January 7, 2011
Two major policy groups have expressed support for giving Texans more time to review the final version of the Texas budget – both in the context of a proposal by Senator Kirk Watson to have this final negotiated budget be publicly available for five days before legislators vote on it.
Both chambers of the Texas Legislature are set to adopt their own ground rules for the 82nd Texas Legislative Session next week. Senator Watson has announced he will urge the Senate to adopt a rule that makes sure the final version of the budget – known as the Conference Committee Report – will be available to legislators and the public for at least five days before the bill is voted on, and that makes it harder for the Senate to waive this basic commitment to budget honesty and fiscal openness.
Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said of Senator Watson’s proposal, “In the spirit of transparency, it would give people more time to look at the budget.”
Heflin, who is former chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the Texas House of Representatives, added, “We need to try to get more legislators to know what they’re voting on.”
Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, also called for the legislature to provide more time for Texans to review the final draft of the budget.
“The Center for Public Policy Priorities has always supported maximum transparency in the budgeting process,” said McCown, a former state district judge in Travis County. “Having the final version of the budget lay out for five days would give the public time to learn what is, and what is not, in the single most important bill of the session – and ensure that Texans have time to communicate with their legislators before any votes are cast.”
Senator Watson said the comments from both groups demonstrate the “simple openness, basic honesty, and fundamental first step toward accountability” that his proposal represents.
“Taking five days – a business week’s worth of budget honesty – would help us all evaluate whether Texas, even in the midst of a tough economy, is maintaining its commitments to schools, health care for seniors, border security, and other moral priorities that will keep Texas economically competitive,” Watson said.
“It would allow Texans to see whether the legislature is adopting basic reforms that will open the state’s books to its people, help Texas avoid these budget crises in the future, and eliminate gimmicks, diversions and cost-shifts that might force things like property taxes to go up.
“And it would guarantee that we all have enough time to know everything we need to know about how Texas is spending our money.”
Senator Watson’s proposal would also require what is known as the Outside the Bounds resolution, which details differences between the final budget and the drafts passed by the House and Senate, to be publicly available for five days, as well. And unlike most rules, which can be waived on a two-thirds vote, the Senate could set aside this rule only with the support of four-fifths of the senators.
Senator Watson’s proposal, part of an “Honesty Agenda” he laid out in a speech in November, would affect what’s known as the Conference Committee Report on the budget. This is the final version of the bill that is written (often out of public view) by members of the Texas Senate and House of Representatives after both chambers pass their own versions of the state budget.
The Conference Committee report reconciles differences in these bills, and it is the budget that is sent to the Governor. It can measure more than 900 pages and frequently includes provisions that were not included in either version of the bill, but were added by the Conference Committee. Generally, it is available to be reviewed by legislators and the public for a short period of time – always toward the end of the session, when the legislature is busiest.
For the current 2010-11 biennium, the total Texas budget is $182 billion. The General Fund budget, over which the legislature has the most discretion, is $87 billion. For 2012-13 biennium, the General Fund budget has been projected to face a shortfall of roughly $20 billion or more.