May 24, 2010
AUSTIN — It’s pretty much assumed the state will have to dip into its rainy-day savings account to help bridge a huge budget shortfall, but Sen. Kirk Watson just made the challenge of getting enough votes look a little tougher.
Watson said before he’ll vote to spend any of the $8.2 billion expected to be in the fund when lawmakers write the next two-year budget, leaders and lawmakers must first agree to budget reform.
Any opposition is important because budget writers must get a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to spend money from the fund. “It’s going to be hard,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.
Watson’s an Austin Democrat, so his position highlights the notion that budget writers will have to do more than convince the most conservative Republicans to spend rainy-day money. They’ll also have to satisfy Democrats pushing their agendas.
Watson takes issue with tricks like the use of nearly $3.7 billion in levies ostensibly collected for particular purposes – from combating pollution to helping people struggling to pay their electric bills – being used instead to balance the budget. He’s concerned about debt. He’s alarmed over the continuing effects of the finance package that cut local school property tax rates without raising other state taxes enough to cover the cost.
Watson’s position got widespread attention last week when he talked about it to the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. Watson told me later he’s not suggesting that tax money diversions, for example, must stop immediately — but he wants a plan.
“It does cause concerns,” Pitts said. “If we try to start ending diversions this session — we’ve got a pretty ugly picture already, and if we paint it with things like that, it’s going to get uglier. But … if he has proposals, I’d sure be glad to listen to ‘em.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said, “It’s premature to comment until it’s clear what our revenue picture’s going to be exactly.” But he added, “We’re going to need to use some of the rainy-day fund.”
Why insist on budget reform when lawmakers are scrambling to fill a huge hole? “The huge hole is a result of a process that needs to be reformed,” Watson said. “It may be the best time to do it.”