November 15, 2010
We have to go back to where this fire started. We have to understand the mistakes that were made – not to re-litigate the past, but to have a clearer idea of what we need to do and what we need to avoid.
And we need to be honest and clear-eyed about the enormity of the problem we face. Denial and covering up the problem have done this state no favors.
But there’s no more powerful truth serum than a tough budget. And here’s the truth we’re now seeing so clearly:
The budget is a disaster … but it’s not an entirely natural one.
This government – our government – has failed us. It’s been irresponsible with our money, less than candid in its accounting of it, and grossly undisciplined in its empty promises of something-for-nothing.
Yes, the economy is suffering – far more than many have been willing to admit in recent months. And yes, this downturn has taken a real and significant toll on the state and its people.
But the truth is that it took the legislature and others in government to make things as bad as we’re seeing. The folks in control of the state’s finances left the kindling lying around and had every reason to expect it to ignite. And when it did catch fire … well, there wasn’t much of a fire department left to extinguish it.
For years, those in control have balanced the budget with a combination of debt, diversions, and deception.
They’ve diverted billions of dollars that had been promised to roads, parks, hospitals, clean air, utility bill relief, and other necessities – using it instead as a special piggy bank to make the books look balanced.
In fact, over $3 1/2 billion dollars of what people pay to support specific, basic needs and government functions is being diverted in this way. That’s a lot of promises made and then broken. And this deceptive practice has grown – more than doubled – over the past decade.
And of course, the budget still diverts more than a billion dollars in motor fuels money, despite the broken promises of so many that there will be plans to stop this irresponsible practice.
Those in control have also relied increasingly on debt, particularly in the area of highways, ending the state’s responsible “pay-as-you-go” approach, leaving us all overly dependent on the hypocritical tax of toll roads, and sending debt service skyrocketing more than 250 percent in 10 years.
And, maybe worst of all, they recklessly promised an election-year giveaway without being able to pay for it.
In 2006, those in control revised the Business Tax knowing full well that it wouldn’t cover the check they were writing as part of a tax shift. In the years since, the new Business Tax has failed to live up even to its own inadequate promises.
And the failure has been hidden or covered over through, among other things, a Texas-sized bailout of state government last session. The accounts and money previously used to conceal this failure are gone, spent. The reckoning is here.
Such shortsighted schemes might have worked a while longer if the economy had stayed good and budget writers weren’t yet completely hooked on gimmickry.
But they became more and more common, more and more dangerous. Meanwhile, the flames of the recession began to lap up against Texas and its budget, exposing the weaknesses in – and poor management of – our finances.
The mismanagement of the budget – this irresponsible handling of our most moral document – makes it harder and harder to balance the state’s finances, and all but impossible to sustainably balance them. And that means it’s harder and harder to provide necessities that are patently good for Texans and the future Texas economy.
And now, in the light of this blaze, many of those responsible for it look at it with nothing but despair and complacency.
So those in control lock themselves in backrooms and quietly decide that Texas will no longer live up to its legacy. If allowed to continue, these practices will betray our children by assigning them the responsibility of building their own roads, creating their own water supplies, securing themselves, and rebuilding an education system. They will force our children to both clean up the mess and, at the same time, try to catch up with a global economy that’s passing us by.
And they declare, like it’s some grim joke, that nothing good is going to happen. They grasp for this overarching excuse as though it somehow absolves them of the tragedy they created and forecloses on the possibility – the imperative – that we all do good and do better.
Well, it’s up to us, all of us, to prove them wrong.
We owe it to this state, to its parents, to our schools and our teachers, to our small business owners and innovators, to our elderly and infirm – we owe it to our kids – to reject this immoral notion.
We owe it to our children to force those responsible for these wrongs not only to be accountable for them, but to correct them.
We owe it to our children to put Texas on a path to stability, where it can tend to its necessities and its future.
Only the most radical government philosophy would say we can’t, shouldn’t or won’t keep our people safe and healthy. Or that we shouldn’t provide our children with the water and roads and power and other fundamental necessities and economic building blocks that our own parents and grandparents left to us.
And it would be truly, frighteningly radical – well beyond the mainstream values that have defined Texas since it’s own Declaration of Independence – to waffle on our commitment to offer all of our kids the best possible education, or to try to get Texas through the 21st Century without a workforce that’s ready to compete.
They say there’s no hope? This is just the way it has to be under these circumstances? I say that’s the same sort of deception and irresponsibility that got us here.
They say they’re the victims of these uncertain times? I say they’re the cause of them.
They say we just don’t understand the process, or that we don’t need to know the truth about how public money has been mismanaged, or that it’s somehow too early to contemplate what necessities we’re all supposed to live without?
Well, I say Texans are smart enough to understand that their leaders have led them into a budget crisis. And I say they – we all – deserve every bit of information that could show how we ended up here … and how we’re supposed to get out.
No one, no matter how conservative, should feel good about brutal cuts that could potentially put teachers out of their jobs, packing kids into classrooms and undercutting their ability to learn there.
No one should be satisfied with so-called solutions that might yank away children’s health care, jack up tuition yet again, compromise our prisons and our security, or, directly or indirectly, send thousands of Texans to the unemployment line.
Furthermore, no one – no one – should want to ask Texans for more of their money, particularly at a time when they’re already facing so much uncertainty and clinging so tenuously to the lives they know.
No one should stand for the hypocrisy that brags about balancing the budget through sacrifice, yet quietly deceives Texans by taking more of their money through hidden taxes and fees.
And no one should want to empty out the state’s savings with the full knowledge that doing so will look – and, most likely, will prove to be – shortsighted and reckless
in the very near future.
The truth is, something good CAN happen this session.
In the midst of this terrible fiscal fire, the legislature CAN help Texas rebound and rebuild for a more stable future.
And our leaders CAN restore faith and confidence in the state, and responsibility and honesty in its budget.
I believe this session, this budget, will be a defining one for generations. If we put Texas on a path to budget honesty, if we hold those in control accountable, and if we reclaim the morality in this moral document, then we can – right now – begin building a foundation for prosperity in the 21st Century that rivals or exceeds everything we’ve experienced over the last 100 years.
We dare not miss this chance. Because if we do nothing but drain our state’s savings, deploy the last bits of accounting trickery that aren’t already in place, quietly raise taxes and fees on unsuspecting Texans, and cut cruelly into the needs of children, the elderly and every other Texan – in other words, if we truly come out of this session with “nothing good” – then our budget crises will become chronic.
Then we’ll all be back here in two years with similar challenges and precious few options for coping with them. Then we’ll have to face fundamental shifts in education and healthcare policy – changes we can already see on the horizon – in a state of desperation. And we’ll be that much further away from being able to invest in the road and transportation systems, water reserves, schools and universities that were left to us by our parents and grandparents, and that, I believe, we’re morally bound to pass on to our children.
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