February 16, 2011
Back in the days when Texas state government was comparatively affluent remembered only by people with some gray in their hair the operative expression was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Given a multibillion-dollar gap between expected income and the money it would take to provide current levels of service, most people would say Texas finances are broke and need fixing. The argument about how much fixing is required is ongoing as legislators begin to wrestle with closing that gap.
The state’s top elected officials and the legislative leadership are hostile to the notion of raising taxes while an array of interest groups pleads for more services.
Regardless of how the budget problem of the 2012-2013 biennium is resolved, chances are better than good that the Legislature that convenes in 2013 to write the 2014-2015 budget is going to be facing another gap.
While the Texas government can’t print money, its residents would benefit from seeing clearly how legislators budget the money sent their way.
To say the Texas legislative budgeting process is murky is to say that Big Bend has a little caliche in it.
Now comes state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, with a package of bills that won’t necessarily make more money but would give Texans a clear picture of how the Legislature spends it. Watson campaigned on introducing transparency to the state budgeting process, and it is an introduction that is long overdue.
The Texas Constitution mandates that the state balance its budget, and legislators going back decades sometimes resorted to the financial equivalent of sleight of hand to achieve that balance. Last session, the budget would not have been balanced without an injection of federal stimulus money that is no longer available.
“For too many years, the budget has incorporated a toxic mix of debt, diversions and deception,” Watson said. “I simply don’t believe our state would be in this position if Texas had better information and the ability to get better information about how their money is raised and spent.”
Watson’s packet includes proposals to:
While Watson’s bills are not revenue generators, they do shed light on how the state spends its money. It’s a process that needs fixing. Trying to fix something in the dark guarantees nothing but skinned knuckles.
A growing, dynamic state needs a clear, reliable way to budget its money. What we have now is a convoluted, complicated way of budgeting that benefits those who know enough to take advantage of an unnecessarily complicated process.
Watson is a lawyer by education and profession, but this package of bills says he’s also a good mechanic.