Reaping What Elections Sow

In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding.

In a few weeks, voters in most states will be choosing new lawmakers again. They'll make their decisions based in part on how they believe the incumbents governed over the last two years. But because of the massive scale of changes ushered in by Tea Party Republicans, it's going to be extremely difficult—if not downright impossible—for voters to judge the effects of those changes. They are only just beginning to feel the effects of right-wing policy decisions that will have repercussions for decades to come.

The most extreme example may be Texas. In 2011, the new, heavily Republican legislature got to work pushing the agenda further to the right. With a huge state budget deficit and most lawmakers having taken the Grover Norquist pledge never to raise taxes, the radical Republicans used the deficit as an excuse to take an axe to public schools and family-planning programs. For the first time in modern state history, Texas lawmakers cut funding to schools—by a whopping $5.4 billion over the two-year budget cycle. The Republicans cut funds for family planning by two-thirds, slashing the total from $111 million to less than $38 million for the two-year period. To make matters worse, the legislature also imposed new restrictions on the state's Women's Health Program, a Medicaid-funded program serving low-income women who are not pregnant. Planned Parenthood was barred from receiving funds.

As in other states, these cuts will have long-term consquences that are only just beginning to be felt.  A recent report from Children at Risk, a Houston non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group that focuses on issues affecting children, highlighted the impact of funding cuts for public schools. Even before the cuts took place, Texas already ranked at the bottom in per capita education funding, and struggled to reduce a high high school dropout rate particularly among nonwhite students. The new budget landscape will likely make things worse. Taking a random sample of 120 schools, researchers used questionnaires as well as site visits and teacher and staff interviews to examine what happened to the daily routines in schools. The results weren't pretty: More than 10,000 teaching positions were eliminated last year and more than one-third of districts had to reach into emergency funds to balance their budgets.

These findings point to a terrifying future. Texas is growing rapidly—on average, there's been more than 80,000 new students entering public schools each year for the last four years. After the major setback of the last legislative session, it's hard to see how schools will regain their previous footing. If more Democrats and moderate Republicans get elected, school funding may increase, but it's unlikely to return to former levels any time soon—even as more and more students enter the system. The financial health of school districts will worsen, and their emergency funds will likely get used more and more, leaving little wiggle room for other monetary woes. The quality of public education in Texas, never particularly high, will suffer for years, if not decades.

The situation is even bleaker when it comes to family planning. An article about funding cuts in Texas came out on Tuesday in The New England Journal of Medicine. The report notes that 35 family-planning organizations have lost their state funding entirely. Many others saw their funding slashed by as much as 75 percent. As a result, many clinics have stopped offering access to some of the most effective types of birth control, like IUDs and implants under the skin, because they're too expensive. A lot more patients are charged for basic exams and birth-control pills. Poor women's options for medical care have shrunk—bad news in a state where one in four people are uninsured and where the cervical-cancer rate is among the highest in the country.

Voters won't know for years just what outcomes these policies have yielded. What will the inevitable rise in unwanted pregnancies mean, for instance? With Texas's increasingly large young and poor population, it will mean increased health costs—and therefore fewer options—for poor families down the road. As the NEJM report notes, women who get pregnant unintentionally often do not get good prenatal care. Their children may not be as healthy as they could be. And as they grow, those children will enter schools with fewer teachers and fewer resources; outreach programs for at-risk students were one of the programs to be slashed statewide. 

When voters evaluate incumbents, in Texas and elsewhere, they're looking mostly at how things have changed in a two-year period—"Are you better off now?" But the kinds of radical and sweeping changes made in Republican legislatures after 2010 can't be measured so neatly or so soon. After things swung so decidedly right in 2010, it is likely that the GOP will see some losses in states like Texas, where the Tea Party was so dominant in 2010; in red states, presidential election years bring out more Democrats than mid-term elections. Voters may be rethinking some of their choices, especially in the cases of largely unknown Tea Party candidates who rode the wave to victory in 2010. But they won't have the most important knowledge on which to base their deciaions—what the legislators' decisions have meant to their lives, and their states—for quite a while.


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