The political culture of Texas is both individualistic and traditionalistic. The individualistic culture is rooted in the state’s frontier experience and includes economic and social conservatism, strong support of personal politics, distrust of political parties, and minimization of political parties’ importance. The traditionalistic culture grew out of the Old South, where a one-party system developed, policies were designed to preserve the social order, and the poor and minorities were often disenfranchised (not allowed to vote). Today, these two cultures can still be found in the values, attitudes, traditions, habits, and general behavior patterns of Texans and in the governmental policies of the Lone Star State.
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With more than 267,000 square miles of territory, Texas ranks second in size to Alaska among the 50 states. Cattle, cotton, timber, and hydrocarbons have at different times dominated the Texas economy and influenced the state’s politics. Today, Texas is a highly industrialized state in which high-tech products are of increasing importance. Texas has a population of over 25 million. More than 80 percent of all Texans live in the state’s most highly urbanized counties.
The three largest groups are Anglos, Latinos (mostly Mexican Americans), and African Americans. Latinos are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the Lone Star State. Texas has a small but growing population of Asian Americans, and fewer than 170,000 Native Americans. Although the state’s energy industry has decreased in importance, Texas has become a leading manufacturer of computers and other high-tech products. Agriculture continues to be important in the state’s economy, though it employs relatively few Texans. Service businesses provide many low-paying jobs.
Challenges that face Texas includes the need to more effectively address immigration protect the environment, develop educational programs to meet the demands of an industrial society, and formulate policies for combating poverty and social problems.
Local governments are part of the federal system and thus are affected by decisions made by governments above them (state and national) and other local governments. Under Texas law and its constitution, local governments are largely limited to what is required or permitted by the state. Although local governments provide the most direct contact between residents and their government, voter apathy at this level of government remains a problem. Local government is important to most Texans’ day-to-day lives. Election rules and the way local governments are organized make a major difference in who is elected and who benefits from government.
Texas has two legal classifications of municipalities: general-law cities and home-rule cities. Large municipalities have home-rule charters that spell out the structures and powers of individual cities.
Four principal forms of municipal government operate in Texas: strong mayor-council, weak mayor-council, council-manager, and commission.
Elections for cities and special districts are nonpartisan, and most are organized as at-large or single-member districts. Increased use of single-member districts; greater pluralism; and the growing number, organization, and political activity of minority Texans are all changing the face of local government. Said another way, both formal rules and socioeconomic change shape the way government works, including who wins and who loses. City governments focus primarily on delivering basic services-police and fire protection, streets, water, sewer and sanitation, and perhaps parks and recreation. They also regulate important aspects of our lives, such as construction and food service sanitation. The two major sources of revenue for cities are property taxes and the sales tax. For counties, it is the property tax. Both cities and counties are making more use of fees and debt.
Local governments have a difficult time because they face increasing demands for services from their residents and from the state and national government but have limited revenue sources. County governments have fragmented organizational structures and powers restricted by the Texas Constitution. Counties provide an array of services, conduct elections, and enforce state laws. Actual county activities vary greatly between metropolitan and rural counties.
Various county officials are policymakers, but the major policymaker is the commissioner’s court, comprised of the county judge and four elected commissioners.
The many special-district governments are separate legal entities providing services that include public schools, community colleges, and mass transit systems. Although they are important for the multitude of services they provide, the smaller and more obscure districts are more subject to fraud and manipulation.
Dealing with metropolitan wide problems is a difficult task. To do so, Texas relies heavily on councils of government to increase cooperation and on annexation, a controversial process.
The output of the Texas system of justice has improved in some ways in recent years. Whereas Texas courts used to be inhospitable to claims that people’s civil rights and liberties had been violated, they are now more open to such claims.
As incidents in Jasper and Tulia illustrate, Texas still contains hardcore racism, but the state judicial system is working to mitigate its effects. Although there is an argument about whether citizens have a right to keep and bear arms, upon inspection this issue turns out to be a dispute over ordinary public policy, and thus a problem for the legislature, rather than over a civil liberty that must be defended by the courts. The Texas courts have courageously taken on the rest of the political establishment, including especially the legislature, in ordering a more equitable distribution of school revenues. They have not completely succeeded in introducing educational, equality into Texas public schools, but they have forced the legislature to make the educational system at least somewhat more equitable.
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Arguments are ongoing over some questions of rights and liberties. Although the national and state courts participate in social struggles over abortion, prayer in the schools, and personal expression, these issues provoke so much disagreement that they cannot be settled judicially. In two areas, however the rights of criminals in Texas prisons and school segregation, the federal courts have been very active over the past three decades in forcing the reform of the system.
In recent years, many businesses became convinced that the outcome of Texas’s tort laws was damaging the state’s economy. They complained that the courts were too tolerant of frivolous suits that sometimes cost businesses so much money that they were forced to close down. In 1995 and 2003, the legislature, at the urging of Governors Bush and Perry, rewrote many of the tort laws so as to take discretion away from the civil judiciary. It is now much more difficult to file, and to win, a civil lawsuit in Texas. This change made consumer representatives unhappy, but as long as the Republican Party controls most state offices, the changes are unlikely to be undone. Economic conditions, the political climate, and power plays are all part of the government generating revenues for state government and determining how that income will be spent. Both taxing and spending are usually incremental, with major changes rarely occurring. However, the state’s boom-and-bust economy over the past twenty-five years meant more tax and tee increases than usual and less budget growth.
In comparing Texas with other states, we find that the combined state and local tax burden is relatively low, with Texas ranked in the bottom tilth of all states. These rankings are based only on taxes, not total revenues. We also note the significant absence of any personal or corporate income tax, although business has been asked to pay a larger share of the tax burden through the corporation franchise tax. The fundamental difference in the Texas revenue system from that of many other states is the disproportionate burden borne by the poorest citizens. This regressive system raises serious questions about how democratic the tax system is in the state.
Democracies are also responsive to the citizenry. The state’s spending may not meet the needs of all its citizens, particularly when one considers that it ranks in the bottom quarter of all states in its per capita spending for higher education and highways and only slightly better for welfare and public schools.
Texas policymakers have dealt with all the issues described in this chapter to some extent, but problems remain on the public policy agenda:
The Texas economy regularly cycles through the highs of booms and the lows of busts. The revenue implications of these cycles were discussed in the previous chapter. This chapter has indicated that such shifts result in varying periods of attention on business development. The legacy of the traditionalistic individualistic political culture is a tendency to try to fulfill the wishes of the business community even if state services go unfunded.
The transformation of the welfare system into workfare is a national priority with which Texans can agree. However, the change in philosophy and the reduction in federal social spending are both boon and bane to Texas.
Texas will have greater flexibility in making decisions on what programs to offer its neediest citizens. It will not enjoy having to spend more state money to pay for those programs. In addition, the state probably will continue to have one of the highest proportions of poor people in the country for the foreseeable future.
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