What if Texas really did secede?

Posted Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Pros and cons

Plentiful resources could be the difference

Texas is uniquely positioned to survive because of resources and population. It has one-fourth of U.S. oil reserves and one-third of the natural gas. The state's gross domestic product was $1.2 trillion in 2011, which would make it the world's 14th-biggest economy.

The challenges would be immense

The uncertainties are overwhelming: How would Texas manage healthcare and Social Security? How would it retire its share of the national debt? How would it repay federal loan guarantees for infrastructure and transportation projects?

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Some 177 years after a violent divorce from Mexico, some unhappy Texans are again touting separation from the motherland, this time after a presidential election didn't favor one of the reddest states in the country.

Perhaps it's no surprise. Texas is the only state that has twice tried breakaways, experiencing the spoils of victory in 1836 but the torment of defeat in 1865.

"Let each go her own way," Peter Morrison, Hardin County's Republican treasurer, wrote in a recent Tea Party newsletter, calling those who voted to re-elect President Barack Obama "maggots." Critics consider that sentiment nothing but bravado.

Still, the state's Republican leaders are in no mood to repair a fractured relationship with the federal government.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, has filed a bill designed to move $1 billion worth of Texas-owned gold bars from the Federal Reserve in New York to a Texas Bullion Depository.

Gov. Rick Perry quickly expressed his support for reclaiming the gold as only a Texan can: We'll come and take it.

"If we own it," Perry said on a radio program last week, "I will suggest to you that that's not someone else's determination whether we can take possession of it back or not."

But, gold standards aside, is secession a realistic option for the second-most-populous state?

Most experts say no.

The Constitution doesn't ban secession, but the question was essentially settled more than 140 years ago in Texas v. White. The post-Civil War Supreme Court ruled secession illegal, saying states could leave only with the consent of the other states, meaning it would likely take an act of Congress.

But stubborn advocates of breaking away, including more than 100,000 who signed a petition on the White House website, say the time is right.

Texas sent $198 billion to Washington for the federal cause in 2011-12. The state got back roughly 90 cents of every dollar. Theoretically, if all that money went to Austin instead, as part of a new Republic of Texas, citizens would get a 10 percent tax break.

The calculation, of course, isn't that simple.

Massive resources

Bob Smiley, a Los Angeles-based writer, has a bit of fun with a separate Texas in his comedic novel Don't Mess With Travis, which sort of qualifies him to speak on a topic that only a relative few take seriously.

"Of all the states which have talked about secession, the strength of the Texas economy mixed with the wealth of its resources make the Lone Star State uniquely qualified to actually have a fighting chance of pulling it off," he said.

Among the natural resources are 16 ports whose economic impact on the United States totals in the billions. For the past decade, Texas has been the top state for foreign exports. Last year, they totaled $265 billion, according to data from the Commerce Department and the Port of Houston, the nation's busiest port for foreign trade.

The state had a gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property -- of $1.2 trillion in 2011, according to figures obtained by the Texas comptroller's office. That would rank as the 14th-largest economy in the world. Houston by itself would be the 25th-largest.

Smiley noted that Texas possesses one-fourth of the nation's oil reserves and one-third of its natural gas reserves.

Texas' leverage is heightened by the fact that 95 percent of the United States receives its oil and gas from pipelines that begin in the Lone Star State.

All of that is indeed an advantage, said Jason Sorens, a professor of political science at the University of Buffalo who specializes in the study of separatist movements.

Locations that have net fiscal transfers, like Catalonia in Spain, or larger regions in terms of population have stronger independence movements, said Sorens, a Yale-trained researcher with a recently published book titled Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy.

"Frankly, Texas does seem more viable, as long as we're going with an extreme hypothetical," Sorens said. "It has the population, which makes it, at least from that perspective, more viable. It has the fiscal resources."

That doesn't mean it's feasible. Texas almost certainly will not leave the union.

But, what if ...

Secession vote

Texas' vote for secession in 1860 came despite an impassioned plea from Gov. Sam Houston.

The "Constitution and the Union were to be perpetual blessings to the human race," Houston said. "That the success of the experiment of our fathers was beyond dispute, and that whether under the banner of the Lone Star or that many-starred banner of the Union, I could point to the land of Washington, Jefferson and Jackson as the land blessed beyond all other lands, where freedom would be eternal and Union unbroken."

The North would win, Houston predicted, and the South and Texas would be crushed.

Times are different.

"There are a wide range of possible responses," Sorens said, "but I think we're long past deciding things that way."

Sorens, remember, was speaking about an "extreme hypothetical." But for some Texans, the debate is real.

Among the options bandied about by secession advocates is invoking the right under the U.S. Resolution of Annexation of 1845 to divide into five states. If that move succeeded, some say, the U.S. Senate would gladly vote to allow Texas to leave rather than tolerate eight more "Texas" senators in Washington.

But if the legislative branch -- or an established method of leaving, such as something akin to amending the Constitution -- did not consent to Texas' exit, the federal government would likely flex its political and economic muscle and exert pressure on the misbehaving state, Sorens said.

As for money, Capriglione's bill could be described as a starter kit for establishing a Texas currency.

Battling in court

Building a military and guarding borders and ports seem simple costs compared with untangling the massive social safety nets shared by Texas and the federal government.

A formal separation request would seem to be the precursor to a long and convoluted legal entanglement, as both entities would need clear language on how to settle compensation for Social Security and Medicare insurance benefits paid upfront.

Medicaid and CHIP payments paid out to the 4.8 million Texans on the rolls amounted to $23 billion in 2009, of which $16 billion was paid by the federal government.

Almost 3.2 million Texans are at least partly insured through the federal Medicare program, and even more are in its prescription drug coverage plans.

How would Texas' share of the national debt be resolved? Who would be responsible for disabled and aging veterans?

Federal loan guarantees worth $3.3 billion have helped with badly needed infrastructure and transportation projects, including the North Tarrant Express. What is the cost of federally owned property, such as air bases and the Army's Fort Hood and Fort Bliss?

Like the miserable married couple, the numbers should make any practical person step back and reassess, if not the measure of love, then the cost of divorce.

The numbers, however, also make the case for separation, advocates say.

Look how big and inefficient this nation is, they say. Half the world's countries have populations smaller than that of Massachusetts, said Harvard economics professor Alberto Alesina, who argues that austerity leads to growth.

For the majority, the legal and practical hurdles to secession make such talk nothing but a distraction. Still, when Texans talk, other people seem to listen.

"Secession is a deeply American principle," former Texas Congressman Ron Paul said, writing about the subject on his website. "This country was born through secession. Some felt it was treasonous to secede from England, but those 'traitors' became our country's greatest patriots."

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