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Renée Loth

What’s the matter with Texas?

By Renée Loth
August 20, 2011

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TEXAS GOVERNOR Rick Perry brought his nascent presidential campaign to New Hampshire this week, touting his state’s record on jobs. And why wouldn’t he? Compared with the rest of the floundering US economy, Texas is ablaze with job creation. Four out of every 10 new jobs since June 2009 have been in Texas, and Perry says his program of low taxes and loose regulation is the reason why.

But is Texas really a model for the country? Let’s look a little deeper. A million jobs in the decade that Perry’s been governor sounds like a lot, but that hasn’t kept pace with the Texas-sized boom in the population over the same period, when 4.5 million job-seekers made the Lone Star state their home. So unemployment in Texas is a middling 8.2 percent - lower than the national average, but higher than the 7.6 percent in Massachusetts.

Further, to quote another governor who tried to ride his state’s economic miracle to the White House, are they “good jobs at good wages?’’ Apparently not, since a third of Texas workers earn too little to stay above the federal poverty line. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest percentage of workers earning the minimum wage, the lowest-paid workers of all 50 states.

Other indicators also should give the nation pause. Texas is dead last among the states in the percentage of its adult population with a high-school diploma. It is last in the percentage of children covered by insurance (Massachusetts is first, even though Mitt Romney tries not to let anyone know it.) It’s last in the percentage of pregnant women who receive prenatal care in their first trimester. But hey - it’s number one in five kinds of air pollution, and in death-penalty executions.

Many of these figures come from an annual report published by the Texas Legislative Study Group, a non-partisan caucus of the state legislature. The caucus is dominated by Democrats, but the report’s statistics come from the US Census or other independent sources.

Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston, who spent 10 years on the House appropriations committee, chairs the caucus. “This report tells me that Texas is a state in decline,’’ he said. “We can attract hamburger-flipping jobs all day long, and if we keep cutting education that’s all that will be available.’’

He describes an interconnected web of factors driving down the quality of life in Texas: a massive disinvestment in public education begets an unskilled workforce, which begets low-paid jobs with no health care coverage, which leads to a high rate of obesity and disease, which begets strains on the budget, which force more cuts. Perry “balanced’’ a $27 billion budget deficit this year by slashing $4 billion from the public schools. The report’s title is “Texas on the Brink.’’

Bottom line? “Everyone in America should know that it’s not going to be a crystal stair if Rick Perry is president,’’ Coleman said.

There’s another figure that undermines Perry’s image as a tribune of anti-Washington purity: Federal money consistently makes up about a third of the Texas budget. When he announced his candidacy last week, Perry promised that he would work hard to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.’’ But Washington’s largesse to Texas has doubled since Perry has been governor, to $200 billion. That’s a lot of consequence.

Texas got more federal money for defense and veterans affairs than any other state in 2008. Perry grumbled, but eventually accepted $16 billion in stimulus money. And about 300,000 of those shiny new jobs were in the dreaded public sector: state and local government.

As Michael Dukakis learned when he tried to project “the Massachusetts miracle’’ onto the national stage, state economic conditions are fickle. A miracle can quickly become a mirage. But Rick Perry’s vision for a nation modeled on Texas seems clear. It is a place with less government, to be sure. But also with less education, lower incomes, smaller ambitions, dirtier air, unhealthier lifestyles, and greater gaps in equality.That’s what’s the matter with Texas, and that’s what the rest of the country would be wise to avoid.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.