Texas Budget Debate Begins
AUSTIN (AP) – The comptroller has laid out the revenue numbers, Republican lawmakers have introduced budget proposals and Democrats and lobbyists have compiled lists of demands. Let the budget battle begin.
Every Texas lawmaker knows there is only one piece of legislation they must pass every two years — the general appropriations bill, also known as the budget. They have little say over how two-thirds of the state’s money is spent because it comes with strings attached, but they do control a portion called general revenue, and this year that totals $101.4 billion.
Whether that number is big or small, or represents a surplus or a shortfall, depends on the beholder’s politics.
Gov. Rick Perry sees a budget surplus and, therefore, an opportunity to cut taxes. He argues that by keeping government spending low, people have more money to spend and improve the economy.
Democrats such as Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, see a chance to restore billions of dollars in government services that lawmakers have cut since 2007, including $5.4 billion in funds for public schools. They say the most vulnerable Texans are suffering and the state needs better schools and roads to remain economically competitive.
And in the middle, there are those who simply ask, “What surplus?” Pragmatists such as Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, look at the last few budgets and see an accountant’s nightmare of deferred spending, budget gimmicks and a misrepresentation of the state’s true financial health. They want a more transparent budget to fully understand what’s going on.
The budgeting process begins with two bills in the Texas Senate and House, named SB 1 and HB 1, respectively. Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, introduced SB 1 with $88.9 billion in spending, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, introduced HB 1 with $89.1 billion.
For the next 128 days lobbyists, advocacy groups and everyday citizens will try to convince lawmakers to change these 959-page bills to better suit them. The draft bills will change dramatically as they move through subcommittees to full committees to floor debate and into conference committees before a final vote, usually in the last hours of the session.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has promised a very conservative budget, which no doubt is intended to improve his standing after Ted Cruz defeated him for the U.S. Senate by labeling him a moderate.
“This session, we will again balance our budget without raising taxes on Texas families and businesses, while keeping spending as low as possible,” Dewhurst pledged.
In the House, Speaker Joe Straus takes a slightly more hands-off approach, promising to allow the Republican majority to come up with the bill lawmakers want. But since a budget is ruled by math as much as politics, there are a few simple truths.
State Comptroller Susan Combs certified that the Legislature has $101.4 billion to spend this session, which include $8.8 billion in unexpected revenue in this budget cycle and $96.2 billion in revenue forecast for the 2014-2015 fiscal years. About $3.6 billion of the next biennium’s revenue will automatically go into the Rainy Day Fund, so that’s hands off without a four-fifths majority vote.
The first problem lawmakers face is that they did not appropriate enough money in 2011. Therefore they need to spend $5.2 billion to settle a budget deficit by March or the state can’t pay its bills. That leaves $96 billion to spend.
If the Center for Public Policy Priorities is correct in its estimates, that number is exactly what Texas needs to spend just to maintain the current level of government services after inflation and population growth. To spend any less, advocates for the poor say, would be cutting funds for the poor, young and disabled.
There is little chance, though, that Republican leaders would ever increase spending that much. Perry and Dewhurst have promised to limit government spending increases to population growth plus inflation, a rate estimated at 9.85 percent. Based on spending during this budget cycle, that puts the limit for the next budget at $94.8 billion.
Theoretically then, lawmakers can add another $5 billion to the current draft budget bills. The fight is on to see how that money might be spent.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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