Two faces of Texas: ol' boys and high tech

TEXAS: Wide open spaces . . . the last real bastion of laissez-faire capitalism . . . a place where the dollar a man earns is his own, not the government's . . . where it's still legal to drink and drive . . . where the good ol' boys still hold sway -- culturally, politically, and economically. Texas: a highly urbanized state where education and research are top priorities . . . where health care for the poor and other features of the welfare state are gaining new financial support . . . where vestiges of Christian conservatism, such as laws against Sunday shopping, are dying off . . . where high-tech aims to someday rival oil in the state's economy . . . where computers could someday replace oil derricks as symbols of the state's economy.

Which is the real Texas? Judging by the recently concluded session of the state's 181 legislators, the Longhorn State is both.

According to Democratic Lt. Gov. William Hobby, legislative action taken over the past year means nothing less than a ``revolution'' for Texas.

``These are sweeping changes that will bring in a new era,'' says Mr. Hobby. He points to approval of the state's first health-care plan for indigents; unemployment compensation for farm workers; health insurance for retired teachers; a new state human rights commission; and a high-tech research fund for the state's premier universities. He adds to this a sweeping, multibillion-dollar education-reform bill, approved last summer in a special session. The package included the state's first general tax increase in 17 years.

``Taken all together, these constitute a revolution'' that will mean above all ``a substantial improvement in the quality of life of the poorest in our state,'' Hobby says.

The Legislature's actions suggest a major shift for Texas. But, its members say, the changes reflect the state's rapid urbanization rather than any ideological metamorphosis.

Recognition of Texas' status as a major population center with diverse interests and complex problems -- including, for the first time, budgetary ones -- has led, they say, to a new consensus between the populous east and the wide-open west, between conservatives and those of more liberal stripes.

Evidence of the consensus comes from support among west Texans for legislation that appears to benefit urban areas, or among conservatives for what, taken at face value, appear to be liberal causes. Senate parliamentarian Camilla Brodie says that, far from suggesting a move in Texas to the left, approval this year of a number of social programs indicates ``a new enlightened self-interest.''

But there was also action in the biennial session, which ended May 31, that suggests a desire to hold on to a certain way of life in Texas -- one that is particularly free of government interference. Examples include continued refusal to consider either a personal or corporate income tax (the House even toyed with making such taxes unconstitutional) and failure to outlaw drinking while driving. The legislators' refusal to tighten up gaping loopholes in the state's open meeting laws is seen by some as a desire to hold on to closed-door governance by key power brokers, which they say figured into much of this year's most important legislation.

But several of those who believe major changes have occurred also suggest that the ``revolution'' and new-found consensus could end abruptly if revenue shortfalls make income taxes appear inevitable.

``The state has changed a great deal,'' says Max Sherman, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas here. ``Much of it is due to the large and growing urban presence.''

Mr. Sherman, a former state senator from west Texas, notes that more than half of the state's 16 million people live in the six largest cities: Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, and Austin. A recent United States Census Bureau report shows that 4 of the nation's 11 fastest-growing metropolitan areas are in Texas.

``The consensus may well be a realization that we can no longer close our eyes to the needs of half the population of the state,'' Sherman says.

John Leedom, a conservative and one of only six Republicans in the 31-seat state Senate, was a strong supporter of the health-care plan for indigents, despite opposition from state GOP leaders and last-minute lobbying against the plan by GOP US Sen. Phil Gramm.

Senator Leedom says his support derives from a belief that ``we should have indigent care, and it's right that the state should pay for some of it.'' But he adds that a more pragmatic reason for his support was a desire to create a system that ``spreads the burden of paying for such care to a much broader base.'' Under the old system, counties were responsible for providing such care. ``But many of them didn't,'' he says, ``so in our area, for example, you had the poor coming to hospitals in Dallas. The urban areas ended up paying a disproportionate part of the cost.''

Leedom says he agrees that urbanization is ``a common thread that runs through many of these issues.'' But he adds that another ``backdrop'' to the legislative action is that ``for the first time, Texas is wrestling with a lack of unlimited funds.''

The downturn in the oil business has been hard on the state's coffers. The state loses more than $40 million for every dollar drop in the price of a barrel of oil, not to mention the effects of reduced drilling and the closure of oil-supply businesses. Legislators began the five-month session in January with projections of a $1.2 billion deficit, but ended up balancing the two-year, $37.2 billion budget -- they hope -- through some cuts, and by raising various fees and college tuition.

The state's new budget troubles may have helped bring about other changes as well. According to Senator Leedom, repeal of ``blue laws'' prohibiting Sunday shopping was probably helped by claims that the extra day would boost sales-tax revenues by $24 million a year.

George Strake, state Republican chairman, says he believes the recently approved programs will mean state corporate and individual income taxes will have to be considered by the next Legislature, which meets in 1987.

``I tend to agree with the lieutenant governor that a revolution has taken place,'' adds Mr. Strake, ``but I'm not at all sure that it's a good one.'' Seeing elements of the welfare state in the new programs, Strake says: ``I'm not sure I like the Texas they're trying to build.''

The vehement opposition to any income tax may seem extreme to those long-since accustomed to such taxes, especially since per capita, Texans pay less in taxes than almost anyone else in the country. But Sherman says he believes many Texans in ``all economic categories'' take pride in the fact that Texas has no income tax. It's a reflection of a high regard for individualism, he says -- and a historic distrust of government.

Another vestige of disdain for government, he says, is the state's biennial legislative session, drafted in response to the carpetbagger governments that ran the state after the Civil War.

The right to drink while driving is also often seen as an individual decision that government should not try to regulate. Leedom, who supported a defeated open-container bill, says that even among some nondrinkers, ``it's taken to be a God-given right to drive around with a beer if a fellow wants to.''

For his part, Lieutenant Governor Hobby says many Texans still picture President Johnson driving his ``big ol' Caddy'' around his ranch at 100 miles an hour, throwing empty beer cans out the window. ``It's part of their image of Texas,'' he says.

Sherman says that despite such folklore, it's more likely that a strong liquor lobby, rather than individualistic Texans, is the primary reason for repeated defeat of open-container laws. Gov. Mark White did sign legislation raising the drinking age from 19 to 21.

Be that as it may, there is still evidence that Texans, no matter how urbanized, are a little different from longtime urban dwellers to the north.

After the Legislature voted in May to repeal the blue laws effective September, Chicago retailer Marshall Field & Co. announced that it would begin opening its Dallas store on Sundays. But it reversed that decision, apparently under pressure from locally owned stores. Despite some openings in other cities, retailers in conservative Dallas seem in no rush to open on Sundays.

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