I held off sending the Watson Wire this week because there’s an announcement I’m making this morning, and I want you all to hear it first.
Today, I’ll file a package of reforms designed to make the Texas budget more sensible, open and honest. These bills are about making a positive change and putting the Legislature more in touch with Texans.
The bills will help citizens see how legislators are spending their money. They’ll also create checks and balances to ensure public funds are going toward things Texans want and expect the state to invest in.
My package would require the state to spend money in ways that legislative leaders have always promised – and it would block those leaders from diverting the same money into what amounts to a hedge fund.
It would create unprecedented public access to the budget-writing process so people can get answers to their own questions, not just those questions that budget writers choose to answer.
And it would help small businesses, kids and the economy by bolstering programs that everyday Texans need and support.
Taken together, I think these bills offer a new way of doing business at the Capitol – and they help guarantee that it’s really the people’s business we’re doing.
Fresh, Unglazed Eyes
I spend a lot of time trying to understand how the state appropriates money and balances its books. I really think nothing in government’s as important as the budget.
Unfortunately, there’s not much as boring, either.
Budgets glaze eyes like donuts. They’re thick documents, full of numbers that seem impossibly big and programs that sound hopelessly bureaucratic.
They’re where leaders store away money for honorable and dubious purposes, and where they shift spending in ways that are almost impossible to follow. Budgets don’t reward interest of outsiders – indeed, a lot of times, they just frustrate it.
But to me, budgets are essentially moral documents. For all the talk at the Capitol about what’s important for Texas, the budget is where legislators prove it. It’s where leaders make commitments to fellow citizens and future Texans – or where they decide not to.
Putting Texas Back on the Right Track
If Texans are going to trust their government, they need to trust the budget and those who write it. The reforms I’m proposing would take on many of the bad habits and outright mistakes that have chiseled away at the public’s trust over the years.
While many of these changes are significant and far-reaching, every one of these bills suggests a sensible, responsible, even conservative strategy for fixing problems that have bedeviled legislators and taxpayers alike.
And these aren’t partisan issues. I’m proud to say that different parts of this plan have the support of liberal and conservative groups alike.
Most importantly, they make sure we won’t worsen an already tough budget situation this year, but instead will take time to put Texas on a more responsible, open and honest path to writing budgets and spending money.
So here’s what my budget reform package would do:
- It would end the practice of diverting money away from the things people think it’s going for and require that programs be funded more honestly. In doing so, it would end a system that allows the Legislature to spend lots of money without openly saying where it’s coming from.
- It would create an unprecedented Internet transparency system, through which Texans could see exactly how legislators are budgeting taxpayer money.
- It would review the programs and operations in most state agencies from top to bottom, ensuring that government is as efficient and self-sufficient as possible and isn’t needlessly relying on tax dollars that could be going to schools and health care.
- It would move Texas Performance Reviews – an essential function that monitors how government works – out from under the legislature’s control so we can be sure that legislators aren’t “grading their own papers” when it comes to effectiveness and accountability.
- It would amend the state constitution to ensure that Texas is not only protecting the health of our kids, but also recouping the hard-earned tax dollars that Texans send to Washington to pay for children’s health care.
- It would protect small businesses by increasing the state’s business tax exemption; I’ll seek to pay for that change by closing loopholes in the tax.
Now Comes the Hard Part
I know that fixing these problems won’t be easy. In many cases, these issues have been festering for years, and they’re not going to go away in just a month or two.
Even with my proposals, it will take hard work, discipline, cooperation, and some sacrifice over the next two years to address all of these things.
But we can’t keep idly procrastinating and making excuses, particularly in tough economic times like these. In fact, the lean state budget probably makes this the perfect time to finally face up to these challenges.
After all, this is already the season for hard choices. If we fix these longstanding problems and end our bad habits, Texas will emerge from this difficult time stronger and more open than ever.