February 15, 2011
I’ve been talking about my Honesty Agenda for budget transparency for a few months now, and I’ve got a pretty big announcement about it coming up.
But first, I just have to share a picture.
It’s a shot I took with my phone of our two ridiculous bulldogs, one who’s out-lived her breed by several years, and one who’s very young.
They’re pulling on the two ends of the same rope. They growl and pull with all they’ve got, but ultimately it’s just mindless pulling and growling. Nothing substantive really being done.
Yeah, it’s a metaphor for the political parties and our political system. But don’t spend too much time contemplating it. You’ll go as crazy as them.
Okay, now let’s have some more fun. Let’s jump in my magic time machine and go all the way back to . . . September 2010. Tell me whether, since that time, at any point in the process, we’ve really been able to know what’s going on with the state’s finances.
Way back, five months ago, we were hearing from the Governor, Comptroller and those in control of the state budget that everything was going to be fine. So fine, in fact, that they weren’t going to bother providing us any information about what was going on with the state’s finances.
Then, right around (coincidence!) Election Day, there were rumblings that things were about to get bad. Talk of a $15 billion budget gap turned to rumors that it might hit $25 billion. And those in control still didn’t clarify the speculation with any real numbers.
Finally, the session rolled around, and we were given numbers that spelled out a $27 billion budget shortfall between money we have and the cost of providing current services and maintaining schools, care for seniors, and other basic necessities for Texans.
That shortfall was realized in a draft budget that unnerved the state as much as anything I’ve seen in a while. For anyone who cares about students, or seniors, or safety, it was a jarring view of what political rhetoric can look like in action.
Which brings our time machine back to last week, when about three weeks into its existence (in the Senate, anyway), the all-pain, no-gain draft budget was put out of its misery.
Those in control of the process – the folks who were present at just about every step of the drafting of the draft budget – are no longer treating it like it’s a legitimate document.
Now, we’re told, there will be more revenue, we just don’t know how much. There will be fewer cuts, too, they say; but we still don’t have a target for how much money will need to be restored to keep Texans from losing the necessities they rely on.
So, lacking answers, we’re left with the same uncertainty that’s defined this issue for months. We’ve been subjected to the same fun and games that cause Texans to criticize the budget process for not being open and transparent and for failing to tell the public how our money is spent.
But rest assured, at some point, we’ll see a proposed resolution to this budget crisis. And as I wrote last week, I suspect many folks will declare “victory,” if only because it will look so much better than the horror show we’ve watched over the last month.
I hope they’re right. I honestly hope it’s as good as those folks will probably say it is. I hope the pain it dispenses is slight and its victims are few. I hope the budget writers – who are now about as close to Sine Die (when they’re supposed to be done with the budget) as they are to Election Day (when there wasn’t even a political point in denying what we’re facing) – figure things out in the time that’s left and produce a budget that really is good for Texas.
In short, I really do hope they swoop in and save the day.
But, just for the record, here’s what “Saving the Day” has to look like:
It should mean putting protections in place to ensure that this budget crisis never happens again.
And I’m betting you know I believe that it starts with the Honesty Agenda.
Today, I am filing more than a dozen bills and a proposed constitutional amendment to open information about the budget – and to pass power over it – to Texans.
This reform agenda will rebuild trust with Texans by giving them an unprecedented look into the state’s books. It will modernize government, allowing legislators and voters to have faith in the decisions that will decide Texas’ fate in the 21st Century. And it will enlist a team of outsiders – folks with real experience in business and other areas – to put the state on a path to sustainably balancing our budget and investing in things we know we’ll need.
It will address both the fiscal deficit and the honesty deficit.
These reforms are absolutely essential to addressing this budget crisis. For too many years, the budget has incorporated a toxic mix of debt, diversions and deception. I simply don’t believe our state would be in this position if Texans had better information – and the ability to get better information – about how their money is raised and spent. The Honesty Agenda would assure that those in control conduct the affairs of state in a more professionally managed way.
This legislation will make it easier to balance the budget this year. It’ll allow Texas to spend the next two years strengthening its finances even in the face of difficult, short-sighted, and clearly temporary strategies that spend down savings and exhaust one-time gimmicks.
These proposals, in other words, will allow us to fortify Texas’ fiscal foundation even as the state digs out of the current mess.
The first item on the agenda passed a month ago: it was a Senate rule change that will ensure all Texans have a reasonable period of time to review changes made to the final version of the budget (changes that are often made behind closed doors) before it’s voted on. This, of course, will ensure that the public, legislators, advocates, and the media can all know what’s in the final budget before it’s adopted. It was an important first step in making information about budget decisions widely available to the public.
The measures I filed today will build on that progress. My legislation will:
1. Ensure that money which is supposed to go to specific purposes is spent only on those purposes, not used to balance the budget. Stop the dishonest and unfair practice of collecting fees that aren’t being used as the state promised they’d be.
2. Require the Comptroller to provide regular reports about the state’s budget condition, and end the excuses that keep the public from getting this information.
3. Create an environment that promotes pro-business growth by creating a commission that taps Texas’ vast base of business expertise to fix the state’s finances.
4. Block those who attempt to score reckless, fleeting political points by eliminating revenue the state relies on – but who don’t do the hard work of declaring, openly and honestly, what functions and necessities would be eliminated to make up that money.
5. Require the state to report what it’s collecting in fees, whether fees were increased during a legislative session, and how much fee revenue is being diverted to balance the budget.
6. Require that raw budget data be posted online so Texans can see how public money is being spent.
7. Encourage state agencies to post data sets online in an effort to increase accountability and improve knowledge of the agency’s operations.
8. Allow any member of the legislature to request a report on how bills – even those that cost money in the short-term – might have a long-term economic benefit for the state.
11. End unfunded mandates on cities, counties, school districts, and other local governments – and on the taxpayers who support those entities.
12. Have the state’s Cash Management Committee hold a public hearing and take testimony on the state’s cash flow situation and Texas’ overall economic condition before signing off on the issuance of more short-term debt.
13. Move the state’s Performance Reviews, which are like agency audits seeking ways to save money, out from under the legislature’s purview (so legislators aren’t in the position of grading their own papers).
These are basic, balanced strategies. Many of them are common in the private sector.
And make no mistake: this legislation won’t simply help avoid future budget crises in Texas.
It will help solve this one, too.