By Lynn Ashby 28 February 2011
As our legislators wrestle with their latest budget gap of billions of dollars, the GOP majority says it won’t raise taxes. The Dems say taxes must be increased. But all agree we’ve got financial problems. At such times lawmakers who know their history might be sighing, “Sully, come back!” You see, once Texas had such a huge surplus of funds that Gov. Sul Ross had to call a special session of the Legislature to determine what to do.
Therein lies a tale worth re-telling in light of today’s squeeze. First, let’s take a look at Sul Ross, the only university president (Texas A&M) I know of who had another university named for him: Sul Ross University, obviously. He was born Lawrence Sullivan Ross near Waco. His great grandfather had been captured by Indians as a six-year-old child, and lived with them until he was rescued at 23 years. Ross’s father was an Indian agent, so Sul grew up with a greater understanding of the Indians than most Texans. He loved the good ones; he killed the bad ones.
During a summer vacation home from his college in Alabama, Sully led a company of Indians from his father’s reservation against the dreaded Comanche. The next fall back at college Ross may have taken part in the dorm bull sessions. “Hey, Sully, what did you do this summer?’
“Well, we were in the middle of a battle with the Comanche when four of us spotted a little white girl who was a captive. As we were getting her, we were jumped by 25 braves. Two of us were killed immediately. My gun misfired. I got an arrow in my shoulder and was then shot point-blank by a brave. It was Mohee, a Comanche I’d known since we were children together. As I was lying on the ground, Mohee whipped out his scalping knife and was about to scalp me when his chief called him away to kill someone else. My Indian friends rescued me and nursed me back to health. What’d you do this summer?”
After college Ross joined the Texas Rangers and at age 21 was made captain of a Ranger company. In yet anther battle against the Indians, he caught up with Nacona, a Comanche chief who was responsible for much of the carnage along the Texas frontier. Ross shot Nacona and rescued a white woman who turned out to be Cynthia Ann Parker.
When the Civil War broke out, he entered the Confederate Army as a private and wound up a general. His earlier combat experiences proved useful – Ross participated in 135 engagements, including 112 days of fighting around Atlanta. After the war he took up farming, then got into politics and became sheriff of McLennan County (Waco) and a state senator. Eventually he ran for governor.
In January 1887, Ross was inaugurated governor. He was the first to use the new capitol. That is when he had to tackle the problem of too much money. Part of the trouble was that most of the taxes came in during December and January. The money sat around until it was spent during the rest of the year. Then, all of a sudden, the U.S. government, acting on advice from the Army, paid Texas $927,177 as restitution for Indian depredations and expenses incurred by the state.
The expenses were run up in the 20 years after the Civil War because the Texas Rangers – not the U.S. Army – did much of the fighting against both Mexican bandits and hostile Indians. In addition, Texas patrolled its own border with Mexico, the only state or territory to do so. Washington reimbursed Texas for the cost and made good such losses as cattle rustled by the bandits and the Indians. The sum came to a tidy amount, particularly in those days.
A reporter from the Galveston Daily News went to the state vault, which held $2 million in cash alone, 20 percent of all the money in the state rendered for taxation. He saw not only a huge vault but within it, a safe. He wrote: “The vault contained a large burglar-and fire-proof safe, in which $1,250,000 in paper money was neatly arranged in packages, forming a compact square mass, ten by twenty-four inches, and eighteen inches high. In the same money chest about $25,000 in gold bars was resting secure from moth and rust. Outside the safe a pyramid of silver in bars was built from the floor nearly to the ceiling, resting against the west wall of the vault.
“Another safe was covered nearly to the ceiling with boxes of silver. Several tons of the precious metals were in view. In the corner was a pile of money bags containing silver quarters, halves and nickels. In the safe first mentioned, in addition to the cash, were shown in packages some $7,000,000 in bonds, viz, $2,991,000 of state bonds and $2,276,000 of county bonds, $1,753,817 of railroad bonds, besides $79,400 of public debt certificates.”
Gov. Ross could handle attacking Indians, bandits and Yankees, but he did not know how to handle that huge surplus. On March 27, 1888, he complained to a press conference that he couldn’t sleep the night before, worrying about what to do. “I don’t feel authorized to keep so much money locked up full a year if deferred until the regular session.”
So he called a special session to deal with too much money – the only Texas guv to do so — and suggested that some funds should be set aside to pay the state’s bills for the rest of the year, some should go to raises for school teachers, and the state should repay $96,000 borrowed from the university fund. Then the new capitol had to be furnished, the state needed new asylums, and so on. What was left, Ross, said, would still be considerable, and that money should be returned to the taxpayers.
Yes, indeed. Sully, come back!
Ashby is taxed at email@example.com