November 15, 2007
I guess you could say that everything I need to know about how the state balances its budget, I learned my sophomore year in college.
This isn’t a good thing.
Back at the start of my sophomore year at Baylor, at something like the mature age of 19, I moved into an apartment off-campus with a couple of buddies. We were determined to, among other things, cook for ourselves and generally act like adults.
This lasted for a very little while.
As you’d expect, my sweet, loving mother, Billye Watson, got pretty worried about me. So she called the university and bought a lunch card for me to use in the Baylor cafeteria. That way, she reasoned, I’d get at least one real meal a day.
For a week, I was what you’d describe as semi-well-nourished (remember, we’re talking about a college cafeteria). Then, unfortunately for everyone, my roommate (soon to become an accountant) informed me that I could cash the card in. I tried it, and sure enough, I could.
The University handed me a wad of what amounted to Billye Watson’s cash, and I lived pretty high-on-the-hog for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that popular.
Well, you know how this story ends. After I ran through that money and then some (of course, I didn’t tell my parents I’d done this), my mother’s fears were realized and I spent months scrapping to make it through the end of the semester. The only things that saved me were cinnamon toast and three-for-a-quarter hot dogs at the 7-11.
This experience taught me two valuable lessons:
First, one can only survive so long on cinnamon toast and three-for-a-quarter hot dogs. There comes a point where no amount of sugar can keep you from hating cinnamon toast, and there is a reason that certain hot dogs cost eight cents.
Second, I was very lucky that Billye Watson couldn’t vote me out of being her son. I don’t even remember (if I ever knew) how my mother found out, but she sure did. She was one upset mama.
Anyone who can even vaguely define the word “Prodigal” knows adults can’t live this way. My attempt to divert funds from their intended purpose to another one was not only wrong, it didn’t turn out so well. Unfortunately, at the Capitol, it’s been a way of life for a long time.
I’ve been talking for months now about the smoke and mirrors that get used to balance the budget.
Well, Texans got another lesson in that this week. It turns out that money from “red-light cameras” – those well-liked (yes, that’s sarcastic) devices that take your picture as you break the law so a city can mail you a traffic ticket – which was supposed to go to trauma centers, won’t go there this year. If the money is used at all, the leadership will tap it to balance the budget.
There was an unusual amount of outrage across Texas about this revelation, in part because red-light cameras are so unpopular that the legislature might have done away with them this year if not for the trauma money.
But, frankly, it’s just the latest in a litany of examples demonstrating how rigged and out-of-hand the budget process has become, and how loosely the legislative leadership plays with our money. Think about it:
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to such questionable, less-than-honest budget habits. And I truly believe that a reckoning is coming.
Across the state, school districts – caught between irresponsible political pledges and the failure to pay for education – had to ask voters to raise revenue simply to pay for teachers’ salaries and the basic equipment that school children need. In nearly 80 percent of those districts, voters told the state to kiss off and approved the ballot measures.
Meanwhile, privateers almost gleefully point to the failure to fund transportation as an excuse to toll our highways and sell them off to corporations.
And over the last six years, Texas has turned its back on nearly $1 billion in federal funds meant for children’s health insurance – let me repeat that: $1 billion of our tax money that was set aside to keep Texas kids healthy – as our leaders refused to pursue that funding.
Friends, Texas has not yet reached a Prodigal-Son, Kirk-Watson’s-Sophomore-Year stage. But, seriously, there is ample reason to be concerned. We’re less healthy, our education statistics are bad and getting worse, our roads are jammed or crumbling, and the leadership’s only response is to shuffle the shells faster or sell them off altogether.
There is another way. I’ve been advocating for more truth in budgeting and taxation, and I’ll continue to do so.
In the meantime, for goodness sake, don’t eat a hot dog unless it costs at least – at least – a dime.