May 3, 2011
It’s been a great week. So first and foremost, let’s praise our soldiers, military leaders, President Obama and all of the others who worked to bring Osama bin Laden to justice and continue to work to keep this nation safe.
Yesterday, there was a wonderful, moving tribute to these actions – and to those who lost their lives and loved ones on 9/11 – on the Senate Floor. A particularly poignant moment was when State Senator Brian Birdwell, who was badly hurt in the attacks 10 years ago while working at the Pentagon, led the chamber in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a unique, emotional moment.
It’s been a special couple of days – a reminder of how much we all share as Americans, and how the heroic actions of a few people can have such a huge impact on this nation and the world. God bless America.
I’m an optimist. Most of my friends are optimists. We tend to expect that in the long run, people will do what’s right and things will get better.
I’ll grudgingly admit, in the most optimistic way possible, that this hasn’t been a great legislative session for optimists. The budget’s a mess. Good people – particularly school kids and teachers – may suffer. And what some folks describe as the best we can do isn’t much better than the worst-case scenario.
But something good did happen in the Senate late last week. And notwithstanding all the bad news about the state’s finances, let’s all focus for a second on the good.
First, I amended four big reforms in my Honesty Agenda onto a bill related to the state’s general “fiscal matters.”
This fiscal matter bill is basically must-pass legislation. It includes more than $4 billion in mostly one-time money the state will need to balance its books over the next couple of years.
So the unanimous vote for my amendment is a strong endorsement by the Senate that these reforms should be law – and a great sign that they will be. That’s a significant step toward a more open and honest budget that’ll help Texans know their money’s actually paying for their priorities.
You can read my statement on the vote, along with a more complete summary of the provisions in the amendment, here. But briefly, Friday’s vote means that Texans will:
— Get more frequent updates on the state’s finances – how much money’s coming in and going out – and make sure those in control of the budget are considering that information at least once a year.
— Actually be able to see how all of the taxes and fees they pay to the state are being used by elected officials.
— Have the opportunity to weigh in before some officials can arbitrarily change the budget when the legislature’s out of town.
— Get to see – in public – that the state’s short-term debt limits are in line with its budget needs and economic situation.
To see this openness and accountability in action – and what a difference it can make in how budget writers approach these sorts of issues – just look at a couple of other amendments of mine that the Senate accepted Friday.
One of my changes – to a bill setting health-related fee increases – would have those fees revert to their current levels two years after they take effect.
This will give the legislature time to make sure those fees are really needed – and are really paying for the necessities they’re intended for. At that point, we can maintain them or let them come back down.
I also amended another bill that (among other things) creates a new fee on process servers. My amendment will force the state to stop collecting this money when Texans are paying far more than the state is spending on what the fee is supposed to pay for.
Thanks to this change, no one can allow the fee to run up a big balance, divert that balance from its intended purpose (essentially breaking a promise about how it was supposed to be spent) and instead use the money to covertly balance the budget.
The bill also moved one particular dedicated fund – one that’s meant specifically to train judicial and court personnel – into another part of the state treasury. My amendment included language that should keep the fund from being diverted and used to balance the budget.
These steps represent a real departure from the way the state has balanced its books in the past. And they offer a good model for how Texas can be more open and accountable in the future.
You know, I noted way back in November that this 82nd Legislative Session was shaping up to be defined by pessimism, a mindset that nothing good could come out of this budget crisis.
It’s a tough crisis, without a doubt, with high human stakes and hard decisions at every turn. I’ve said plenty, and I’ll say plenty more, about the damage that some of those choices might mean – today and tomorrow – for our state.
But last week, the Senate did something good. We took a stand for reform – for a more honest budget. We made it easier for Texans to get information and to hold their leaders accountable for what it says.
And we set a precedent that, if we follow it through, could truly change the way people view government, the priorities it fulfills, and what those things cost.
It was a good day. Appreciate it – there’s no telling how many more of those we’ll have over these last 28 days of the session.