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I’ll get to the good news, but first the bad. 

The bad news among so much bad news is that the most influential “think tank” (read: lobby) in Texas is pressing an agenda that would have warmed Herbert Hoover’s heart.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the right-wing nonprofit set up by San Antonio medical magnate Dr. James Leininger, has for more than a decade held unholy sway over the Texas Legislature. 

The TPPF last week issued its “Recovery Agenda” for the coronavirus pandemic. It offers 11 prescriptions for Congress and the Texas Legislature. Here are the key ones:

The first: Cut the payroll tax. This idea was floated briefly by President Donald Trump, but even he quickly backed off. There are real issues with the payroll tax – most notably that it is heavy on low-income workers and light on the wealthy. But it’s hardly an issue in the current crisis. 

The reason is simple. The problem is that the payroll tax has already been cut to zero for the millions of workers whose employers have been shut down. Yet the TPPF agenda says nothing about either increasing Texas’s pitiful unemployment benefits or cash grants. 

Cutting the payroll tax would, however, further the agenda of the plutocratic right wing: It would shrink revenues for Social Security and amplify calls for its “reform.”

The other 10 items on the agenda are either less-than-significant initiatives or standard items on the conservative agenda. Examples of the former include fast-tracking FDA drug approval procedures and expanding telemedicine, allowing doctors to directly sell drugs, and requesting a waiver for Texas so that it can tinker with its already low-end Medicaid program.

I’ve got a better idea: Have Texas join more than half the nation in accepting federal funding to expand its Medicaid program so we won’t be closing rural hospitals while placing first in the nation for having the most uninsured citizens. 

Then there are the conservative boilerplate items. “Eliminate regulations  not necessary for public health and safety,” “Put a hold on all non-essential government debt,” and “Protect individual liberties and prevent the expansion of government.”

Some people’s post-traumatic memories are complete. It was eliminating Wall Street regulations “not necessary for health and safety” that played a major role in 2008, when we had the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. And, in the wake of that, all but fringe economists agree that if we had “put a hold on non-essential government debt,” we would likely still be in a recession, if not a depression.

I see two sources for good news. The first is elections. Sure, it was elections that gave us Trump and the Texas Legislature and the entire state executive branch and state Supreme Court. But the 2018 election took a different direction. 

The pickup of 12 seats by Democrats in the state House of Representatives had an effect of modest magic. All of a sudden the “bathroom bill” that was so divisive in the previous session suddenly went “poof” and disappeared. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had virtually forced the governor to put the issue on a special session agenda, where it failed again, declared it somehow resolved at the start of last year’s session. 

Instead, the Legislature finally got serious about school finance reform without being ordered to do so by the Texas Supreme Court. Granted, they also passed some serious anti-city legislation, including tighter caps on property tax, something the state government doesn’t rely on but cities and counties do.

At a national level, the 2018 election had a bigger impact, giving representation to the majority of Americans who voted Democrat in both the presidential and congressional races. When Republicans held the House, even moderate Republicans were largely shut out of power by a rule that no bill would be put to a vote unless the majority of Republican House members approved it. 

And this year’s election hasn’t happened yet but it is already having an impact. What else but political prospects for November could have turned the Republican president and the Republican Senate into Yangsters ready to write checks for billions of dollars to citizens who only four years ago were described in Republican circles as “takers”? In the face of the election, the TPPF is a cranky voice in the wilderness in calling leaders to “put a hold on non-essential government debt” and to “Protect individual liberties and prevent the expansion of government.”

This leads to my second source of optimism. It’s based on the fact that this is likely to be the last, or at least the second to last, quadrennial election dominated by us baby boomers. Millennials and their successors will be ascendent. 

These are citizens who were born into an extended period of crisis. They came of age with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, with the 2008 financial meltdown and the opioid epidemic. If they didn’t go to college, most are stuck in, at best, dead-end jobs. If they did go to college, many are so saddled with debt that they couldn’t buy a house even if modestly priced houses were being built. This is not what “freedom” feels like.

And they feel climate change with an urgency that is lacking in many of us who won’t be around for its worst effects. 

When it comes to health care they know a simple truth. They can’t afford it without help. 

A solid conservative principle is that government is most important in doing collectively what we can’t do for ourselves. We can’t build our own roads and bridges. Most of us can’t school our own children. We can’t individually fight terrorism.

The economic reality is that only the richest Americans can afford American medical care without insurance. And without governmental help, the majority of Americans can’t afford insurance. Among young people, it’s a very large majority. 

No wonder Bernie Sanders holds such an appeal for young voters with his calls for Medicare for all and student debt forgiveness. 

My last reason for optimism, or at least for hope, is that we will come to understand that this pandemic and the economic crisis it is provoking are making the nation face what at least half its citizens have faced for years: The fact that a medical crisis can put them under. Multiple studies indicate that at least half live paycheck to paycheck. A growing percentage of low-wage jobs and health insurance that is often inadequate leave the majority of Americans silently vulnerable. 

A 2019 Harvard study showed that 62 percent of personal bankruptcies were caused by medical bills, and 78 percent were filed by people with health insurance.  

The pandemic has put us all in that boat. It has made it obvious that we need collective action led by our elected officials, guided by government and private sector experts, to meet the crisis. My hope is that once it is over, the rising generations will see that the same is true of the ongoing crises they face.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.