May 19, 2010
Laying off prison guards and slicing college financial aid proved to be politically unpalatable to state leaders as they directed agencies on Tuesday to trim $1.2 billion from their current budgets.
But it might not be so easy for legislators to pass over such items next year as they face a shortfall in the 2012-13 budget that could be as big as $18 billion.
Republican leaders have vowed to close that gap without raising taxes, so it is likely that billions more would need to be sliced from the state budget to cover a portion of that gap.
“The leadership has been promising the State of Texas something for nothing for a long time,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “It may not work this next year.”
The upcoming shortfall stems from the economic recession as well as past legislative decisions that were not fully paid for at the time, such as the school property tax cut in 2006.
The budget-trimming effort initiated by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus in January is widely seen as a harbinger of cuts to come.
They mandated that state agencies find trims totaling 5 percent of their current general revenue budgets, although some spending, such as direct school funding and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, was exempt.
In February, agencies proposed a total of $1.7 billion of potential cuts in response to the mandate. The legislative leaders combed through the proposals over the past four months to determine what should be spared the knife.
The $483 million in exemptions announced Tuesday include money for border security, job creation programs, state mental health hospitals and other items.
“These savings will protect taxpayers’ hard-earned money while maintaining essential services vital to the people of Texas,” Dewhurst said in a news release.
But the cuts represent only about 1.4 percent of the state’s $87 billion general revenue budget, which is funded with tax dollars and over which the Legislature has control.
Democrats are doubtful that legislators will be able to cut their way out of the budget hole without hurting Texans.
“Texas is a conservative state,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio . “If we really thought that all these programs were fluff to begin with, they would have been cut before.”
Van de Putte said it is unrealistic to expect the state to overcome this budget crisis without a combination of more cuts and more revenue.
About half of the total $1.2 billion in mandated reductions will be in education, despite the exemptions for school districts and financial aid. In total, $655 million was cleaved from the budgets of Texas colleges and universities and Texas Education Agency programs. Those reductions include layoffs, hiring freezes and program trims.
An education program of particular import to Dewhurst, however, got a partial reprieve from the cuts.
In 2007, Dewhurst championed a bill that created a steroid testing program for high school athletes at a cost of $6 million over two years. The program produced 11 positive tests from a pool of 29,000 student-athletes tested in that time.
The Texas Education Agency included the $1 million cost of the steroid testing program among its $135.5 million in proposed cuts. But state leaders left $750,000 for that program as they chopped $126 million from other programs at the agency, including several initiatives aimed at helping low-performing high schools.
“The program is a deterrent to young people using illegal steroids, and it’s important to maintain that deterrent,” Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons said.
Watson said that decision showed the folly of the process.
“What are the value judgments that are being made to determine what gets cut and what doesn’t?” Watson asked. “Do they think they have left a lot of waste after this set of cuts they’ve just made?”
The Department of Criminal Justice, which had initially been told to trim its spending by more than $294 million, escaped with only $55 million in cuts. The leadership exempted the agency’s proposal to lay off 2,000 prison guards and nip successful parole and probation programs.
Health and human service providers, such as doctors who see Medicaid patients, will be paid less by the state in order to save $64 million. Such a change, however, has a double-whammy effect because the state loses some federal funds in turn.