May 19, 2010
Show Sen. Kirk Watson voting no on new taxes and on tapping the Rainy Day Fund – at least until state leaders provide meaningful reform on how the biennial budget is put together. That was the Austin Democrat’s message this morning at a breakfast conversation hosted by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith.
The threat of a no vote on taxes might not amount to much since Republican leadership will be loath to put new taxes up for a vote anyway. But on the second issue of tapping the Rainy Day Fund, Watson is throwing down a marker that could be significant.
Using at least part of the Rainy Day Fund, which will have a balance of $8.2 billion by year’s end and could have somewhere north of $9 billion in the next biennium, is part of the fundamental calculus in how lawmakers plan to tackle a budget shortfall next session of $18 billion.
Getting at that money requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, which makes a single Senator’s vote valuable.
“As a fundamental principle, we have dug such a deep hole by engaging in budget games that I can’t look at anybody in this audience and tell you that if we were to raise a tax … we might even agree with each other it might need to be raised, I can’t promise you that that tax would be used for what you believe it will be used for,” Watson said. “And I will not vote to increase the tax under those circumstances.”
He pointed to the practice of using unspent money in dedicated general revenue accounts for parks and for the system benefit as an example of what needs to be reformed. Watson has been down this road before. QR readers will recall that at the outset of the last legislative session, Watson unveiled a series of policy proposals that included moving the Texas Performance Review back to the Comptroller’s Office, creating a Google-type search tool for the state budget and setting a floor on the state’s funding commitment to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Watson noted ruefully this morning that his initiatives didn’t merit so much as a committee hearing last session but he noted one victory. He was able to amend the funds consolidation bill with a provision that would make it easier for the public to track funds diversions in the future.
He said that many politicians pride themselves on being fiscally conservative when they are really benefiting from excess capacity built into state systems by previous generations. He said that he feared that his son’s generation might be the first that will inherit a system with no excess capacity.
The real problem, he said, is the habit of doing ad hoc fixes of trimming a little here, adding a little revenue there that address short term problems but don’t address strategic priorities. “I believe that’s part of the way we have gotten ourselves in trouble. We come back session after session and try to put Band-Aids – what would you do this time, what would you do that time – and the Band-Aids are all washing off,” he said. “I think what we ought to be doing is we ought to be taking it down to the base, and we ought to be looking at how it is we’re going to rebuild that base, where we look at it based upon some values, and we take the time to do it.”