City Hall

Small-Government Guys Have Big Paws Out for Welfare When It's Money They Want

Gov. Greg Abbott is for small government until Texas needs big money from the feds to cover up its mistakes.
Gov. Greg Abbott is for small government until Texas needs big money from the feds to cover up its mistakes. Gage Skidmore
The small-government conservatives would have a decent point to make, if they only meant it. We can’t always count on distant, national, career government officials to wipe our chins for us.

But the first time something goes seriously wrong — as things are wont to do in the real world — the small-government guys are the ones doing all the wailing and gnashing of teeth because the feds are not sending in enough chin-wipers to help us with our local woes.

Now, Congress is talking about a lot more money than it did initially for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston, but in October, when the total take in Washington welfare looked like it might be a measly $36 billion — and we had to share it with Puerto Rico and Florida! — Gov. Greg Abbott was furious. He accused the Texas congressional delegation of getting “rolled” by the small-government Trumpistas.

Abbott is supposed to be passionately small government. So are all bets just off when what he really wants is money? That’s a shame, because there are good arguments for people taking responsibility for their destinies when it comes to things like flood control.

In the end, of course, it’s always going to be up to you and me not to buy a house smack in the center of the inundation zone below a major dam. If nothing else, it’s definitely on us if we buy the house and then one day they have to open the dam. We’re the ones who drown.

Abbott is supposed to be passionately small government. So are all bets just off when what he really wants is money?

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It gets worse. The Abbottistas are also the guys who will argue that it’s Big Brother and communistic to warn us in big, bold letters that the house we’re about to close on is in the emergency flood zone beneath a reservoir. Wait, it’s even worse than that. These guys won’t even let the government warn us if the dam is bad.

Don’t believe me? Hey, if you want to see how this works, forget about Houston. Look at us. Look at Dallas.

Almost 12 years ago, the federal agencies everyone wants to beat up on now for not doing enough to help Houston tried to alert all of us in Texas and the nation that very bad things were ahead for us. We got a quite specific warning here in Dallas.

We didn’t just ignore the warning. Our city government spent your money and mine to join a national lobbying effort to get Congress to force federal agencies to stop warning us. The effort succeeded. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in response, did something that no bookie, theologian, physicist or loan shark ever dared: The Corps redefined risk. Not the risk. Not a risk. Not some risk. Risk, the whole thing, risk itself.

After the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress ordered the Corps to reassess the safety of the nation’s levee system. Levees are miles-long earthen berms along rivers that keep them from overflowing when there’s an unusual amount of rain.

All kinds of people, from farmers to federal agencies, build all kinds of levees, but the Corps is supposed to keep track of them all so people won’t flood their neighbors or build bad levees that could give way catastrophically.

In the post-Katrina survey, the Corps looked only at the big levee systems that the Corps built. Because the law requires local governments to chip in on the cost, those levees are sort of joint ventures between federal and local agencies.

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A younger, brighter City Council may have buried the Trinity toll road, but even from the grave, the project continues to cast its shadow on the city.
Brian Maschino
The news from the survey was bad. The Corps declared that 150 major levee systems in the nation were extremely inadequate. In Dallas, the news was really bad. According to the legal standards for levee safety, the Corps told Dallas, 15 miles of levees along the Trinity River through the densely developed center of the city could not be relied on to provide even the minimal level of protection.

Had we stopped in our tracks right there — had local officials taken this warning to heart and told us about it honestly — the warning would have inflicted three major, painful consequences even before the cost of rebuilding the levees: The first would have been the need for a great many land-owners to get better, more expensive insurance. The second would have been that everybody’s land in the path of possible flooding from a levee break would have been worth a lot less.

I think the city could have gulped hard and swallowed both of those, but the third consequence was one that City Hall could not and would not abide under any circumstances.

At that time, the power elite of the city, including the city’s only daily newspaper, was obsessed with building an expressway through the heart of the city to run along the Trinity River inside the levee system. For 15 years, while maneuvering unsuccessfully to get the highway project started, proponents in the business community and the media argued that jamming a massive concrete freeway onto the sides and, in some places, on top of the levees would have no deleterious effect on the levees.

But if the scientists and engineers working for the Corps were to be believed and if the Dallas levee system was really in the dire straits the Corps said it was, then obviously Dallas needed to jam its hands back in its pockets, forget about building a new highway and devote its energy and treasure to getting those levees repaired.

The levee survey carried out by the Corps after Katrina found that the Dallas levees could not protect the city from a so-called “100-year” flood, a commonly misunderstood technical term that means a pretty bad flood. After the lobbying effort and after the Corps was forced to redefine the concept of risk, the Corps said the Trinity River levees were good enough to protect against a 100,000-year flood. So more or less with the stroke of a lobbyist’s pen, the levees went from not good enough for the 100-year flood to good enough for the 100,000-year flood.

The fact that we never revisited that absurdity is one of the many ways in which the Trinity toll road project continues to threaten the city although a younger and wiser City Council has abandoned the project. The Trinity toll road, a product of decades of irresponsible and even stupid leadership at City Hall, continues to cast a long shadow on the city in many ways.

Let’s not even talk about federal flood insurance, which is basically another enormous federal welfare program supported by all of Texas’ so-called small-government types in Congress except Dallas Republican Jeb Hensarling. Taxpayers have bailed out the flood insurance program 16 times in its 25 years of existence; it was $20 billion in debt before it incurred another $10 billion in claims from Harvey, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The end-game in all this is that phony opposition to government control is really just camouflage for rapacious exploitation — a way to stop government from providing even minimal public protections so that social predators can sell houses to suckers in areas subject to flood danger. Houston Chronicle reporting in the last two months shows that Houston’s worst flood zones — the areas most susceptible to the next big one — contain $13.5 billion in real estate development.

The end-game in all this is that phony opposition to government control is really just camouflage for rapacious exploitation.

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We have every reason to assume that our situation in Dallas is at least parallel to Houston’s. We live in what the meteorologists call Tornado Alley, subject to extreme weather and extreme rainfall. If our local officials had paid any real attention to the Trinity River levee system farce and the so-called redefinition of risk, we would all have good reason now to be deeply concerned.

Sadly, our local officials at the time did the opposite, seeking to discredit the Corps and divert our attention from the real meaning of the post-Katrina levee survey. When it all goes bad, the same proponents of limited government will wave their arms and wail like Abbott, complaining that Texas needs more welfare from Washington to pay for and cover up its mistakes.

That’s not small government. There’s nothing conservative about the mentality of the people who run the state now. They’re just con artists.

It’s up to you and me to be truly conservative. We’re the ones who need to stop counting on government and start looking out for ourselves. We’re crazy if we think the people we’ve got running things now in Texas are going to do us any good.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze