teaching undergrads at the state’s larger research universities? Is there too much administrative overhead? These questions didn’t generally make it into the O’Donnell hit pieces). Why?

The best explanation I can come up with is some combination of the following:

  • O’Donnell arrived on the scene with some thoughts on higher education very different from those of the media’s normal sources inside higher education (who pushed back, effectively).
  • O’Donnell was perceived as a close associate of both Gov. Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, neither of whom can be called “favs” of the Texas political media.
  • Most nonacademics — including the state’s political media — simply don’t have a great understanding of undergraduate life at a major research university, and thus never grasped that raising questions about competing priorities (research versus undergraduate education, for example, or trying to measure the return on investment of research) is not merely an “attack” on research.

Still, that combination of factors isn’t a particularly satisfying explanation of how the Texas political media approached this story. So maybe it’s worth outsourcing to our smart readers — Is there some explanation for the media’s behavior that I’ve missed above? Please leave a comment.

“Spirit of Clay” lives on at Hearst Austin news bureau

Back in the early days of both Chronically Biased and then blogHOUSTON, one of our recurring topics was the Houston Chronicle Austin bureau, which allowed its bureau chief Clay Robison to preside over the news “objectively” six days per week as bureau chief and provide a reliably lefty editorial screed one day per week.

In private conversation, a Chronicle reader representative (not the current person who holds the title; the Chron seems no longer to have a use for the position) told me that we were absolutely right to question the arrangement.

At some point, Clay Robison left the newspaper, and that was that (for quite a while, anyway).

The Hearst Austin Bureau (the combined effort of Hearst newspapers based in San Antonio and Houston) seems determined to bring back the Spirit of Clay.

In the last week alone, Hearst Austin has run with “commentary” pieces from both Peggy Fikac (seemingly “overrepresenting” opposition to a Perry appointee since only one critic, a Dem, was named) and new addition Patricia Kilday Hart (who formerly broke some news and opined for Texas Monthly). Even before, Fikac’s commentary column had shown signs of disproportionately covering the issues and personalities of the Left. And even the Hearst Austin blog too often seems to be a vehicle for injecting the author’s opinion rather than covering news (contrast items three and four in Top Stories).

This isn’t to say we don’t like a good opinion columnist, or that a good opinion columnist can’t break news (the great example of the genre was the old Evans and Novak column). But for some reason, Hearst Austin seems to think its journos ought just to switch back and forth between reporter and editorial mode (apparently never getting the two confused because they’re superhuman *wink*), whereas most news organizations at least pretend to prefer a cleaner “division between the opinion pages and the news pages” (ironically, that last is from a Chronicle editor). While Hearst Austin’s “Spirit of Clay” approach is, at times, revealing, we’re not so sure it’s the best way to cover statehouse politics.