AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM) – Will Texas have enough water for residents, enough classrooms to educate children, and enough highways to get around?
In an interview Monday, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst told CBS 11 News, with the state’s population of 26 million set to double in the next 40 or 50 years, it is time to tap some of the Rainy Day Fund, which could be nearly $12 billion by the end of 2015. Dewhurst said that would pay for increasing the state’s capacity for drinking water and highway construction.
The Lieutenant Governor said that he has had preliminary discussions with Governor Rick Perry about the move. “It’s still early,” he said. “I have to talk to the senators, I don’t want to get ahead of them, but several billion dollars.”
Dewhurst said that the state must start planning now, and not wait. “So each decade of the next four or five, we have to increase the number of our classrooms, our teachers, our drinking water, and our highway capacity each decade,” he said.
Democratic State Representative Helen Giddings of Dallas agrees that the state needs to prepare for the future. “I think we’re in fairly good shape,” she said. “We don’t have money to just throw around but, I think, if we’re careful in our budgetary process, we can take care of the needs of Texans.”
The 83rd Legislative Session begins Tuesday at the state capitol.
The Texas economy has surely bounced back from two years ago, and is expanding again. Because sales tax revenues have increased, the state has more money to spend. But Dewhurst and Perry say they still want to keep tight reins on the budget.
The state comptroller announced Monday that the state will have about $95 billion available to spend for the next two years, 2014-2015. That is about $23 billion more than what the state is spending this and last year. But Dewhurst told CBS 11 News that he actually sees a starting budget from the Senate at $88 to 89 billion. “We’ve got to continue to be smart and conservative with our budget. Fund our priorities, things that aren’t our priorities, don’t fund them,” he said.
In a statement Monday, Perry said, “Today’s revenue estimate is more evidence that we made the right decisions two years ago by budgeting carefully to meet the challenges of the national recession. The Texas formula of low taxes, reasonable regulations, fair courts and a quality workforce is the best way to continue creating jobs and growing our economy. Even as we head into the 83rd Legislative Session with higher revenues, we still need to focus on separating our wants from our needs, and continue to follow the conservative fiscal principles that have led to Texas’ ongoing success and will keep Texas strong.”
While times were tough in the last budget, the state says it ended up with a nearly $9 billion surplus. But the state still owes about $7 billion for this year, bringing the surplus to about $2 billion.
The Lieutenant Governor said that he does not want to spend all of the money that is available to the state. But among the issues he and others will face this session is whether to restore funding to public schools, which had their budgets slashed two years ago. Dewhurst pointed to the fact that school funding is now tied up in the courts after 400 school districts sued the state over funding. Dewhurst did not say if he favors restoring those cuts fully. “Whether putting it in now or later, we’re going to have to set aside money to go ahead and cover whatever decision comes out of the courts,” he said.
Giddings said, “I think they’re always are going to be people who will hide behind the lawsuit, because if the courts say you must, then everyone can come out and say the courts said we must, so we must.”
Just as there will be pressure from Democrats, school districts, and teacher unions to fully restore the cuts to public schools, there will also be pressure from Republican leaders to hold school districts accountable for student achievement.
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