Conservatism, without George W. Bush’s modifier

The governor’s decision to opt out of the federal refugee resettlement program marks a shift in the state’s Republican establishment over the last two decades.

by Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune

Governor Greg Abbott.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest foray into immigration and human welfare — deciding the state won’t take part in the federal refugee program — raised expected (Democrats) and unexpected (Catholic bishops) outcries. But it’s all of a piece, given his recent loud critique of the City of Austin’s policies on homeless Texans in that city and his long-standing opposition to expanding Medicaid benefits in the state.

It’s an exhibition of how far the Republican Party establishment in Texas has moved over the last 20 years, from the governorship of George W. Bush to the present. Bush had more Democrats to contend with than Abbott, starting with a Democratic legislative majority and never, during Bush’s time in the Governor’s Mansion, getting any better than a split Legislature with a Republican-majority Senate and a Democratic-majority House.

Times have changed. Politics in Texas isn’t the same. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” a slogan from his first run for president in 2000, is outmoded, passé, a quaint political notion from the turn of the century.

Abbott represents a harder side of the Texas heart.

He let the U.S. State Department know that Texas won’t take part in the refugee resettlement program, writing that the state’s public and private agencies should use their resources for people already here, “including refugees, migrants, and the homeless—indeed, all Texans.”

He said the state has already been stuck with “disproportionate migration issues,” throwing legal refugees into the argument over the “broken federal immigration system” and migrants apprehended on the state’s southern border. And he said refugees initially admitted in other states — at least 42 states are taking part in the program — can always move here after having settled elsewhere. During his time as governor, 22,583 refugees have settled in Texas, according to the Refugee Processing Center. “Texas has carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process,” he wrote.

The blowback from Democratic corners was characteristically loud and sharp, even drawing attention from at least one presidential candidate. But the less predictable criticism came from faith leaders, in particular a rebuke from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. They said they respect Abbott, a fellow Catholic, but found his decision “deeply discouraging and disheartening.”

Those were not Abbott’s first words on the down-and-out, or even on refugees. Abbott unsuccessfully sued to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas in 2016. And the governor has lately taken a hard line in a running argument with the City of Austin over its homeless policies, suggesting that relaxed local camping laws have exposed the city’s residents to crime. He’s also used state police and other resources to clear encampments in parts of the city and opened a plot of state land for people experiencing homeless.

At least 25,000 people in Texas are experiencing homelessness, according to a recent count by organizations and volunteers who did an annual count last year. Austin had the highest share of homeless residents who weren’t living with any kind of shelter.

This kind of thing isn’t new in Texas.

Like his predecessor, Rick Perry, Abbott has kept the state out of the Medicaid expansion offered under the federal Affordable Care Act; opting in would make an estimated 1.1 million Texans eligible for coverage. Most states have taken the expansion, which requires a state to spend relatively small amounts of money to draw much larger amounts of federal matching funds. Most Republican leaders in Texas have argued that it would increase health care costs and worried that the federal government might someday end its promise to pay the lion’s share of the coverage.

They’re saving money for the state government, if not for the state overall; somebody has to pay for whatever health care those 1.1 million people get. And the homeless in Austin have to occupy space somewhere, even if it’s not downtown where the people in business suits have to step over them. And those refugees can get their start on the American Dream in 42 other states.

Texas is too busy right now.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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