Austin, Texas—Rick Perry has a problem. No, it’s not the name of his hunting lease. It’s not his wobbly performances in the debates. It’s not even where he stands on the issues. Indeed, as the longest-serving governor of the nation’s second-most populous state, Rick Perry is perfectly qualified to run for president. Instead, the Texas governor’s big problem is that his state, contrary to the pitch he’s giving crowds nationally, is in trouble, big trouble. While he campaigns around the country, Texas is suffering from an historic drought which is likely to be one of the ten costliest natural disasters in recent U.S. history. The losses are mounting into the billions just as the economy in Texas is slumping, with an unemployment rate that’s now nearly equal the national average.
And Perry—alone among the Republican candidates—has a moral obligation to govern. He is the only candidate who is a chief executive with responsibilities in his home state. And whether America loves or hates Rick Perry the presidential candidate, the fact is we Texans need our governor back home. Now.
FIRST ON THE LIST of Texas’s problems is the drought. Unlike a hurricane or an earthquake, a drought unfolds in a cruel but relentless slow motion. The natural world dies, a little at a time every day, and death harvests the young first. Up on the 6,000-acre Storm Ranch in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, malnourished whitetail does, unable to produce enough milk, leave their fawns to die of starvation. The young maples and oaks die too, without the roots of the old trees to reach the water table, retreating ever further as the days pass without rain.
The scale of this drought is nothing short of colossal. It is the worst one-year drought in over 100 years of record-keeping, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the state meteorologist in College Station. A landscape the size of Connecticut has been blackened by fire; the recent Bastrop fires created a plume of smoke so massive it looked like an atomic weapon had been detonated south of Austin. Ranchers drive thirsty cattle to water—only to watch them bloat up and die from drinking too fast. Forced to sell herds early, they are incurring billions in losses and losing the very DNA of their livestock, forcing them to start from scratch next season if they can afford it.
It is the drought’s economic damage, however, that is now beginning to uncoil like a rattlesnake in the tall grass. Officially, direct agricultural losses have amounted to $5 billion. But Ray Perryman, one of the most respected economists in Texas, told me that direct losses will mount to about $7 billion before this year is even over. And the damage by no means stops there; ranchers and farmers are insured for some losses—but often highly leveraged. Perryman estimates that the multiplier effect—farm equipment, seed, fuel, consumer products not purchased as a result—will bring the indirect losses to a staggering $24.5 billion when 2011 draws to a close.
Moreover, with a second La Nina year now predicted, the drought is likely to stretch onward into next year and possibly longer (Nielsen-Gammon has predicted that the drought could linger another five years and even until 2020), with damage extending beyond fields and cow pens into cities and suburbs. In Austin, foundations are cracking as the brittle limestone soil crumbles without moisture. Some $100 million in houses have been consumed by the wildfires. Losses from the tourism industry have so far gone uncounted, even as lake levels fall. And next year, water restrictions seem likely to impact business, not just disgruntled suburbanites.
The drought’s economic effects, meanwhile, are likely to collide with the state’s other biggest problem: increasing unemployment. When Perry campaigns he likes to tell the story about how Texas created more jobs during the Great Recession than any other state; a fine and true story, in fact, though some smaller states saw employment rise at faster rates. Perry could crack accurately, if somewhat callously, in 2009 about the recession: “We’re in one?”
But no longer. Now unemployment in Texas is approaching the national average—fast. The unemployment rate in the state now stands at 8.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The last time that unemployment was higher in Texas was November, 1986, when a historic bust in oil prices collided with the aftershocks of the Savings and Loan Crisis to turn downtowns into ghost towns.
Now, 20 years later, it is state and local governments that are adding to unemployment in cities and towns alike. Facing a $27 billion shortfall—and being caught with just $9 billion in the bank, the state’s so-called “rainy day” fund—the legislature and the governor in Austin simply slashed every facet of the budget. State agencies quickly dropped thousands of employees from the payroll—over 1700 from the state prison systems alone, according to The Texas Tribune. The cuts then ripped through cities and school districts. Estimates from the state’s school districts have suggested that as many as 100,000 teachers could be laid off when it’s all said and done. It was not exactly a prudent display of financial planning in Austin, especially given the foreknowledge of a national recession that had begun nearly two years earlier.
IT TURNS OUT that every time Perry leaves the state, the lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, is in charge of the Texas government. Except that Dewhurst is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Around Austin, a favorite parlor game is the game of political musical chairs: Who gets whose job should Perry become president? But the game that’s not being played is the what-if game: What if being governor of Texas in a time of deepening trouble here is a higher calling than running for—and quite possibly not winning—either the nomination or the higher office itself? In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie was loud and clear in his decision not to run: “I will not abandon my commitment to New Jersey.”
So what if Rick Perry felt like Chris Christie? What could he do? He could start by doing something about rising unemployment. On the campaign trail, Perry touts the past success of his Texas Enterprise Fund. The fund spent $439 million since 2003 to create up to 59,000 jobs, according to the Associated Press—a somewhat dubious figure, but some 30,000 have indeed been created. So Perry could return to the state and focus on jobs.
And while Perry most certainly cannot make it rain, he could find ways to better help both farmers and businesses deal with the current drought. The state has drafted a statewide water plan and is even considering amending the Texas Constitution to issue $4.2 billion in state bonds to finance more water projects. Voters will be deciding on the issue next month and, without the bonds, the state water board claims it cannot afford to provide additional financing “to meet water and wastewater infrastructure needs of Texas.” Perry could come home and advocate for the amendment to pass. And he could even go a step further and become a regional leader on water issues in the Southwest, where population growth is booming and water supplies are in decline. But first he would need to acknowledge one tricky thing: climate change.
Indeed, other governors in the Southwest have done a much better job grappling with the crucial and intersecting issues of the region’s economy, drought, and water supplies. In the early part of the last decade, Arizona, at the direction of then Governor Janet Napolitano, adopted a statewide strategy for dealing with drought and a swelling population. And in Texas in the 1950s, Governor Allan Shivers, a conservative Democrat, rallied the Texas congressional delegation—as well as cattlemen across the Southwest and other Southwestern governors—to fight the Republican Eisenhower administration over its paltry drought relief proposal during that historic drought. While Shivers was the leader in the fight, it was Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson who put it best. The administration’s aid offer, Johnson said, “was just enough to liquidate the remaining assets and [give the rancher] a coach-class ticket out of town.”
Now that the Obama administration has turned up its nose at the drought relief that Governor Perry has requested, he’s got two options. He could shrug his shoulders and go off and campaign; or he could come home and assume his duties as governor—and fight. After all, he was just sworn into his third term in January of this year. Doesn’t he have that duty? Rick Perry, will you please come home?
Richard Parker is a journalist in Texas whose commentary is syndicated by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. He is the former associate publisher of The New Republic.