Analysis: The case for big ideas in Texas government

United States astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag on the surface of the moon. He and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first people to land on the moon on July 20, 1969, during the Apollo 11 space mission. (Reuters, Reuters)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 27, 2022

John Kennedy set out to put humans on the moon. Lyndon Johnson wanted a Great Society. Ronald Reagan dared the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall.

They went big and made it happen, ignoring the usual political impulse for caution, embracing the risk for the shot at something big enough to capture Americans’ imaginations and push other elected and appointed officials to work together on something.

State governments in general — and Texas government, specifically — usually settle for caution. Campaigning candidates talk about a large range of subjects, an advantage for someone trying to show expertise on a variety of issues and a disadvantage for someone trying to focus.

George W. Bush, running for governor in 1994, was a rarely disciplined version of the second type of campaigner, telling voters and reporters and everyone else, over and over, that he wanted four things: tort reform, juvenile justice reform, education reform and welfare reform. His opponent, Ann Richards, said at one point, “If you ask him what time it is, he’ll say it’s time for tort reform.”

Bush won, and entered office with a short to-do list and enough momentum to get a Legislature with a Democratic majority to go along. He compromised some of what he originally sought to get the top-line wins, starting a political streak that carried him, six years later, to the White House.

Big stuff is hard. Complicated. Audacious. And it’s also possible, when leaders line up their political and policy goals carefully and then bear down, knocking down distractions and focusing on the grand prize. Those can be inspiring moments, even when you don’t agree on the goals they’ve picked. It shows what we’re capable of when we set our sights on something, stop chewing each other to pieces and get to work.

So much of what public figures do is bite-sized, short-term, emotionally appealing but in the long run, unimportant. Meanwhile, there is always plenty of work to do on the big things that account for most of what the state government spends and most of the people it serves.

Texas government spending on public and higher education and health and human services accounted for 72.6% of the 2020-21 budget. That’s certainly not everything the state government does, but it’s the heart of it. Public safety and criminal justice, according to Legislative Budget Board figures, accounted for 5.1% of that two-year budget.

Money is a way to measure what goes in, but not what comes out. Tearing down the Berlin Wall wasn’t a financial issue, really. And money wasn’t at the bottom of Bush’s four goals. Money can even get in the way of solutions. Building a wall on the Texas-Mexico border is expensive — and it’s neither an immigration policy nor a solution to persistent smuggling and trafficking problems.

Big ideas sometimes miss their mark. In 2001, Rick Perry proposed an infrastructure product that would have been visible from space, a “Trans-Texas Corridor” that would combine highways for freight and for passenger vehicles, rail lines, pipelines, electrical and internet infrastructure in quarter-mile-wide ribbons across the state. It didn’t work, for a variety of reasons, but it changed the conversation about transportation and infrastructure spending in the state, and politically, about Perry’s vision for the state.

Most of what governments do is incremental, operating programs and services and projects that have been in motion for years or even decades, tinkering with small changes and improvements, trying to fix what’s broken and keep what’s working.

Big turns in policy emanate from that pink granite Capitol in the middle of Austin, a place populated by the elections and animated by the instructions politicians infer from voters. But the first requirement is for candidates willing to pitch the moon shots, the social programs, the destruction of barriers to freedom.

The leaders are the candidates who ignore the little stuff — the ones who want to go big.