November 15, 2010
The first step – the very first thing legislators must do – is to start acting like not just grownups but like responsible citizens. They must reform these broken and burned fiscal practices and the budget-writing process.
Before anything else, we must restore honesty and accountability in the way the state raises and spends money, and rebuild trust with the taxpayers who’ve given it to us.
It’s an open secret that unaccountability and confusion dominate the process right now. It’s ironic that the budget has actually become very transparently mismanaged.
These malignancies don’t merely contaminate the budget. They don’t simply look bad. As I’ve said, they are in no small part a cause of our current challenges – and we must cut them out of the system.
And while I know – we all know – this will be a challenging year, we must not pass on this imperative for reform. Because if nothing else, we will never be able to confront our larger budget problem until we understand what we’re facing.
In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce a three-part package of reforms to create an “Honesty Agenda” in the Texas Capitol, transforming the ways that public money is appropriated, reported, and ultimately spent. These changes will truly allow Texas to be run like a business, and they’ll protect Texans from reckless decisions that leave us scrambling to meet responsibilities, provide necessities, and keep the state from building a future.
The first part of this Honesty Agenda will be a series of “Accountability” reforms. These are bills and rule changes that will rebuild trust with Texans by opening the state’s appropriations and finances to the public and requiring real transparency for those in control of the budget:
— I propose changing the Senate’s rules to require the final version of the budget (which is known as the Conference Committee report) as well as related summaries and comparison documents, to lay out in public for at least five days so that legislators – and all Texans – can really know and have confidence in what’s being decided for the next two years.
— I’ll demand that the public hear more information, in a timelier way, about the fiscal condition of the state they’ve entrusted to their leaders. Specifically:
• The Comptroller should have to provide more regular reports about the state’s budget and its finances.
• The Legislative Budget Board – the legislature’s budget overseers during the four-fifths of the biennium that we aren’t in session – should have to formally receive these reports, and to physically meet and receive input from everyday Texans before major systematic changes, such as across-the-board spending cuts, can be made to the budget.
• And the Comptroller should not be allowed to issue short-term, budget-balancing debt unless the state’s Cash Management Committee – which consists of the top officials charged with overseeing the state’s debt situation – meets to receive up-to-date information about the state’s finances and debt picture.
— And I’ll propose that any special tax or fee – what budget writers refer to as general revenue dedicated funds – that these taxes and fees be suspended if they aren’t paying for the specific cause that Texans were told they would go toward.
Second, I will offer a “stability” package of reforms that will modernize government and restore it so legislators, and voters, can have faith in major policy and budget decisions that will set the course of the state and its future:
— I’ll fight for a greater use of technology, which will give Texans a better idea of what’s actually in the budget. Just as importantly, this data – and the ability to analyze it – will vest everyday Texans as full partners in the legislature’s efforts to balance the budget.
— I’ll work for systematic changes to ensure that new laws won’t take effect if there’s no money to pay for them.
— I’ll crack down on reckless, something-for-nothing governance and ensure that no politician will be able to score fleeting political points by eliminating revenue that the state relies on without declaring – openly and honestly – what functions and necessities will be eliminated to make up that money.
— I’ll end unfunded mandates that don’t actually save taxpayers money, but instead just shift obligations away from the state and toward local governments.
— And I’ll require honesty about legislative decisions that turn the state’s back on the billions of dollars that Texans send to Washington DC and deserve to get back – and details about what these decisions cost us.
Finally, as the third part of this Honesty Agenda, I will fight to make sure that those in charge set out a path for cleaning up this fiscal mess and building a responsible, truthful, truly moral state budget.
Given everything we’ve talked about today, there’s no question that the current system has utterly failed to produce the responsible, honest, stable, sustainably balanced budget that Texans want and, I think, mistakenly believe they’re getting.
Quite simply, Texas needs a new set of eyes to look at these problems. We need to tap our vast resources of talent, creativity and business expertise and invite bright, committed outsiders to analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing poorly, and what we need to do better.
We need to take more time – not just the four-and-a-half months of a legislative session, but a reasonable, realistic, and responsible amount of time – to solve the problems that have festered for years and decades.
We need a sincerely transparent process, reaching across the state, that will allow everyday Texans to provide badly needed input on what the budget is doing and what it needs to do.
And we need to rebuild the budget from scratch – from the ground up – prioritizing things that give taxpayers a return on their investment, reflect all of our shared values, and position Texas to be an economic powerhouse in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th.
These are basic reforms. They’re also absolutely essential.
Texas must – it must – reform its budget process.
It will put us in far better position to weather the fiscal storms that we can already forecast. In fact, it may be the only thing that can repair the damage that’s been done to the budget, restore faith and trust in the legislature, and position Texas to build for its future.
And make no mistake: as I survey bad option-after-bad option for getting out of this year’s budget crisis, I will support none of them – none of them – without these sorts of basic reforms.
I will not vote to raise taxes or fees on Texans when no one will commit to them where their money is going.
I will not vote for budget cuts just for the sake of budget cuts – actions that would make it harder for young Texans to go to college, make us less safe, have us sitting in traffic for longer and longer, and cruelly target the youngest and most vulnerable Texans – when no one will take the time to determine whether those cuts are appropriate or what they truly cost.
And I will not vote to drain all or part of the Rainy Day Fund, or any other savings account, to cover the negligence of those who insist on spending more money than they’re making while they conceal the structural deficits they created.
In short, I will reject all of these understandabl
y tough choices – these pillars of the “nothing good is going to happen” mindset – if very good, very necessary budget reforms are left on the table.
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