February 10, 2009
One of the more intriguing aspects of Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) ambitious new legislative package is his call to return the Texas Performance Review to the Comptroller’s Office.
During the 1990’s, the Texas Performance Review was regularly referred to as one of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock’s biggest accomplishments. Created for the Comptroller, the review was meant to allow scrutiny of state spending at some remove from the legislative process.
QR readers will recall that lawmakers voted in 2003 to pull the Performance Review from the Comptroller and give it to the Legislative Budget Board, which is headed by the Lieutenant Governor and the House Speaker.
It was widely written at the time that the move was intended to punish then Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn who had gotten crosswise with key lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry over what they considered the politicization of the budget estimates.
Strayhorn herself certainly thought that she was being singled out for the woodshed, saying that she believed Texas taxpayers, schoolchildren and the Comptroller’s Office were “being penalized for me telling the truth.”
With a new Comptroller in office who presumably has a better working relationship with others on the leadership team, does this mean that moving the Performance Review back will be easier?
When asked, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said only that the Governor supports the will of the Legislature.
The Performance Review proposal is by no means the least of what Watson wishes to accomplish with his legislative package. He also wants to end quickly the longstanding practice of diverting money from dedicated funding sources or using balances from those dedicated sources to balance the budget. He wants to launch an effort to make the state budget as easy to use as a Google search, calling on experts at UT’s LBJ School to help in the effort. He wants to boost the small business exemption on the revised franchise tax to $1 million with further “stair step” provisions that would limit full payment of the tax to businesses that make more than $1.5 million.
And in what might be the most controversial proposal, he proposes a constitutional amendment that would set a “floor” on the state’s commitment to funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The goal is to maximize the federal dollars pulled down by the state for the program; a strategy that Watson told QR was equivalent to a stimulus package for the state. The amendment would also eventually commit the state to covering children of families that make up to three times the federal poverty limit, a higher eligibility level that was OK’d in recent federal legislation reauthorizing the program. Texas currently limits eligibility to families making up to twice the federal poverty limit; the Governor and Lieutenant Governor have said they don’t support raising the income threshold for CHIP eligibility.
Watson acknowledged that pursuing a constitutional amendment on the matter would be difficult. He would need to gather the support of two-thirds of both legislative chambers as well as the support of the Texas people in a constitutional election.
He said he believed that the people of Texas will send the message that CHIP should not be treated like a political football. “That’s why you have the hurdles” associated with a constitutional amendment, he said. “It helps make it transparent and accountable.”
He also told QR that he viewed his legislative package to look again at some issues that have become intractable through lengthy debate. “Some of these issues have developed quite a bit of scar tissue,” he said.
Watson’s legislative package has been filed as SB 736 through SB 740 as well as SJR 21.