February 20, 2007
Our budgets reveal our priorities. We spend money on those things we consider important. In good times and bad, we all – families, companies, and governments – rank what’s important in defining our needs, determine how much we have to spend on them, spread money to the biggest priorities, and let the other stuff go without.The Texas Senate recently violated this pretty basic approach. Instead of starting its budget process by setting priorities, the Senate voted as quickly as it could to exceed the constitutional spending cap – even though there will be no budget for at least a couple of months.There was no good explanation for why we needed to vote to “bust the cap” this early in the process, before we even considered our needs and priorities.The Texas Constitution essentially says the state budget can’t grow faster than the economy. So, even though Texas arguably has a relatively large surplus, the legislature can spend only a portion of it – unless lawmakers vote to exceed this spending cap.This issue dates back to the Special Legislative Session last summer. The Legislature voted to send more money to school districts so they could reduce their local property taxes. In order to pay for that tax relief, the Legislature must replace the local funds with money raised from other sources, principally a new business tax. This new state money and state spending counts against the spending cap.Additionally, the Legislature failed last year to include senior citizens and people with disabilities in the tax relief. Giving them the break they deserve requires a voter-approved Constitutional Amendment. The leadership looked at this priority and saw a gimmick. They proposed calling a vote on the very popular seniors tax relief, but then asked Texans to, at the same time, vote to bust the spending cap…in other words, it had to be a package deal. That way, lawmakers not only wouldn’t have to declare their priorities – they could get a blank check through an engineered election.Many groups, including AARP, denounced this sleight of hand. When that idea didn’t work out and was appropriately criticized, the leadership tried a new tact.With just a few hours notice, the Senate took up a resolution to bust the spending cap. Not only did legislative leaders resist any mention of priorities, but they refused even to send the issue to the legislative committee that should consider such critical issues.More than a third of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, was prepared to vote against this game. In most cases, this would have been enough to stop a cynical piece of legislation – the Senate has a long-standing rule, designed to assure deliberation and collaboration, that requires 2/3rds of the members to bring up anything that could become law. However, the leadership junked the “2/3rds Rule” once it was clear there weren’t enough votes to bust the spending cap and, at the same time, follow this deliberative process.Funding the local tax cuts is a priority. But, so are numerous other items – parks, transportation improvements, health care for children, public education, and higher education, for starters. We shouldn’t simply remove the constitutional protection against too much growth in government – a protection that’s meant to force lawmakers to prioritize – without real debate or discussion. This issue – how we are going to set our budget priorities – deserved a debate, not a rush.The Senate has enough intellect to debate, discuss and negotiate budget priorities, even under a spending cap. The budget goals and issues could be and should be considered during budget hearings and throughout the legislative session. If we do it right, and the budget properly reflects Texas’ needs, then we could have justified exceeding the spending cap.The resolution to bust the cap was the first truly substantive matter I’ve voted on as your Senator. It violated my approach to government – fiscal honesty and accountability, careful deliberation, conservative budgeting, and bipartisan prioritization, all seeking to meet the needs of Texans and protect the future of the state. I voted no.