Need for Storm Aid Spotlights Texas' Complicated Relationship With the Federal Government

by | June 1, 2015

By Todd J. Gillman

The world is filled with stormy relationships. North and South Korea. Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys. Texas and Washington.

The state tussles with the federal government constantly -- over health care, pollution limits, civil rights enforcement and border security. But for all the friction and mistrust, there's also mutual interest. Money flows both ways. They fight Ebola together.

It's complicated.

Take last week. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court handed Texas a huge win in its fight to derail the president's immigration policies. Gov. Greg Abbott -- whose top priority as attorney general was taking Washington to court -- boasted of the decision as a triumph for the rule of law over central government overreach.

By Friday night, with much of the state flooded, Abbott was reaching out for federal disaster aid.

"They extend the middle finger to Washington, and now all the fingers are outstretched looking for a handout," grumbled immigrant advocate Frank Sharry, who views Texas as a major impediment to what he considers justice for 5 million longtime U.S. residents.

Texans -- especially but not exclusively the Republicans who control the state -- eye Washington with deep suspicion. The antagonists have tangled on border security, energy and education policy, endangered species protections, gay marriage and a host of other issues.

Maybe it's Texas pride at the not-quite-decade it spent as a country. Maybe it's Washington that's out of touch. Bottom line, this couple has grown apart.

"What I find is a growing distrust of the federal government. It's not just about the president. It's about leaders in both parties," said JoAnn Fleming, a Texas tea party leader in Tyler. "On a myriad of issues, they feel that Washington is just incompetent."

35% of state's budget

Until a decade ago, it was tempting to trace resentment to inequity. Texas residents and businesses had long sent more tax money to Washington than the state got back. That's no longer true, thanks to demographic changes, growth in military spending and other factors.

Fleming likes to cite research from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation showing that only 10 states' budgets rely more heavily on federal funds. Washington accounts for 35 percent of Texas' current two-year budget -- a statistic she uses to underscore the need for a backup plan, in case fiscal sanity ever takes hold in Washington.

"Texas has its hand on that debt shovel as much as anybody else," she said.

Border security is one of the many areas of acute disagreement and alternate realities.

The new two-year budget that lawmakers have sent to Abbott would set aside $800 million to beef up security. Texas leaders blame the need for such spending on federal failures.

But federal officials insist the border has never been more secure. The Border Patrol has doubled. The number of people in the country illegally has dropped by 1 million in the last eight years.

And then there's Operation Jade Helm 15.

Amid far-right concerns of impending martial law, Abbott ordered the state militia to monitor the eight-week U.S. military exercise spanning seven states, which the Pentagon calls a routine training operation.

"Texas is a big state with lots of people in it. Some see conspiracy whenever an agent of the federal government shows up; others see a potential protector or helper," said University of Texas at Austin historian and author H.W. Brands. "Lots of Western conservatives dream of breaking loose of Washington. The Texas version of the dream channels an actual moment in Texas history."

Disdain for feds

Widespread disdain for the federal government could explain why Abbott, at a news conference after the storms, thanked four neighboring governors for offering aid, while making no mention that a few hours earlier, President Barack Obama had assured him that he would expedite federal assistance.

"The federal government is a particularly convenient foil given President Obama's high unpopularity," said Mark Jones, chairman of political science at Rice University. "You're always going to have this tension between Texas and Washington. ... But let's imagine Scott Walker becomes president. We're likely to see the level of anti-D.C. rhetoric drop precipitously."

The deadly storms put a fresh spotlight on the tensions.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz proclaimed that, along with other Texans in Congress, he would insist on the state getting its due in recovery aid.

A feeding frenzy ensued on the left. Hadn't the tea party senator voted against Hurricane Sandy relief back in 2013? Well, yes. But like other conservatives, he cited concerns that the $60 billion price tag was bloated.

Still, Sharry imagined the Northeasterners in Congress giddy at the idea of making Texas grovel: "You guys weren't there in our hour of need, and you accuse the federal government of invading the state."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- one of Cruz's rivals for the White House in 2016 -- took nearly that tack. Asked Friday if he views Cruz as a hypocrite, he noted the congressional delays on Sandy but said: "The folks in Texas deserve to get federal aid to help them, and this is not the kind of thing where we should be playing tit for tat."

Feelings run deep

In Austin, anti-Washington sentiment runs deep. Two weeks ago, the Texas House overwhelmingly approved a call to amend the U.S. Constitution to curb federal spending, powers and jurisdiction.

"It's time for the states to exercise state sovereignty," the author of that resolution, state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, said by phone from Austin. "Our 36 congressmen from Texas, the majority of them are conservative and they understand the issues. But they're only 36 out of 435."

It wasn't always that way.

Lyndon Johnson, master of the U.S. Senate, was revered for his ability to manipulate the levers of power to deliver such tangibles as rural electrification. Even within the past decade, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison enjoyed widespread affection for her own skill at securing funds for research, roads and local projects.

By the 2010 elections, the tea party wave was cresting. Gov. Rick Perry turned Hutchison's earmarking acumen against her in the GOP primary, to devastating effect. Before Cruz or Abbott, he positioned himself as a 10th Amendment, states' rights champion.

To Jones, the Rice professor, tensions arise because on gun rights, abortion, taxes and most other debates, Texas tends to be more conservative than the nation overall.

"The nation is constantly trying to pull Texas closer to the center," he said.

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