April 30, 2011
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, tacked several parts of his “honesty agenda” onto three fiscal matters bills approved Friday by the Texas Senate.
On the big “non-tax revenue” bill, Watson manuevered to win GOP leaders’ acceptance of a provision that would pour more sunshine on key budget writers’ use of “budget execution authority” to make cuts and move money around when the Legislature is not in session. It also would require public hearings on the state’s finances during the legislative off-years and improved reporting on how special-purpose fees are spent.
Earlier, Watson successfully amended two other fiscal matters bills to ensure that higher fees on child-care providers, foster-care contractors and users of state laboratories, and a new fee on court process servers, would be suspended after they’ve raised enough money to pay for the intended regulation and employee training. For years, Gov. Rick Perry and some Democrats have complained that Texas raises billions through fees dedicated to specific programs every budget cycle that lawmakers don’t spend. While Perry has called for more “truth in taxation,” GOP leaders generally have been happy to hoard the unspent money, which helps the comptroller jack up her revenue-estimate number for how much they can spend in the budget.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, agreed to Watson’s proposal to “sunset” the fees. Ogden, the Senate’s chief budget writer, called it a potentially very significant move, especially if the don’t-collect-it-if-you-don’t-spend-it approach is applied to bigger revenue-producing fees.
Watson (above, AP photo) said the transparency and fee proposals “will help open the books in Texas. These measures will make a real difference helping taxpayers know how their money is being spent and what fiscal shape their state is in.”
Last November, we wrote a story when the former Austin mayor unveiled a more sweeping “honesty agenda.” Back then, he also proposed to require spending cuts to be identified before taxes are cut; discourage “unfunded mandates” on local governments; and raise awareness of how much of Texans’ federal tax dollars are forfeited if state leaders opt out of federal programs with federal matching funds. Watson had a little tiff, though, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. See this post. As we blogged here a few weeks ago, relations between the two appear to have improved.
On Friday, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, initially objected to Watson’s piggybacking his budget transparency stuff from a separate bill onto the non-tax revenue bill. But after a closed door huddle of the full Senate, that and other snags were combed out. Decorum was restored, and Watson claimed his victory.